Until recently, it was at best a guilty pleasure, at worst the last thing you would inflict on your taste buds. But suddenly the hot dog has emerged from rehab as a gourmet treat, worthy – at least in the eyes of some London restaurateurs – of washing down with champagne or a posh cocktail.
We're not talking here about the sad, bad, soggy old hot dogs of old, needless to say, but the proper, deliciously meaty ones New Yorkers and northern Europeans take for granted as a birthright. The ones the former eat at the ballpark or Manhattan holes in the wall, the latter on sausage stands or at their own dining tables with a mustardy potato salad instead of a roll.
But not us. For some reason the concept of what makes a tasty frankfurter – the slim, snappy, smoked and pre-cooked sausage, which is a totally different creature to the raw, chunky banger bound with rusk – got bastardised on this side of the Atlantic and Channel in a move to drive sales volume up and prices down. Brits have been served some appallingly poor franks over the years, some containing as little as 12 per cent meat, which, together with the mealy, mass-produced hot-dog roll, have given hot dogs a thoroughly bad reputation.
But that is all changing with the advent of cult carts such as Big Apple Hot Dogs, claiming a minimum 94 per cent meat for their franks, and American-style joints such as Dach & Sons, which makes dogs in its own Hampstead kitchen and serves them with mint juleps. One of the year's most-anticipated openings is that of Bubbledogs, which as of this week serves its own all-British hot dogs to Fitzrovia diners with champagne – and, if they so desire, truffle mayo.
Of course, any hot dog is only as good as its frank, and Bubbledogs founders James Knappett (ex-Noma) and Sandia Chang are getting theirs made by the king of British charcuterie, Graham Waddington. This Gloucestershire gastronome is an unlikely food hero, having come late to meat curing from a career as an industrial mediator. "But he's an obsessive – he used to smoke bacon from our own pigs in the shed, and reads nothing but charcuterie books," says his wife, Ruth, the other half of Native Breeds, who gave up her own career in training to join Graham in his bid to craft the finest products from British rare breeds.
Which is how I come to be standing in one particular climate-controlled corner of a large-ish shed on the edge of the Forest of Dean watching two men trained in artisanal charcuterie hand-twisting a meaty mousse encased in sheep gut into pairs destined for the beechwood smoker.
This is a far cry from those huge industrial factories where minimal amounts of pork or beef – scary bits such as noses and udders have been mentioned in shock-horror reports – are bulked up with mechanically recovered chicken scraps, multiple chemicals and loads of water, and forced by machines into artificial casings. At the tiny Native Breeds plant at Lydney Park Farm only pork loin, leg, shoulder and back fat – in an 80:20 meat-to-fat ratio – go into the mix with spices and naturally derived nitrite salts.
"No horrible bits here," says Graham, producing a pack cut from the leg of a Mangalica pig, one of the rare breeds from which he produces a frank which is 90 per cent meat. "We do have a nose-to-tail ethos here, but we can use those bits 10 times over in other products without having to put them into a frank."
Waddington also eschews the emulsifiers, diphosphates, artificial colours and sulphites that made mass-produced franks cheaper and nastier while giving a dog a thoroughly bad name in the name of extra shelf-life: "You can make an emulsion sausage out of any old rubbish, but you can also put really good stuff in there," he points out. "I took it as a challenge to take a street food with a bad rep and make it taste really good."
If the process ends in a £30k smoker-steamer – the Waddingtons invested their life savings in equipment to make not only franks, but ham and salami for Jamie Oliver, and products such as smoked goose and pastrami for a slew of Michelin-starred chefs – it starts, if not with a Mangalica, then a Saddleback or Tamworth at least 10 months old, "because older pigs have a better flavour and less water activity". And a cast-iron cutting bowl bought in Germany for another £5k: "Stainless steel doesn't produce the same effect as cast iron, which needs more cleaning, so is hard to find in this country."
The bowl chops the lean meat – "rather like creaming butter and sugar" – with ice cubes to keep the mixture cool and produce just the small amount of water needed to suspend the meat, with the fat added later, into an emulsion.
Hand-twisting this 90 per cent meat emulsion into sausages are Matt Bedell and Pete Lias, two food artisans who gave up their careers as a dancer and head chef respectively to study charcuterie. "I actually live in London, but travel up here two days a week for the pleasure of creating a really good frankfurter, better even than the ones I used to eat at home," says native New Yorker Bedell.
Spicing is all part of the alchemy – Bubbledogs has commissioned a bespoke, secret recipe – and in the spice room Waddington shows me packets of pimiento from Spain, pharmaceutical-grade thyme – "you need a strain which produces low buds" – and the nutmeg, mace, celery salt, cumin, garlic powder and white pepper which go into the Classic frank flying off the butcher's counter in Selfridges.
"We were already doing well with our high-meat-content Viennas, which our traditional, older clientele really loves, but when Graham told me he wanted to launch a 'Great British Frankfurter', I knew with his provenance it would be something really special," says fresh-food buyer Andy Cavanna, who has been selling the dogs since May, and considers it a coup to have the London retail exclusive.
"The British charcuterie movement is gaining momentum, following the European traditions of hundreds of years, and really great hot dogs are all part of that." The decent home-grown hot dog is certainly a concept worth toasting with a dollop of French's mustard (essential) and a decent bakery bun, if not a glass of Moët.
Where to find the best for your bun
Native Breeds sells their Classic frank and versions spiced with truffle and porcini or lemon and thyme and smoked with chilli in Selfridges and some west-country delis.
Helen Browning's delicious organic hot dogs are also new to the market - made in Germany from British pigs and exclusive to Ocado. Meatier than most at 97 per cent pork, but with the proper snap of a frank.
Unearthed sells frankfurters traditionally made in Bavaria to Waitrose; they are a tad less meaty than their posh competitors, but far better than standard mass-produced franks.
Dach & Sons "dogs" are meaty, but not actual franks, as they are made without the specialised equipment necessary to create an emulsified sausage – hence a much coarser chop and none of the "snap".