Though it might seem like the very definition of simple food, the British sausage is, in fact, a bit of an oddity. The word “sausage” comes from the Italian “salsiccia”. The use of the prefix “sal”, meaning salt, implies a preserving process, as used in making salami or the smoked and cured German and Polish-style sausages. But the traditional British sausage is not preserved at all: it is fresh, plump and gleaming, and demands to be eaten at once. This is rather curious, given Britain’s cool climate and well-wooded countryside, which are both ideal for smoking sausages. Curiouser still, I can hardly think of another country that does not preserve its sausages.
British sausages are also unlike other fresh sausages in that they usually contain a generous amount of cereal to soften and moisten them and of course to absorb some of the delicious fat which is responsible in large part for their popularity. Another trait not found in many other countries is the way they are linked. Watching a practised butcher hand-linking sausages is fascinating. With a few twists of the wrist, a loop here and a pinch there, an unruly five-metre length is transformed into a rope of sausages neatly linked in threes. This traditional method of linking sausages also gives them their standard length – the width of a butcher’s hand.
During the 20th century British sausages went through a process of degradation. From being a local artisan product that made economical use of the butcher’s trimmings they became increasingly mass-produced. During World War I, when meat was scarce and profits were low, butchers added extra water to army sausages, causing them to explode during cooking. During World War II rationing, this practice spread to the home front and “bangers” became a household word. By the late 20th century, industrial processes had enabled mechanically recovered meat (the meat residue that remains on the carcass after the prime cuts have been removed; also known as MRM or mechanically separated meat) to replace the traditional meat trim­mings, and this, coupled with the mad-cow disease scare, produced the dismal nadir of the British banger.
Not surprisingly, this provoked a sausage renaissance. Specialist meat producers and artisan butchers throughout the country enthusiastically revived the old recipes and added their own twists, and now there are excellent sausages being made once more and sold at farmers’ markets and privately owned butchers. Such sausages are acceptable in even the smartest gastropub.
We have our regional varieties of course. In Scotland, the slim beef sausage is still preferred to pork, and the Lorne sausage (a square block of lurid pink sausage meat that is sliced and fried for breakfast) remains popular. With puddings being classed as sausages we have the white and mealy puddings (made of oatmeal and fat; also sliced and fried) and Scotland’s famous haggis, which is consumed in vast quantities on Burns Night in January. And of course there’s black pudding, the bed-and-breakfast favourite, though it too has regional variations: most are made from pig’s blood, but some are made with sheep’s or cow’s.
In England, a Lincolnshire sausage is the epitome of the fresh pork sausage: flavoured with sage and pepper, it should be plump and nicely speckled. There is any number of variations: pork and leek; pork and Guinness; pork and black pudding; dark, rich venison sausages; and rosemary-flavoured lamb sausages. Oxford sausages have a lemony twist. Newmarket sausages are hotly contested because two butchers each claim to have the authentic recipe. The peppery Cumberland sausage is formed into a coil and is traditionally sold by the yard rather than by weight. There is even a Welsh Glamorgan sausage that is made of cheese rather than meat.
The best British sausages are still made by dedicated producers who use delicate natural sausage skins. They are worth seeking out, because manufactured skins tend to be slightly tougher, and the producers need our encouragement, because natural skins are expensive. With all the right ingredients in place, there is absolutely nothing that compares with a really good British banger that’s nicely meaty, perfectly seasoned, stuffed into its natural casing, and sizzling enticingly on the grill. So says this Brit anyway.
ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
Scotland-based Nichola Fletcher is a deer farmer and food writer. Her latest book, Sausage (Dorling Kindersley, $29.95, hbk), is a guide to the sausages of the world.
This article is from the June 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.