Give me Head ’til I’m Fed

Cooked sheep's head.
Cooked sheep's head.

There is a magical culinary landscape, slap-bang in the heart of South Africa. This is the Karoo. Here the hospitable people are great cooks and hearty eaters. And the sheep which dot the empty landscape, well, the sheep they are afraid.
,Very afraid.
,Mutton is the staple foodstuff for inhabitants of the Karoo. Okay, so the desert-like terrain may not be all that conducive to the cultivation of organic cucumbers and rosa tomatoes, but this is beside the point. The folk from the Karoo eat a sheep from head to tail. Literally.
Think I’m kidding. Check-out the arty photo’s adorning these pages. And follow this recipe to culinary Nirvana.
Right. The first thing that is required is an inhabitant of the Karoo to teach you how to cook and eat real mutton delicacies. These are normally weird body parts that would send anyone working at a Shoprite-Checkers meat counter into a seizure should you request them for your table.,
,I found a Karoo lady on the wine farm Muratie outside Stellenbosch. Her name is Annatjie Melck who was raised in the Karoo. Also being known as a cook of note, I asked Tannie Annatjie to teach me to cook and to enjoy that noble of all mutton delicacies, namely the sheep’s head.
The first thing Tannie Annatjie told me, was that a sheep’s head is like a duck. (The folk from the Karoo have a way with words, but this is ridiculous.) No, she, said. “By this I mean that, like a duck, one sheep’s head provides more than enough food for one person, but too little for two people.”
,So keep that in mind.
,The next step is to get hold of a sheep’s head, something a sheep is known to object to. But a sympathetic butcher will help you out. And if the butcher knows his stuff, will wash the head and shave it. Yes ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ shave, because you want to eat the thing without the wool. This shaving is, doll, done with a real Minora blade ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ not the hair removal cream woman tend to use on their legs.
In any event. You have your head, severed, cleaned and shaven. It should be grey and pasty in colour, kind of like the same hue as the dork who did too much studying at school and never got out much.
,This head, Tannie Annatjie shows me, needs something. A body might do, but no. It’s got to be smeared with some sheep’s fat. If you can’t get hold of this, I’d say you can use pork fat or oil. So go on. Smear the thing with the greasy, oily stuff ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ over the ears, the cute snout, the dull eyes and those chubby cheeks. Feel the flesh beneath your fingers. This is reality eating.
,Whoops ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ almost forgot. Decent Karoo folk like Tannie Annatjie are not just going to chuck the head into the oven to bake. This would be barbaric!
,No way, Japie. We are going to rip the stomach out of a sheep. The stomach is a piece of fatty tissue resembling a tea towel in a Hillbrow flat, just not quite as dirty. Thus, you have to wash and scrub the stomach until it is a clean, grey strip. Now, wrap your head ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ that would be the sheep’s head ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ with the stomach so the head and stomach form a harmonious parcel, the likes of which you are just dying to leave under the bed of that vegetarian whimp next door who keeps burning incense and listening to Bob Dylan.
Restrain yourself! Join the loose strips of stomach with toothpicks. See, very civilized. No bulging eyes or woeful grin.
Now you give your parcel another going-over with the fat or oil. Place the head in a oven baking bag. Plonk it in your oven, which has been pre-heated to 150C?+¦?????+¦???-¬. And bake for four to six hours.
,If you thought the preparation was fun, wait for the eating part.
,Tannie Annatjie says that your sheep’s head should be eaten at room temperature. There is a lot of fat and grease in the head, and if the dish is hot it is extremely rich.
,So far, so good.
,For the next couple of steps you require a sharp knife, but begin with a saw.
Keeping the head in its golden brown stomach casing, saw the back of the head open removing a golf ball size piece of skull. Peering into the hole, you will be met with a pat of grey matter. This is the brain. Being a sheep, the brain is not very big and has never been used much. It is, however, melt-in-the-mouth stuff. Stick a spoon inside the head and scrape out every last morsel of brain.
,Next, cut away the jaws and tear them apart so the head splits in two. This is where the good stuff is.
First there is the roof of the mouth, also known as a scorpion. On the other jaw lies the tongue. Remove this tongue and cut into slices. The best meat, however, is found on the linings of the jaws and on the cheekbones. On a perfectly baked sheep’s head, this meat will separate easily from the bones.
The only part not eaten, is the snout as things are known to get ugly inside those nostrils. And if the folk from the Karoo say it gets ugly, well, just listen to them OK?
,So what does it taste like?
Man, oh man. The jaw flesh is the tenderest of meat. The brain and eyes are like marrow. The tongue is firm to the touch, yet full of satisfying flavours. The list goes on and on.
T,he meat is eaten as is, but I enjoy giving it some zip with a squish of lemon.

Offal is all the bits not found in your cosy little supermarket. This includes the head, stomach and trotters of the sheep. Some butcheries sell all this stuff in one parcel, and it is a joy to cook and eat.
Let me show you how.
,Soak the stomach, head ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ which will have been halved ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ and the trotters in some cold water for about an hour. Pour off the water and rinse the offal until the water runs clear.
,Cut the stomach into manageable strips. Place all these lovely meatsheadstomach, trotters – into a large pot which you are heating to a low temperature. Add two to four cups of water. And half a sheep’s neck or a couple of mutton chops. When the water starts simmering slowly and gracefully you have reached the correct temperature. Now add: half a cup of vinegar, two bayleaves, a teaspoon of salt and four cloves. Cover the pot and cook slowly. I mean, slowly. For at least six hours, but I go for up to eight hours.
,After this lengthy cooking, something magical has happened. The meat has cooked to buttery tenderness. The meat has loosened from all the bones, which you must now remove. What you are left with is a bowl of rich goodness, a medley of terrific flavours. Add three peeled and quartered potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are soft.
,You could also stir-in a tablespoon of mild curry powder halfway through the process to give it a great colour and a light spicy flavour.
Eat with rice and brown bread.
The animal died for a noble cause. You, my friend, are king of the beasts.
*,Great wine with tripe? Unwooded Chardonnay or a Semillon.

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One thought on “Give me Head ’til I’m Fed

  1. I am amused at Annetjie’s comment about a sheep’s head feeding one. There was a wonderful comment by Nubar Gulnkian (1896+ô+¦-+Gö£Göñ+ô+¦-úGö£-¦+ô+¦-ú+ô+¦+¦1972) the flash Turkish-born Armenian petroleum magnate and socialite when asked how many people he thought a duck would feed, said “Two, myself and a damned good head waiter!”

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