On Sausages

There’s a potential rant coming your way. I’ve spent my Sunday morning making about 30kg of sausages, three varieties – a traditional, a Cumberland style and a French(much like a Toulouse). I always find that sausage making reminds me of my younger days as a photographer, in particular working in the darkroom. Some days the prints are fantastic, they’re perfect and everything seems to go your way. Other days feel as if you’ve dedicated your whole day without accomplishing anything. Today was a good day. Throughout the whole morning I can count the number of times I swore at casings splitting on one hand. That’s not always true when it comes to using sheeps casings as they’re a much more delicate beast than the hog casings I was using today.

I find sausage making quite methodical and it gives me time to think (it’s the motorway driving of the meat world) and I’ve been thinking a lot recently about sausages in particular. They’re seen as a cheap staple of British life, the humble banger, but what do we know about what goes into to them? I’ll start with what I use – for the most part it’s trimmed shoulder, and when I say trimmed I mean I remove all the bones, rind, glands, the really soft fats, the sinew and the majority of the intra-muscular soft fats. Only the good bits remain- that leaves a mix of about 80% lean meat and 20% fat. Some like a slightly fattier sausage and add a little belly. I always go by eye, if the mix needs some more fat, then I add a little more, whether it’s some spare back fat or some belly. As always fat = flavour.

Each sausage flavour we produce is from our own recipe. Often they’re based on traditional regional recipes that we’ve honed. We don’t use rusk, we make 100% gluten free sausages. It’s taken us a long time to play with various recipes and techniques to get to the point that we’re at. For the most part, our sausages taste different to what’s generally on the market. We use older pigs, so the meat is more developed, stronger tasting, like what pork should taste like. As we don’t use rusk, which I find has a taste of its very own, the pork flavour comes through stronger. We also don’t use any preservatives, no binders or emulsifiers – we’re not preaching that these are bad things, it’s just that we think we can make a pretty decent sausage without them. We’re not ruling out using some of them in the future either.

I was on a sausage course recently that had been organised by the Wales and Border Counties Pig Breeders Association. Even though I produce sausages commercially, I always feel I can learn from other practitioners and it was good to see that both the tutors had their own idiosyncrasies when it came to their individual products. I also welcome the chance to meet any new breeders, it’s important for producers to get to know the network of people who are out there rearing pigs. Some may only be fattening three or four weaners, but those breeders could be producing the best quality pork available.

Here comes the grumble… predominantly (and I’m not tarring everyone with this brush), the sausages produced by your local butchers, farm shops and small holders come from a packet mix. They either buy in a complete mix or a seasoning mix and then add their own level of rusk and water. What’s wrong with that? Well I’m not having a go at what’s in the sausage, it’s just that it produces a culture of sausage mediocrity. It also makes the practitioner lazy – recipes, and skills that have been retained for generations are lost as soon as someone takes the easy route of opening a packet. I’m not advocating that every small producer gets a degree in meat science, it’d just be nice that they knew the function of the e-numbers on their labelling.

I’m not one for awards, we don’t really enter our products for them, I much prefer to hear good feedback and have returning customers. It does however annoy me when I see a producer gaining an award for a sausage that I well know has come from a standard packet mix. They may have added a handful of their own seasoning to sex-up their sausage, but in the end, the functionality of the product, the binding, the texture, the fat retention comes from the science of the packet mix, and not the maker.

For that very reason I hold an amount of respect for producers such as Walls and Richmond. I don’t try and make a product like theirs, but the science of creating a perfectly emulsified product and at a cost that’s affordable to those on a low income is commendable.

I’d love to hear your take on the banger, so please do leave a comment.

How do you solve a problem like salami?

Back in November 2011 I placed an order for an Italian made air drying cabinet to produce salami. Through many months of tests, breakdowns, tears and swearing, said cabinet made its way back to the distributor on Tuesday morning. Like many relationships, the cabinet and I have had our highs and lows, but now there’s a sense of utter relief now that the divorce is final. So where does this leave me? Well, I’m planning to move salami production to the Food Centre Wales (subject to approval) and hopefully I can start actual production this side of Christmas. It’s a starting measure as I’m desperately seeking a bigger production space. If anyone knows of a food processing space or a commercial kitchen for hire in South West Wales, please do get in touch.

