In an Intro to Poetry class I once took in college, I wrote a poem titled “Good Shared Over Fire.” In it, I lingered like smoke, going from one shared fire moment to the next: campfires, grills, cigarettes, sparklers… the point being that there can be a sense of community when a spark is ignited. There is invitation in a flame, a segue for conversation. Throw on another log. Got a light? Let me light mine off yours. People gather, people observe; there are usually no strangers. And on a recent Saturday night at Bauer Farm Kitchen, I bore witness to this philosophy in action.
My husband and I dined at downtown’s Bauer for the first time during the holidays. We shared everything — pierogies (chestnut, confit duck, caramelized shallot and plum-mustard jus), Parisian gnocchi (handmade herb dumplings, comté cheese and local seasonal vegetables) and the choucroute garnie for two (smoked pork belly, currywurst, pork shank, rutabaga-and-turnip kraut and fingerling potatoes). Each order felt representatively honest of what Bauer sets out to do: recreate classic traditions with locally sourced, quality ingredients. Each bite was illustrative and simple. And each bite was uniquely good.
As we spent the evening getting familiar with both the food and the staff, we noticed an offering in the bottom corner of the menu: “Tete du Cochon *requires 3-day pre-order* ($75).”
Intrigue turned to interest which turned into initiative, and not three months later, my husband and I and another couple were RSVPed for the tete du cochon.
The tete du cochon is literally the head of a pig. No spices, no herbs, no nothing. It is the pig’s head in its own delicious ownness, prepared sous vide for three days, then put in an oven, finished off with a blow torch and brought to the table for enjoyment and consumption.
Our tete du cochon made its entrance by being carried in on a table-top-size platter by two men. Not only did all eyes turn as the pig was paraded across the restaurant, but people actually got out of their seats to come over and see the spectacle. A small crowd of diners corralled around the cochon. There were oohs and ahhs and can you believe its? being murmured about, all while camera phones did their paparazzi part.
We not only ordered the tete du cochon, but also a charcuterie spread of meats, cheese and pickles. The pig’s head held court in the corner of the platter, snout pointing north, surrounded by its gentry of pickled vegetables, rutabaga-and-turnip kraut, pretzel bites and rye bread. There were also talismans of potato mash, five to six different cold cuts with jam, smoked grapes and pâtés.
As someone who prefers to snack on lots of little things rather than having one singularly hulking meal, I was in heaven. I loved passing around my plate, asking for bites of this be added to slices of that, which kept the dinner feeling communal rather than individual.
Neighboring tables looked on as Kinjal Desai, Bauer’s operating partner, carved our meat. As he cut with the stealth and rhythm of a fencer, he talked us through the cooking process and what each different part of the pig would deliver. As promised, the dark meat of the cheek was definitely the most delicious. It was extremely tender, buttery in both texture and taste and — combined with the crispy crunch of some skin — was a bite that made any other pulled pork feel like Spam. Recalling that there were no additional flavors or spices added to the meat, my friend Chris put it perfectly: “That just tells you how delicious pig fat is.”
As our small party continued to relish in the dish, watching in awe as Desai topped off the pig with final touches of blow-torch flames, patrons continued to walk by and comment. At one point, a woman leaned up against my chair, talked about its beauty and then entertained us when we insisted that she take a bite.
There was another couple who, on their way out, stopped to talk to us about our experience. We again pushed meat into their hands and they obliged us with the nodding agreement that it was delicious.
The pig’s head was prepared in an uncomplicated, simple manner, and it was easy to imagine that this is how eating together used to be: an animal would be placed over fire and the entirety of the beast would be eaten by those who gathered, sharing in the necessity of eating, appreciating the nourishment and not wasting any part.
That night, not only did my friends and I participate in the experience, but the rest of the restaurant did as well. People were communing at our table like they would have gathered on a European farm hundreds of years ago. The fire that cooked this pig beckoned a group of strangers to come together. And much like family or a small community would have congregated to eat, so did many of the patrons at Bauer that evening.
In the end, like the poem, it was simple: There was good shared over fire.
Bauer Farm Kitchen is located at 435 Elm St., Downtown. To request the tete du cochon, contact 513-621-8555. More info: bauercincinnati.com.