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.

A visit to IBERS

Another month goes by, and I’m hugely aware that I haven’t managed to blog. I’ve got a stack of things to write about at the moment, but little time to actually do so. There’s plenty going on, but I wanted to mention a visit I made a couple of weeks back to¬†IBERS – the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University. I was there as part of a Ruminant Innovation Network Event that had been organised by the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network. Now I know pigs aren’t ruminant animals, but my interest lies more in the information that they had on both feed and grassland and it’s effect on meat quality. It was a fascinating day, I was really out of my depth scientifically for a large part of it but I did learn a lot. I won’t try and explain everything I saw, I’ll just concentrate on some of the bits that I found interesting. I’m getting on my soap box now, so if you want to avert a rant, stop reading. For those willing to carry on I’ll try and keep it short and simple.

Global population is rising, therefore we need more efficient ways of farming in order to produce more food. We also need more efficient modes of processing raw ingredients into food to lessen waste. There’s a general snobbery that supermarket food is poor quality – I wouldn’t always say so. We have friends who breed some of the best lamb I’ve ever tasted, and all their animals are sold to supermarkets – they’re amongst the most progressive farmers that I know when it comes to the type and quality of grasslands that their flock grazes on. They don’t have the skills to process their own animals, but have a ready outlet a few miles away with a supermarket contracted slaughterhouse.

At IBERS they’ve got extensive ‘test beds’ of different grasses, ryegrasses, clovers and chicory. The testing that they undertake (which is often part funded by the supermarkets) looks at plant breeds, it’s productivity, it’s composition and the effect on soil. They also test the effect the feed has on the animals, both in terms of daily weight gains, and methane production. This doesn’t necessarily involve a whole load of ‘nasty chemicals’ or lab type animal testing scenarios, it’s basic plant development vs the effect on animals – it’s ultimately a very natural way of production.

During the visit, they’d set up a basic methane test tent for us to see, two willing sheep volunteers were happily producing methane for us within this controlled environment. We also got to see the cattle sheds where radio id tags on the ears of every animal would record the daily feed intake which could then be used to calculate daily weight gains. During a presentation we got to see how GPS tags were used to calculate grazing patterns, and how, through a combination of GPS mapping and soil testing – specific parts of fields could get the right level of fertiliser or manure to create a balanced crop.

Where productivity often falls short is when it comes to taste. It doesn’t matter what breed an animal is, what the welfare standards are, whether it’s free range or intensively raised, the main, key ingredient when it comes to taste is the feed that we give that animal. What goes in = the quality of what we get from the animal. When I started my journey of rearing animals, I looked back to the past to the ways that my grandfather kept his pigs. His feeding regime of straights, foraging and vegetables are the centrepiece of my feeding regime. However, I’m not doing it to emulate some ‘old-fashioned’ way of life – it’s based on science. Composite feeds from the large feed producers are the most efficient way of producing super lean pork. However, that isn’t what I’m trying to produce. That said, I’m not averse to using new technology, new feeds and developed crops if there’s a positive effect on the animal. I’ve recently submitted a DEFRA grant application into the effects of vitamin E as a natural antioxidant in pork. A huge amount of research is readily available for ruminants, not so much for the beloved pig. Who knows if I’ll get anywhere, but it’s worth trying.

I’m not advocating that supermarket produce is perfect. Far from it, if we’re realistic, the cheapest supermarket food is functional – it’s there to provide food to this growing population. As a small scale traditional producer, the products that I make take a long time to produce, and are probably hugely inefficient – I have to charge a premium for the product because of this. When we look at functional food, it can be pretty scary what large processing companies have to do in order to produce a product that can be sold cheaply. I’m not saying that processed food is bad, I have a huge respect for processed food, and even though we try and be as self sufficient as possible I often find myself trawling the aisles of the local supermarket looking for a cheap and tasty solution for the evenings meal.