THE HUMBLE sausage has an ancient and venerable pedigree; sausages are mentioned in the Odyssey and the Romans loved them. But they've come a long way since the days when the legions used to roast their salsicia over the embers of their watch fires.

The modern sausage has its own PR organisation, the British Sausage Bureau; its own Oscar ceremonies, the British Sausage Awards; and its own 15,000 strong fan club, the British Sausage Appreciation Society. Earlier this month, the British Sausage Festivals took place - a sizzling series of regional roadshows hosted by the larger-than-life Mr Sausage and his sidekick the Chip.

The British sausage market is worth around pounds 600m a year, according to Sausage Bureau figures. Pork sausages are still the main money spinners with 51 per cent of sales. But the major growth area is in posh speciality sausages - spiced, flavoured and generally dolled-up (the Bureau does not even recognise those sad travesties, vegetarian sausages).

So what makes a pukka sausage? O'Hagan's sausage shops churn out "thousands of pounds a week - we're talking a lot of sausages," says a spokeswoman proudly. A proper sausage, she explains, is natural hog casing, filled with pure meat, a proportion of bread rusk (though gluten free varieties are available), herbs or spices - and nothing else. A proportion of rusk is vital or the sausage won't keep together properly. Current O'Hagan's top sellers are the Hot Mexican (pork with peppers and chilis, pounds 2.85 per lb), and the Welsh Leek (pork with leeks and spices, pounds 2.29 per lb). It's possible to attempt home sausage making, but O'Hagan's advise caution. "People see sausage making and they think it looks easy, but it's not - I've tried it," commented the spokeswoman.

So much for the posh end of the market; what about the common or garden banger? According to the Meat and Livestock Commission, the evil rumours of the early Nineties, that cheapo sausages were packed with a revolting slurry of animal bits that no rational person would eat unless they were chopped fine and concealed in a skin, can largely be laid to rest.

"The law of the land is very clear," he explains. "Meat is meat - no spleen or offal, only muscle. Most sausage makers have moved away from mechanically separated meat voluntarily - they became very conscious of what the consumers wanted, and very few now would include meat paste or slurry in their sausages. Anyway, it makes them too smooth. The pleasure of a sausage," he added, beginning to wax rather lyrical, "is texture, flavour, bite - over the last 10 or 12 years, the industry has reached new heights of quality."

8 The British Sausage Appreciation Society, tel 0171 388 7421