From supper standby to top restaurant menus, the humble banger is enjoying a revival. Our panel gets under the skins of sausages
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WITH MORE than 400 different varieties of sausage in production in the UK, the questionable reputation of the British sausage - a twist of fat, gristle skin and rusk - has taken a turn for the better. Manufacturers are going back to the old tradition of using top quality products, with no artificial ingredients - and just about anything from smoked salmon to locusts and kangaroo is available in today's designer banger.


Esteemed French culinary force Bruno Loubet - development chef for the recently-opened Mash in London and other Oliver Peyton restaurants - plus sausage fanciers Graham Sampson, Emma Bartlett, Philippa Yeoman, Nick Raffin and myself tasted the sausages separately for maximum objectivity. Opinions did vary - but there was no doubt at all about the winner.


In our quest for a superior sausage, we asked six manufacturers from different areas of the country to supply a Cumberland sausage - traditionally unlinked, with seasoning restricted to salt and pepper - plus one other of their choice. Some companies specialising in exotic meats don't make Cumberland sausages, but submitted their nearest equivalent. We looked for quality of meat rather than a high meat content; natural casings (sausages only explode without pricking if artificial casings are used); attractive appearance and innovative combinations of ingredients.


Cumberland pounds 2/lb; Yorkshire Pork with Peppers & Rosemary pounds 2/lb

"This is very amateurish packaging," said Philippa Yeoman of Slack's plastic bag approach. Perhaps the look put her off these sausages, for they are very anaemic in colour. "I don't like that much," she said. "It tastes of pig. Yes: it has a very porky taste." Nick Raffin reported finding Slack's Cumberland "incredibly bland," while their Yorkshire Pork was "overwhelmed by red chilli peppers". And yet, Slack's Cumberland was Emma Bartlett's second favourite after Simply Sausages, our winner. "They're good value," she explained, adding that she liked the peppers in the Yorkshire Pork - "They were very tasty." Bruno Loubet thought the seasoning of the Cumberland was "quite nice, peppery; but it's a shame about the crumb. At least the meat is tender. The Yorkshire Pork is very crummy, it would need garlic to make the rosemary taste relevant."


Cumberland pounds 1.69/lb; Yorkshire Pork (Gold Medal Selection) pounds 1.99/lb

"It's obvious they use artificial cas-ings," scoffed Philippa Yeoman of Mr Lazenby's Cumberland sausages, which do actually come from Cumbria itself. Emma Bartlett also complained that this product was "hard to bite into". It's true that their regular Cumberland is very pale, shiny and repulsive looking when raw, and orangey when cooked. The flavour was described as "salty, bready and chewy - yuk!" by Nick Raffin, who added "it has the Cumberland flavour, but it's textureless, homogeneous and cheap." The Yorkshire Pork fared a little better: its leek content offered "attractive green bits. It is much more flavourful and has a better colour and smell," said Graham Sampson. "But I wouldn't pay pounds 2 a pound for these. They're not as good as Slack's sausages." Bruno Loubet was also disappointed with them both. "The Cumberland has quite a plain flavour, with a touch of nutmeg coming through, but not very interesting," he reported. "The Yorkshire Pork are quite good, but again it's a boring flavour."


Cumberland pounds 2.85/lb; Toulouse pounds 3.40/lb

Great silver bowls of sausages - some green- or purple-tinged by spinach or red cabbage - characterise the London shops of Simply Sausages, where a huge and imaginative range is made fresh on the premises, without preservatives. Their shelf life is just a few days; a new free range selection with preservatives, however, is being piloted in certain delis prior to supermarket release. These are more expensive, and the brutal truth is that, given such highly seasoned recipes, the difference is appreciable only in the colour of the meat (free range is brighter, redder) when raw. Nonetheless, the wider distribution should please discerning sausage lovers; the panel voted unanimously for Simply Sausages as the winners in our survey. Bruno Loubet pronounced the Cumberland "Good! It has a good texture, it's well seasoned, it tastes of parsley and it's quite peppery. The Toulouse is very coarse and chewy," he went on, adding, "it doesn't really taste like a Toulouse sausage." He should know. But the panel argued independently that "if you like garlic, the Toulouse is fantastic," (Philippa Yeoman). "It can't be beaten; these are more of a meal than just simply sausages," mused Emma Bartlett in an unintentional pun. Nick Raffin commended the no-nonsense labelling, which cleary prints out the ingredients, "and it's stuff you'd like to eat, instead of wishing you hadn't read it," he said.


