Above: The original stone sign of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Eastcheap. The stone, dated 1668, must have been made for the exterior wall of the tavern that was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London (1666). When the tavern was demolished the sign was carefully removed and is now one of the exhibits at the Museum of London.
Wild boar is not a dish that can be found by visiting your local Tesco shop. Over the centuries serving a boar’s head was very much associated with the festive season. This tradition was rooted in ancient times when the boar was a common animal of the forest. It was hunted to keep numbers down because it was so dangerous to humans. It is known that boar was the first dish served at Roman feasts. The boar was sacred to the Celts and to the Vikings. In medieval times roasted boar was a known staple of many banquets.
After being hunted to extinction, the wild boar has been re-introduced into parts of England. For example, they are back in the New Forest and they are also farmed in parts of Cumbria. While supermarkets may not stock them, it is not unusual to see a boar’s head for sale at Borough Market at the appropriate time of the year.
A few years back there was a restaurant in Essex that specialised in dinners where roasted wild boar was often part of the menu. The owner used to have whole animal carcases delivered to him frozen by long-distance refrigerated lorries, having being killed on farms in Hungary. In the back of the restaurant were large chest-freezers. In each freezer two whole beasts could be stored. The restaurant was specially designed so that the guests could sit at their dining tables and watch a wild boar being roasted on a huge spit – about five or six feet long. Sufficient space had been allowed between the spit and the diners so that they were not overcome by the large amount of heat that was generated from the roasting process.
An mentioned in an earlier blog, the Butchers’ Company annually present a boar’s head to the Lord Mayor of London shortly after he has taken office. Another place where the tradition is preserved is Queen’s College, Oxford. An ancient carol is sung at the college at their traditional Boar’s Head Feast. In the third verse ‘Queen’s’ refers to ‘Queen’s College, Oxford’.
‘The Boares head in hand bear I,
Bedeck’d with bays and rosemary,
And I pray you, masters, be merry
Quot estis in convivio; (Translation: As many as are in the feast)
‘Caput apri defero (Translation: The boar’s head I offer)
Reddens laudes Domino. (Translation: Giving praises to the Lord)
‘The boar’s head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all this land,
Which thus bedeck’d with a gay garland
Let us servire cantico. (Translation: Let us serve with a song)
‘Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss;
Which on this day to be served is
In Reginensi atrio.’ (Translation: In the hall of Queen’s)
While on the subject of the Boar’s Head, there have been two very famous inns in London by that name. One was in Great Eastcheap – which would be somewhere near the eastern part of Cannon Street today. The other was in the Borough High Street. There were others also. In fact the name is to be found on many inns and taverns across England.
Before serving in the tradition style, the boar’s head could either be cooked – a process that took about four hours – or it could be boiled. The eyes used to be replaced with quails eggs and olives although another idea was to use dried prunes because they were considered more realistic. The head was then glazed with gelatine. After removing the tongue, which was served as a separate cold dish, either an apple or a lemon was put into the opened mouth of the cooked head. The whole dish was served with a fantastic variety of cold meats, terrines, pates and pies.