It does feel a little as if I’ve been committing technical infidelity on the poor cabinet as I made a whistle-stop tour of Italy to visit another equipment manufacturer last week. I’m sure I could chuck in some cheesy comparisons here about choosing younger models, with sleeker lines, but I won’t. All I need to say is that the trip was effing awesome. The new machinery is just what I need. The company obviously had immense pride in their machinery, and had been producing equipment for the salumi industry for over 30yrs. We had a full factory tour, perfect explanations of the technical specifications, production turnaround, supervisory technology and we managed a visit to a local salumi factory who use the same machinery.

When I mention ‘we’, an old college friend of mine came with me for the trip. My better half was tied up with a presentation and couldn’t get the time off work. So, as the saying goes “what happens in Norcia, stays in Norica”. I will however mention a few titbits. We had an afternoon free on Wednesday, pretty much our only free time, so ever the ‘meat head’ I decided we should make a pilgrimage to the mountain town of Norcia.

En route, and hungry from our early start we stopped at a roadside van to buy a panini con porchetta, at €2.50 it was an absolute bargain, it beat any roadside burger van here in the UK. The equipment company that we visited also make ovens to cook porchetta, and showed us an incredible little video of one of the staff in a local company de-boning a whole 100kg pig in one piece. Once de-boned the inner cavity was rubbed with garlic and filled with trim, liver and a dusting of salt, pepper, fennel and rosemary. The whole pig would be sewn, tied to a cooking bar and slow cooked for around 8hrs.

And so, to Norcia. Why visit such an unassuming little mountain town? Well, firstly it’s the birthplace of St Benedict, and an obvious stopping place for pilgrims. I had my own vested interest in Benedict, but I’m by no means religious. Our farm, Felin y Glyn is part of the old Glyn Estate, some hundred years ago a group of monks from the Benedictine order populated the main country house (which strangely had already been renamed as Glyn Abbey prior to their arrival). Although they were only here a few years, their legacy remains. Pig Aderyn (Birds Beak), is a rare variety of cider apple that can be found in our orchard thanks to them – they’re found in only one other place – the gardens in St Dogmaels on the Pembrokeshire/Cardiganshire border close to St Dogmaels Abbey.

But the main reason to visit Norica was its links with salumi. The town is renowned for its pork butchery, and boasts a number of speciality regional pork products using local ingredients especially cinghiale (wild board), tartufo (truffle) and a variety of wild funghi. Norcia even lends its name to Norcineria, used in Umbria and Tuscany in relation to pork butcheries and processing places but also used in a wider context across Italy as an alternative to delicatessen.

Sadly in amongst its ageing charm, the many norcineria of the town were tourist traps. Out of season they felt a little sad, with pushy owners trying their best to get us to purchase. Each store seemed to be in competition with one another for the award for the most garish taxidermy display, not that I’m complaining about that. Where else can you go to see a stuffed hare complete with a little hunting hat and a miniature shotgun?

The standard of cured products varied greatly, prices for the whole were extremely reasonable, with prosciutto starting at around €13.50/kg – from a personal production perspective, there’s no way I could possibly produce an ethical product at that price. I can’t see many UK producers making whole dried muscles for much less than a minimum of £35/kg. But I suspect in Italy, the quantities sold and the competition between producers calls for more competitive pricing. From a regional perspective, it likes its salt and abundantly adds seasoning. We found the truffle salami a little overpowering. The Prosciutto di Norcia was salty (much like Toscano), with a robust flavour reminiscent of Welsh hams for me, aged for 18 months it had a nutty taste which was quite different to the delicate taste of Parma and San Danielle.

Please don’t be discouraged to visit Norcia from my criticisms of its tourist nature. It’s a great little town, and the stuffed animals and shop displays are well worth a look. If you venture into them all you’ll be stuffed on the free samples of salumi, and there’s plenty of pavement cafes selling the most incredible coffee.