Cheeks and Chaps
A recent freezer cull unearthed two packets of something curiously labelled 'Beast Cheeks' that I remembered buying from the rather glamorous farm shop on the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire. Judging by their weight and size, these were no ordinary cheeks. Each was a seriously hefty lump of rich ruby-red meat engrained with a delicate tracery of creamy sinew.
Intrigued by the term 'beast', I learned from a local farmer that it is a traditional term for any beef animal, and that those in my freezer were undoubtedly ox cheeks, which would account for their size.
Cheeks are pure muscle, and all that cud chewing means they do a lot of work. This, in turn, makes them tough and sinewy, just like other hard-working parts of the animal – shin and shoulder, for example. The good news as far as we cooks are concerned is that cheeks have a superb flavour, and when slowly braised become meltingly tender.
Choosing your cheeks
Ox and beef cheeks are the biggest, ranging from 450–600g per cheek. Pig cheeks are about 100g each. Though tasty, lamb and goat cheeks are too small to make a decent meal.
Pig cheeks are often butchered to include the fatty jaw. They are then boned and cured like ham to become Bath Chaps. Usually coated in orange crumbs and vacuum-packed, they have a long shelf-life and are worth snapping up if you come across them. Traditional butchers, markets and farm shops are the best hunting grounds.
Cheeks and chaps make welcome fodder at this time of year. Chaps are precooked, so simply slice them into bite-sized chunks and eat straight from the packet, or sizzle in a little fat until crisp at the edges. They are a real treat for a weekend breakfast, served with sourdough toast, and perhaps a fried egg. For a tasty midweek supper, enjoy them with crispy hash browns and lightly cooked Savoy cabbage.
Beef or ox cheeks require more time and devotion, but are well worth the investment. The Braised Cheeks recipe is perfect for a relaxed weekend when you can enjoy time in the kitchen. Marinate the cheeks on Friday night, then simmer leisurely throughout Saturday afternoon ready for a lip-smacking dinner or Sunday lunch.
© Christine McFadden, February 2014