Sausages: The Big Ingredient

Sausages are fighting to regain their place at the heart of British cuisine, says Christopher Hirst. But this time round they are spicy, sophisticated and laden with alcohol
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Indy Lifestyle Online

What could be more British than the banger? This may be true - the term apparently derives from the explosive rupture that occurs during inept, overly rapid cooking - but we got the sausage from the Romans. The word derives from the Latin salsus meaning salted.

What could be more British than the banger? This may be true - the term apparently derives from the explosive rupture that occurs during inept, overly rapid cooking - but we got the sausage from the Romans. The word derives from the Latin salsus meaning salted.

Just as cheese allowed excess milk to be consumed over time, so the sausage, salted and often smoked, enabled the prodigious amount of meat from a pig to be conserved for later consumption. The Romans, who grew so addicted to sausages that they were briefly banned, introduced the mince-stuffed gut throughout their empire. An early Byzantine text contains the first reference to a "string of sausages", later to become an essential prop in Punch & Judy. In Britain, we never developed a tradition of cured sausages - the climate is too damp - but a wealth of regional fresh sausages came into being.

Oxford sausages traditionally contained pork, veal and beef suet. The Cumberland sausage was filled with spicy chunks of pork and sold in a long coil. Cambridge were hotter, with cayenne, sage and nutmeg. The rot set in - as with so much of our cuisine - in Victorian times. Until the 19th century, very few British sausages contained cereal (haggis was a rare exception). Writing in 1845, Eliza Acton included merely lean and fat pork and seasoning in her sausages. However, 15 years later, Mrs Beeton's recipe for Oxford sausages included half a pound of breadcrumbs for every 3lb of meat. This was the thin end of the wedge. With an eye on the bottom line, industrial producers increased as much cereal as they could get away with. The result, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, is that the British are now faced with sausages, "that range from the seriously sublime to the criminally awful".

There is nothing wrong with adding a small amount, preferably less than 10 per cent, of cereal (it is usually a special rusk rather than breadcrumbs). The result is a distinctively creamy sausage found found only in Britain. The problem is that too many manufacturers still use too much cereal. Getting the good ones remains a gamble.

The last time I was in Keswick, home of the Cumberland sausage, I bought two lengths of this legendary delicacy from two different butchers. One was among the best I've ever had, the other was utterly indifferent. I've had mediocre sausages from a celebrated butcher's in Mayfair and very good ones from Kennedy's Sausages on Bromley High Street. Generally, my sausage requirements are fulfilled by the excellent Villagers Sausages in Beckenham, Kent.

Among the first in the new wave of specialist sausage shops, they set up nine years ago have a loyal constituency. For research purposes, I tried four from their range of 20-odd traditional pork sausages. With its yeasty nose and strong tang of beer, the Real Ale sausage had the edge over the peppery Oxford and the herby Irish, but I also liked the firm-fleshed Cumberland, the only one of the four without rusk and, incidentally, marginally the cheapest. I'd be very happy to eat all of them on a regular basis.

One way of ensuring high quality sausages is to make your own, though you may think twice after reading Nigel Slater's account of washing 50ft of pigs' intestines: "I hold one end on the cold tap and let the water run through. At this point the whole thing comes alive and takes some holding. Everything within 6ft is soaked and that includes the cook. There are some things best left to the professionals. Anything involving pigs' intestines is one of them."

If you do take the plunge, Fearnley-Whittingstall advocates sausages made with sage, chives, marjoram and thyme or diced Cox's apples, Calvados and sugar. However, he adds, a sausage seasoned with nothing more than salt and ground white pepper was "outstanding". As for cooking, the secret is never to prick and always allow a long time. Fearnley-Whittingstall recommends "frequent, but not anxious turning'. Fry for at least 20 minutes on a low heat, insists Nigel Slater.

Longer is better still. "Another 20 minutes and you will have the most delectable thing known to man - that sticky, savoury, caramel-brown goo that builds up on the skin." For accompaniment, a mountain of mash takes some beating, but why not try oysters on the half-shell? Shellfish and pork is one of the great gastronomic marriages. Grill a pound or two of chipolatas and open a couple of dozen oysters. Bite off a chunk of sausage, then an oyster. You may not hear the cooling sizzle, but you should certainly feel it.

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