Cabeça de xara is a product similar to pork brawn. It is a delicacy made of cartilage, skin and pieces of meat. It is eaten sliced, typically accompanied by traditional bread and an Alentejo wine. There are slight variations on the production process, but it generally involves salting a pigs head and leaving it to stand for a couple of days. Then, it is broken into pieces, the salt is removed, and it is seasoned with herbs and spices, including onion, garlic, pepper, parsley and other aromatics. At this point it can be cooked on its own in water or with vinegar and wine until the meat falls away from the bones. The meat and cartilage (sometimes with the ears set aside) are chopped into small pieces, and covered with broth or the cooking liquid, then drained. If set aside, the whole ear is placed in the middle of these ingredients, and the mixture is either wrapped into a cloth tied with string or placed into a cheese press or cake tin. It is then weighted down for at least 24 hours before being ready to serve and consume.
The origin of cabeça de xara is disputed, but some of the oldest recorded recipes date back to 1693, in the book Arte de Cozinha by Domingos Rodrigues and in 1785, in the book Cozinheiro Moderno ou Nova Arte de Cozinha by Lucas Rigaud. References to “pickled pig’s head” and this preservation method common in the East, as well as the use of spices brought from around the world where the Portuguese had explored, make this a dish that in a sense can sum up the history of Portugal. It is mainly made in the area of Alentejo, in southern-central Portugal. It is difficult to know how much is made, as only one cabeça de xara can be prepared per pig slaughtered, and it is mainly a seasonal product associated with family artisan producers.
Variations on the traditional recipe can sometimes be found sold in shops, often using non-natural gelatin in excess quantities and the use of meat and cartilage that has not be cut by hand, leading to a homogenous texture common in industrially made products, which detracts from the appeal for traditional consumers. Increasingly, it is being made with imported pork and out of the typical season. Furthermore, exaggerated concerns over hygiene tend to close down artisanal and family production. Traditional artisanal cabeça de xara is being undervalued and served less and less in taverns, and more frequently forgotten or not considered by consumers.