WORLD FOOD – Ode To The Cumberland Sausage

30 Nov 2001

I believe in Europe. I believe in the European ideal! Never again shall we repeat the bloodshed of two World Wars. Europe is here to stay. But this does not mean that we have to bow the knee to every directive from every bureaucratic Bonaparte in Brussels. We are a sovereign nation still and proud of it. … The Europeans have gone too far. They are now threatening the British sausage. They want to standardize it – by which they mean they’ll force the British people to eat salami and bratwurst and other garlic-ridden foods that are TOTALLY ALIEN to the British way of life. Do you want to eat salami for breakfast with your egg and bacon? I don’t and I won’t! They’ve turned our pints into litres and our yards into metres … But they cannot and will not destroy the British sausage! Not while I’m here.

The above isn’t real; it’s a spoof, a speech by PM Jim Hacker in Yes, Prime Minister, the BBC comedy parody of British political life. But, given the manic obsession with the great British banger it exudes, it could just as easily have been delivered by a real-life Whitehall politico. Not that it’s only the British who like sausages. People everywhere have delighted in encasing minced and chopped meat and fat in animals’ guts since time immemorial. Or almost The Greek comedy Orya, ‘The Sausage’, seems to have been written in around 500 BC, and not long after that, the ancient Romans were feasting on salsicium, (literally ‘prepared by salting’). As Guardian food editor Matthew Fort wrote recently, ‘The world loves a sausage. The Italians love their salsicce and salamis, the French their saucisses and cervelas, and the Germans their wurst. Iraqis have their mumbar, the Algerians their merguez, the Poles their beskidzka, the Hungarians their gyulia, the South Africans their boerewors and the Chinese their ap yeung cheung’. Then, of course, comes a whole string – and I use the word advisedly – of close relatives such as blood puddings, chitterlings, andouillettes, chipolatas, frankfurters and all the rest. Not to mention the haggis, ‘the chieftain of the pudding race’, according to Robbie Burns. Sausages can be made of virtually any meat, from pork and beef to turkey and chicken. Arabs and Jews alike stuff theirs with lamb, while in Piedmont where I live, at Turin’s Porta Palazzo, reputedly the largest open-air market in Europe, it’s also common to find sausages made with wild boar and horsemeat.
The distinctive feature of the bangers the British are so enamored of is that their meat content is relatively low; in some cases, just 65 per cent with the remainder made up of rusk (dried wheat bread), flavorings, water, sinew, gristle, MRM (mechanically recovered meat, also known as ‘slurry’ or ‘sludge’) … well, let’s not go into that! Though the distinguished cookery writer Jane Grigson dismissed the modern British sausage as, ‘A bland, pink disgrace’ in her seminal English Food (1993), two late and great British literary heavyweights thought otherwise. In the Seventies, in fact, Anthony Burgess made the brief train journey from Monaco, where he was living at the time, to Antibes to lunch with Graham Greene. The two novelists’ conversation inevitably revolved round literature and religion, but they also found time to talk food.

AB: I like things plain. I prefer to eat over the border, in Ventimiglia. I miss English pub food.

GG: I miss English sausages. I don’t like them all meat, on French lines. I like a bit of bread in them.

AB I’ve been tempted to fly to Heathrow just to pick up sausages and then fly back again.

(Anthony Burgess, Homage To Qwertyuiop, London, 1986, p. 25)

British lowbrow culture also embraces the sausage theme whenever and it whatever way it can. Witness the old music hall favorite ‘Give us a bash at the bangers and mash me mother used to make’ or the number from Lionel Bart’s hit musical Oliver ‘Food, Glorious Food (Hot sausage and mustard!)’. And what of ‘Dunderbeck’, a song British scouts have sung round camp fire for generations?

There was a strange old butcher. His name was Dunderbeck.
He was very fond of sausage-meat, and sauerkraut and speck.
He had the finest butcher shop, the finest ever seen,
Until one day he invented his wonderful sausage machine.

Returning to the question of the bread content of the British sausage, this habit of eking out the meat seems to have grown fashionable in the nineteenth century. Dr Johnson, at any rate, makes no mention of it in his Dictionary of the English Language (1757), where he defines a sausage as ‘a roll or ball made commonly of pork or veal, and sometimes of beef, minced very small, with salt and spice; sometimes it is stuffed into the guts of fowls, and sometimes only rolled in flour’. Another reason to believe that the bread addition is a relatively recent development is the fact that some of Britain’s most traditional pork sausages were made solely of meat and herbs. As a Cumbrian born and bred, my favorite is obviously the Cumberland Sausage, the original recipe for which envisaged up to 98 per cent of lean and fat pork from the Cumbrian pig (a breed now extinct) with the rest being made up of black pepper, spices and herbs, especially marjoram, nutmeg, mace and sage; the resulting flavor is surprisingly piquant for the otherwise bland British palate. Another typical feature of the Cumberland is that it is sold by lengths as opposed to links.
One of the few pork butchers who continues to produce Cumberland sausage the old-fashioned way (on recent trips to Britain, I’ve noticed that poor, pallid imitations are now on sale virtually nationwide) is Richard Woodall in the out-of-the-way west Cumbrian village of Waberthwaite, Woodall, who has inherited a family business which dates back to 1828, when, once widowed, Mrs Hannah Woodall had the idea of increasing her scant income by curing and processing a neighboring family’s pig. His Waberthwaite sausage, made of 97per cent best shoulder pork to 3 per cent spices and herbs in a special blend, received a Royal Warrant in 1990.
So how do you cook the Cumberland sausage? As I recall from childhood, it was baked, unpricked, in the oven, then served with thick meat gravy, Yorkshire pudding, apple sauce, mashed potatoes and Savoy cabbage – often as an alternative to the traditional Sunday roast. Now there was a sausage!

John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food website


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