The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Preparing the Boar's Head

For Christmas

Notes On The Boar's Head Carols

Source: Jessup Whitehead, Cooking for Profit: A New American Cook Book. Third Edition. (Chicago: Jessup Whitehead & Co., 1893), pp. 190 ff.

Editor's Note:

We are told in various accounts that the instructions for preparing the Boar's Head were commonly found in the cookbooks of the day. I've verified the truth of those statements, but find that a 15th century cook book is inordinately difficult to read. Fortunately, we have this cookbook from 1893 which gives us a much easier opportunity to divine the arcane.

The Boar's Head

In the United States we have little or nothing to do with the perpetuation of ancient customs and have little sympathy of sentiment with them that have. We are too ready to throw a wet blanket on every exhibition of the ancient fires by asking and continually asking: "What is the use of it?"

We are so accustomed to looking forward, to "the millions yet to be," to the new, to the cities which are springing up without permission from anybody, that we have forgotten about such things as the ancient granting of city charters by kings and barons with tributary conditions imposed, such as the presenting of a peacock, or a huge blackbird pie, or a boar's head to the suzeraine on a certain day each year; and find it hard to enter into the solemn sort of fun which the very respectable and reverend seat of English learning, Oxford College, enjoys as an annual custom. A little better understanding of the symbolism of some of the designs would make even the exhibition of artistic cookery at the cook's annual banquets far more interesting than they are.



The boar's head dinner at Queen's College, Oxford, on Christmas Day is a survival of a custom once prevalent in all England. In 1678, Aubrey wrote: "In gentlemen's houses at Christmas, the first dish that was brought to table was a boar's head, with a lemon in his mouth." There is an account of an Essex parish, called Hornchurch, in which the inhabitants paid the great tithes on Christmas Day, and were treated with a bull and a brawn. The boar's head was wrestled for by the peasants on that occasion, and then feasted upon. It would be easy to multiply Instances.

At half-past six o'clock in the afternoon of Christmas Day, the Hall of Queens College was filled by persons anxious to witness the time-honoured ceremony of the Boar's Head procession. The hall was liberally adorned with greenery, and a monstrous fire created a welcome temperature. Although the weather was damp and foggy, by six o'clock the picturesque old hall presented an animated appearance, filled nearly to overflowing with a crowd of merry faces; the dark tone of the gentlemen's clothing and the bright bits of colour of the ladies' showed up very effectually against the old oaken wainscoating. The boar's head, which was provided and dished up by Mr. Wm. H. Horn, the College manciple, was a splendid specimen, weighing seventy pounds, and was decorated with the proverbial "bays and rosemary," and surmounted with a crown and flags bearing the College arms. Upon the sound of the trumpet, at the head of the procession of singing men and choristers, marched the Rev. Robt Powley, M. A., Curate of Cowley, who took the solo part tn the " Boar's Head Carol:"

The Boar's head in hand bear I.
Bedecked with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, masters, merry be,
Quot estis in convivio.

Caput Apri defero,
Redden laudes Domino.

The Boar's head, as I understand.
Is the bravest dish in the land;
Being thus decket with gay garland,
Let us servire cantico.

Our Steward has provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss,
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi Atro.

Wynkin de Worde's carol (printed in 1521) was, of course, much quainter, especially verse three:

Be gladde, lordes, both more and lesse,
For this hath ordeyned our stewarde
To chere you all this Cliristiuasse,
The Boar's heed with mustarde.

A distribution of leaves which garnished the dish was then made by the Provost (Dr. Magrath). The custom of serving up the boar's head at Queen's College has been observed for about 500 years, one authority quoting 1350 as being the probable year of the first festival.London Caterer.

The man whose office requires him to provide a boar's head in the orthodox fashion for such an occasion as that described, be he "manciple" steward or cook, must feel a greater importance attaching to the task than if it were the most elaborate of transient party dinners. A dozen or more of boar's heads were shown at the London Exhibition. They are equally prominent in continental displays. The narratives of continental history as well as fiction abound in recitals of wild boar hunts, in the Forest of Ardennes, in France, the Black Forest, in Germany. A boar's head a la St. Hubert is among the highest achievements a chef in ornamental work can set himself to accomplish. St. Hubert is the patron saint of hunters. The piece is a boar's head, the bones taken out, stuffed, cooked, set up in the likeness of life, glazed, ornamented, placed upon a stand, set amongst waxen or silver-plated branches of a tree, decorated with bays and hunting [191] horns and spears and heads of hounds. The carcass of a real wild boar from the Black Forest was displayed at the Exhibition, much as a grizzly bear from the Rocky Mountains might be displayed in this country. It was an object of curiosity and interest and was immediately purchased by the steward of a large establishment.



