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Calf's Head


A much prized dish from earliest times to the beginning of the 20th Century, almost always served whole, boiled and trimmed, as a centrepiece to be carved at table.

Calf's Head and Feet
From: 'The Royal Cookery Book' by Jules Gouffé, 1869

Original Receipt in 'The Accomplisht Cook' by Robert May, 1660 (Robert May 1660);

To roast a Calves head.
Take a calves head, cleave it and take out the brains, skins, and blood about it, then steep them and the head in fair warm water the space of four or five hours, shift them three or four times and cleanse the head; then boil the brains, & make a pudding with some grated bread, brains, some beef-suet minced small, with some minced veal & sage; season the pudding with some cloves, mace, salt, ginger, sugar, five yolks of eggs, & saffron; fill the head with this pudding, then close it up and bind it fast with some packthread, spit it, and bind on the caul round the head with some of the pudding round about it, rost it & save the gravy, blow off the fat, and put to the gravy; for the sauce a little white-wine, a slic't nutmeg & a piece of sweet butter, the juyce of an orange, salt, and sugar. Then bread up the head with some grated bread; beaten cinamon, minced lemon peel, and a little salt.

Original Receipt in 'The Queene-Like Closet' (1672) by Hannah Woolley (Wooley 1672)

You must half-boyl a fair Calves-head, then take out all the Bones on both sides, and season it with the afore-said seasoning, and lard it with Bacon, and a little Limon-peel: then having a Coffin large enough, not very high, nor very thick, but make it four-square, lay on some sheets of Lard on the top, and butter; when it is bak'd, and cold, fill it with Clarified Butter.

Roast Meats, including Calf's Head
From 'The Book of Household Management' by Isabella Beeton, 1861 (See Mrs.B)

Original Receipt in 'The Book of Household Management' edited by Isabella Beeton, 1861 (See Mrs.B)

BOILED CALF'S HEAD (with the Skin on).

876. INGREDIENTS. - Calf's head, boiling water, bread crumbs, 1 large bunch of parsley, butter, white pepper and salt to taste, 4 tablespoonfuls of melted butter, 1 tablespoonful of lemon-juice, 2 or 3 grains of cayenne.
Mode. - Put the head into boiling water, and let it remain by the side of the fire for 3 or 4 minutes; take it out, hold it by the ear, and with the back of a knife, scrape off the hair (should it not come off easily, dip the head again into boiling water). When perfectly clean, take the eyes out, cut off the ears, and remove the brain, which soak for an hour in warm water. Put the head into hot water to soak for a few minutes, to make it look white, and then have ready a stewpan, into which lay the head; cover it with cold water, and bring it gradually to boil. Remove the scum, and add a little salt, which assists to throw it up. Simmer it very gently from 2-1/2 to 3 hours, and when nearly done, boil the brains for 1/4 hour; skin and chop them, not too finely, and add a tablespoonful of minced parsley which has been previously scalded. Season with pepper and salt, and stir the brains, parsley, &c., into about 4 tablespoonfuls of melted butter; add the lemon-juice and cayenne, and keep these hot by the side of the fire. Take up the head, cut out the tongue, skin it, put it on a small dish with the brains round it; sprinkle over the head a few bread crumbs mixed with a little minced parsley; brown these before the fire, and serve with a tureen of parsley and butter, and either boiled bacon, ham, or pickled pork as an accompaniment.
Time. - 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
Average cost, according to the season, from 3s. to 7s. 6d.
Sufficient for 8 or 9 persons.
Seasonable from March to October.

Original Receipt from 'Pot-luck; or, The British home cookery book' by May Byron (Byron 1914)

90 CALF'S HEAD BOILED (Middlesex) Split the head, and carefully take out the brains and tongue; wash it well, and let it he two hours in cold water; boil it with the tongue and brains gently in plenty of water until it is quite tender; pour over the head parsley -butter made very thick; rub the brains through a sieve, add to them some chopped parsley, pepper, salt, and a bit of butter; mix the whole well together, and put it round the tongue.

91. CALF'S HEAD PIE (Eighteenth Century) Parboil a calf's head. When cold, cut it in pieces, season it well with pepper and salt, put it in a raised crust, with half a pint of strong gravy; bake it an hour and a half. When it comes out of the oven, cut off the lid, chop the yolks of three hardboiled eggs small, strew them over the top of the pie, with three or four slices of lemon and pour on some good melted butter. Send it to the table without a lid.

For many years after the restoration of Charles II, even into the beginning of the 19th Century, those who still held allegiance to puritan republicanism formed one or more 'Calf's Head Clubs', where on the anniversary of Charles I's beheading, 30th January, they would feast on calves' head and toast the glorious memory of Oliver Cromwell.

The 19Cent French novelist Gustave Flaubert, in 'L’Éducation sentimentale' (1891) adds that English Republicans "founded an annual banquet, where they ate calves' heads, and drank red wine in calves' skulls, while toasting the extermination of Stuarts" and goes on to say that a similar tradition was later adopted by French revolutionaries. [Thanks to our correspondent Randal Oulton, 2022]

Caledonian Mercury - Friday 11 February 1732

From: A Masque of Days, by Walter Crane, 1901

See also:
Burlington Whimsey
Calf's Head Cutlets
Calf's-Head Soup
Devizes Pie
Mock Turtle Soup

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