Boiled Calf’s Head

After the Restoration of the Monarchy, some of the younger Republicans used to meet once a year at a London inn, where they celebrated the anniversary of the death of Charles I on 30 January 1649. The main part of the dinner consisted of calves’ heads, some crowned with garlands of parsley. The bitterly discontented men drank derisive toasts to the monarchy and eventually went in procession to a courtyard, where they built a great fire. One, masked and carrying an axe, represented the executioner; a second carried a calf’s head on a napkin, representing the fine Stuart head of Charles I. The rest waved handkerchiefs stained with wine to represent blood. The head was thrown into the fire amid ribald cries and songs.

They called themselves simply The Calves’ Head Club and presumably hoped that loyalists would assume that they met because they considered calf’s head one of the greatest dishes in the world. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, their descendants ate calf’s head at home on 30 January each year.

If preferred, the head may be cut in pieces after cooking and served in a brown sauce with hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms and olives. There is a fine, elaborate, seventeenth-century recipe which required cockscombs, kidneys and crayfish in addition.

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  • 1 calf’s head, boned and cleaned
  • 2 large onions, quartered
  • 2 to 3 carrots, halved
  • 1 celery stick, cut in pieces
  • Sprigs of thyme and marjoram
  • A few sage leaves
  • 2 to 3 bay leaves
  • 12 peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ cup (60 g) flour
  • Brown, caper or parsley sauce


Put the vegetables, herbs, seasoning and lemon juice in a saucepan of boiling water. Sprinkle in the flour (which later keeps the head white) and boil for 10 minutes, without the head. Then lower the head into the bouillon and simmer for 1½ hours or until perfectly tender.

Lift out the head and drain; trim the tongue and serve with the chosen sauce.