For practice in putting up a boar's head the beginner should bone and cook pigs' heads to serve cold, until he has become familiar with the methods of making them good and of putting them in shape. One or two heads a week would be esteemed a luxury in any hotel among the regular cold dishes. For there was no foolishness about the ancient liking for a hogs head and it is considered as good eating to-day as it ever was, but requires a good deal of the cook. It must be partly salted, it must have the superabundant fat cut out and lean and brawn supplied instead; it must be carefully seasoned and cooked until perfectly tender and the liquor it is boiled in is jelly. Choose a large head for the purpose and a small one to stuff it with. Cut it as far back as the shoulder bones of the hog to get as much of the neck as possible. Begin at the throat and cut the meat from the bone without cutting through the skin; take out the tongue, put them both into the corned beef brine (No. 650) to remain two or three days. Then take them out, wash and trim, and cut away all the fat of the jowls. Sew up the mouth and throat. Place the small head similarly boned and prepared inside the large one, fill in with tongues cut in strips and some well seasoned pork sausage meat, cover in the neck with the rind of pickled pork, then sew the stuffed head in a cloth, boil it four or five hours, take it up and press it in a suitable mould and set it away to become cold. After that take off the cloth, remove the threads and slice the meat to serve.



It is not essential that a boar's head shall always be set up with ears erect and mouth open, it may be a smooth rounded dish of meat only having the general outline of the head shape, and to form it that way it is necessary to take the cooked head out of the cloth it was boiled in when it is nearly cold, then take a long muslin bandage and wrap around it, drawing tight in one place and slack in another to give the head the proper form, then set it in the refrigerator to become solid in that shape Afterwards, take off the bandage, wipe off with a cloth dipped in hot water, then glaze the head by frequent basting with jelly in a cold place until it is covered, or, glazed with meat essence, and ornament with cubes and patterns in aspic.



"Rosemary and bays" always mentioned in connection with the boar's head, belong to that dish by association as holly belongs to Christmas. They are both used for seasoning as well as for green decorations. Rosemary is a herb that looks like pine leaves and has a flavor like a mixture of sage and spruce fir. Season the boar's head that is to be put up in shape with rosemary and bay leaves powdered, instead of the customary sage. To form the head as natural as life and even more ferocious looking it is best to employ a plaster mould which can be made shortly before it is to be used and will serve for many repetitions. It is to be observed that the wild boar carries a high and bristly forehead and the mould is to be managed so as to throw the top of the head into prominence instead of the fat jowls of common hogs. Choose a head of a large porker to make a cast from. It is not advisable to have the mould too large because the cooked head shrinks so much it is difficult to thoroughly fill a large mould. Having the raw head cut off with all the neck belonging, cut off the ears, place it snout downwards and resting on the bottom in a tin pail or five gallon tin lard can. Get half a bushel of plaster of paris, which costs about seventy-five cents at the cement stores, stir it up with water to a thin paste and pour it around the head in the pail. In half an hour the plaster sets and becomes solid, but leave it alone several hours, and then the head can be drawn out and you have a plaster mould of it. Perhaps the mould can be improved in shape by scraping down with a knife, and the bottom of the pail or can should be cut through that the snout of the cooked head may be drawn in.

Prepare a salted head with stuffing as before directed, leave the ears on and lay them flat on the top of the head. Sew up the head in muslin closely wrapped and without any thick folds or knots. Boil four hours, take up and let drain and partly cool off, then place it still in the cloth in the mould, taking care that the ears are in the right place and the snout goes well to the bottom. In that position with the neck above the top of the mould, place weight upon it and leave it in press in a cold place for twelve hours. It can be withdrawn from the mould easily by means of the cloth, which is then to be taken off, the head wiped off with a cloth in warm water, the ears raised up, softened with a hot cloth, shaped as wanted and upheld by a small silver skewer in each; the mouth opened and tusks inserted; bead eyes put in and the head glazed and ornamented.

The tusks finely curved may be obtained from almost any hog's head. Find one with small tusks projecting, boil the jaw bones, then break the bones with a hammer about the roots and the tusks will be found three or four inches long.

Editor's Note:

These brief instructions were also found while researching these carols.

Dr. King, in his Art of Cookery, gives the following recipe for dishing up a boar's head: --

Then if you would send up the Brawner's head,
Sweet rosemary and bays around it spread;
His foaming tusks let some large pippin grace,
Or midst these thundering spears an orange place.
Sauce, like himself, offensive to its foes,
The roguish mustard, dangerous to the nose.
Sack, and the well-spic'd Hippocras the wine,
Wassail the bowl with ancient ribbons fine,
Porridge with plums, and turkies with the chine.

Source: John Ashton, A Righte Merrie Christmasse The Story of Christ-Tide. Illustrator: Arthur C. Behrend (London: Leadenhall Press, Ltd., 1894), Chapter XXII.

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