Mulled pig's head puts bastion of British culinary tradition under threat as cost of festive foods soars
It might seem more suited to Halloween than Christmas, but mulled pig's head - lips smiling and snout glistening - has become the latest challenger to the traditional Christmas lunch as the cost of turkey and trimmings soars.
The unusual dish has been designed by Daniel Doherty, the head chef of the Duck & Waffle in London, and is not for the sensitive. The face provides the meat and the pork-infused wine becomes a savoury pre-dinner cocktail. But with a free-range turkey for six now costing about £60 and a pig's head costing just £5, "mulled swine" is just one of the cheaper and more adventurous alternatives that cooks are exploring.
Around 10m turkeys will still be slaughtered this Christmas, but this bastion of British culinary tradition is now under threat as the nation's voyeuristic obsession with culinary invention finally transfers from TV to the Christmas table.
Doherty is among the high priests of Britain's culinary revival, many of whom are gathering this weekend at the Taste of Christmas food show in east London to trade non-turkey Christmas recipes and preach to a congregation of 30,000 foodies.
On Friday, Atul Kochhar, a Michelin-starred British-Indian cook, suggested saffron and chestnut rice biryani baked in filo pastry with the guarantee "it still feels like Christmas". Monica Galetti, a judge on Masterchef, whipped up "partridge in a pear tree", while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall assembled a kipper and pear salad in front of a packed audience. Looking on was Steve Wait, 49, a maintenance man from east London who grew up on fish and chips and cockles, but said he was now planning a well-hung poulet de Bresse for Christmas lunch.
"I was lying in bed thinking I'll also get some prunes, soak them in armagnac, wrap them in pancetta and grill them," he added.
Over at a Basque stall proposing a dish of stuffed lamb and deep fried grapes instead of turkey, Maggie and Bernadette, both 57 and from Hackney, east London, reflected on their foodie obsession as they supped a bowl of pumpkin and mandarin soup with seafood.
"It's all because of what's been on TV," said Maggie. "We're glued to Masterchef."
Tellingly, the show is now owned by IMG, the company that represents Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and Novak Djokovic: evidence the money men believe the hype that cooking is the new rock'n'roll. Indeed, the demonstrations were standing room only, the chefs had their own entourages made up of assistants and PR advisers and moved quickly between demos, book signings and interviews.
"People have realised that turkey isn't necessarily the most delicious thing to have at Christmas," said Fearnley-Whittingstall, in a break from being mobbed for autographs and photos. "Even if you are a tradition addict, if you are a keen cook you will want to surround the festivities with more up-to-the-minute and exciting food." He is planning roast beef sirloin and oysters for his extended family.
Supermarkets are alive to the trend for festive innovation, and not just among the affluent middle classes sampling delicacies at the exhibition. Discount grocer Lidl is encouraging customers to compile a Goan lobster salad with its £5.99 frozen lobster. Iceland is promoting a 2kg stuffed hog roast and a 1.5kg amalgam of turkey, duck, chicken and pork for £10 each.
"There is no doubt the UK is a nation of food lovers - the appetite for new cuisines and their key ingredients is increasing in popularity as our shoppers try them out in their kitchens," said Jonathan Moore, executive chef at Waitrose. "This Christmas we have tapped into many current trends with products such as salted caramel parsnips, sharing cheeses and gin and juniper smoked salmon."
The experimentation is not just fashion. The price of turkeys has risen at more than twice the rate of inflation as a result of rising feed costs. Potatoes, brussels sprouts and Christmas puddings are all up considerably. Across the country, the Christmas food shop will cost £11 extra per person this year, according to a survey by the Institute of Grocery Distribution.
Whether the time is right for mulled pig's head, the jury is out. Doherty, at least, is convinced.
"Turkey can be a pain to cook," he said. "You need two packs of butter and a litre of gravy to make sure it's not too dry. Plus you lose your morning to cooking when you could be getting tipsy on mulled swine."
Photo: Head chef at restaurant Duck and Waffle, Daniel Doherty, with a pig head as an alternative Christmas lunch. Photograph by Felix Clay