Piccadilly Pork, pounds 3.33/lb; Venison pounds 4.51/lb

Stocked by the capital's oldest prestige food store, Layer Marney Tower sausages come with Fortnum & Mason's grandiose label on them - but you can also buy them direct from the rare breeds and deer farm near Colchester where they are made. By all accounts this is a sort of classy theme park, complete with Tudor Gatehouse, castle shop and cream teas, but even without the benefit of a tour, panellists were impressed by Layer Marney Tower's Piccadilly Pork sausages. Everyone agreed that the texture is "crumbly, like mince" (Philippa Yeoman) and "nice and peppery" (Nick Raffin). Their venison sausage has the same dry texture and "a very distinctive flavour, though I'm not sure I like it," Nick said. The trouble is that many people don't like venison anyway; but the ultimate accolade came from Bruno Loubet, who said the Layer Marney Tower venison sausages were "herby, with quite a good gamey flavour. These actually taste of venison - I would definitely use them in my kitchen."


Cumberland Farmhouse pounds 1.98/lb; Cumberland Thick Sausage pounds 1.68/lb

Cranston's thick sausage, with its lower meat content and lower price, is allegedly the more popular product from this Cumbrian manufacturer, but it didn't go down well with panel members - except Bruno Loubet. "This is a thick coarse sausage, with a good first taste, nice texture with bits of fat - a sausage for the boys!" he explained. "It's greasy, with a tough skin," said Philippa Yeoman. Nick Raffin was harsher: "It just tastes of fat. It's the worst of all, it's not at all seasoned." As for the superior Farmhouse, which has 98 per cent meat and is said to be suitable for those on a gluten free diet, its cooked appearance was deeply unappealing. "I wouldn't eat this if someone put it in front of me," said Graham Sampson. "It looks as if it's been locked up for most of its life - or like an artificial limb." "Even the packaging looks cheap," sniffed Emma Bartlett.


Wild Boar and Herb; Venison with Mushroom and Cranberry; pounds 3.50/lb

A wonderful leaflet describes the endeavours of this Somerset farm butchery, where home-raised boar are made into sausages in a converted barn. Quaint! Barrow Boar doesn't make a regular Cumberland sausage instead, it fashions its boar meat into an unlinked coil, which was judged a lot heavier in texture with a darker appearance when cooked. "It was nicely spiced, but difficult to eat," said Emma Bartlett and Graham Sampson added, "These are too chewy for me. You really can tell the difference between boar and pig, but I wouldn't eat it." "I love this," said Philippa Yeoman, by contrast. "And I love the idea I'm eating something wild." Barrow Boar's second sample, venison with mushroom and cranberry, is probably one of their less exotic versions (kid and bison sausages are available and you can also order some tasty kangaroo meat or locusts on the side). The venison sausage is noticeably red-stained by the berries and was preferred by most of the panel to those made by Layer Marney Tower - possibly because the meat flavour is milder. This was just what Bruno Loubet - with his more robust French palate, no doubt - disliked: "The venison sausage has too much pork in it," he said, "It doesn't taste of venison, it's too plain."


Mr Lazenby's, 01642 750600; Barrow Boar, 01963 440315; Cranston's, 01768 868680; Slack's 015396 24667; Simply Sausages, 0171 329 3227; Layer Marney Tower 01206 330784. !