Sunday, December 3, 2017

Baltic Christmas Day 3 - A pig's head for a winter solstice dinner

Since ancient times, Latvians have celebrated Christmas for three days. On December 24th, ķūķis (also known as koča, a porridge of sorts) had the place of honor on the table, as grain dishes symbolized the continuity of life and the showed respect for our ancestors, whose spirit of grace in this way we sought to inherit.
      Ak tu lielu brīnumiņu,
      Pilni galdi piekravāti:
      Cūkas kājas, šņukurītis,
      Bieza putra vidiņā.
The Christmas table was lavishly set, with grey peas, beans, pigskin soup, pork sausages, chicken roast, pickled cabbage, stewed salmon and carrots, oven-baked potatoes, pies and round currant that symbolized the sun. It was mandatory to have bread, salt and fire on the table, which promised a blessing for the coming year. Another holiday staple was the pig’s head… Today we welcome Ilze Kļaviņa with her recipe for cūkas šnukurs!
      Ko mēs, bērni, ēdīsim
      Ziemassvētku vakarā?
      Būs zirnīši, būs pupiņas,
      Būs cūciņas šņukuriņš.

Photo credit: Visi svētki vienuviet

It's time to start thinking about what will be on your feast table. A pig's head (cūkas galva or cūkas šnukurs) is one of the traditional Latvian holiday foods. Often they are not easy to find, so it's time to get to work!

First, decide if you want your cūkas šnukurs fresh-roasted, or smoked. The fresh one can usually be found in a new immigrant area grocery store; Asian and Mexican markets are a good bet, and most often they offer frozen heads. Look for one with the skin on, as well as both ears. Sometimes ½ heads are available, but usually you’ll have a choice between a small, medium or large. 

A fresh head will be prepared as a roast, in a pan, in the oven. We have always preferred a smoked head, but those are harder to find; they should be ordered about 3 weeks in advance (so start looking now!) and cost upwards of $30 USD. Check with your local butchers, friends that do smoking, farms where you can order a whole butchered hog, etc. Keep asking them who else you can call!

Keep in mind you want the whole head, with skin and ears on. (I've been told Wisconsin has a law preventing sale of pork with skin on, I don't know why!) I'll keep my fingers crossed (turēšu īkšķus, “hold my thumbs"!) that you can find and order exactly what you want.

A smoked head will arrive, smelling heavenly! To cook it, do not roast it. Do Not Roast It! If you roast it, it’ll get rock hard, and that's that. Instead, you will have locate/borrow a big kettle that will fit the entire head, as a smoked pig's head with ears on is sort of pyramid shaped, and is hard to fit into any home cooking pot. Maybe you can borrow one from a church kitchen? The big pot will contain the smoked head, some 3-4 carrots, 1-2 onions, celery if you like it, whole peppercorns (20 +or-) and 3-4 bay leaves. Cut up the vegetables in chunks, and add to your pot with enough water to cover, then set the pot to boil. Once the water is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and let it cook for 2-3 hours.

Now comes the hard part, getting the head out of the bullion. I encourage you to get help with this, and use any kitchen tools that you have. Allowing some time for the pot to begin to cool before removing the contents will make this process a little safer, with less chance of boiling bullion scalding the chef. However you’ll want to save the bullion, as it is a wonderful base for all sorts of soups and stews you might make, all winter long. Have lots of jars on hand, and store in freezer until needed. A freezer space saver is to allow bullion to cool, pour into Ziploc freezer bags, and stack flat.

The head is best served warm, so you will have to time the cooking accordingly. We usually serve it on a cutting board, or large platter. Every part of the skin and meat is edible, and usually one of the kids wants to keep the skull for the fun of it. The cheeks will seem to be all fat, but it's a different consistency than bacon fat. Don't forget the tongue - 100% meat!

Cūkas šņukurs can be served with a choice of mustards and/or horseradish. Other recipes may call for garlic, or suggest using chicken stock instead of water – all variations are good. The results are basically a big pot of meat in aspic, but do serve the head first!

Ilze is a saimniece in Minneapolis who celebrates Latvian saulgrieži with her family in the Dievturu tradition. Ilze wrote "mani vecāki teica, 'pirmos svētkos mēs svinam mājās, otros svētkos braucam ciemos'"... How many days does your family celebrate Christmas? 

A sincere thank you to Ilze for sharing this recipe with us! Please join us tomorrow with a surprise appearance by one of our favorite Baltic bands on Day Four of 24 Days of a Baltic Christmas!


  1. The writing is authentic and straight to the point. Love it. I am a novice cook but feel like I could actually do this!

  2. Rumor is, that thin slices of the "šņukurītis" (snout) is the tastiest part, and offered to the most special of guests!


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