Sausages - best or "wurst" food?

Been thinking about (and making, eating) sausage lately. The recipe I share at the end calls for removing the meat from Italian sausages. I have always found that to be odd – so much trouble to put the meat into the sausage casing – why take it out!?

Who invented sausages anyhow and why? Even before researching, I figured that animal intestines (natural casings) must have been a handy way to store bits of meat linked to butchering. Easy to imagine that once those little bundles of meat were preserved – smoked, for example – they would have been a safe and handy food source. Much to the despair of food trucks fighting City Hall in Toronto, that may be why sausages continue to be the most readily available street food in the “Little Apple”. The craving for more diversity in Toronto street food, should not be taken as a dislike for sausages. Wvrst has been abuzz with patrons each time I have visited, and a new generation of butchers and sausage makers seem to be thriving – take for example, this recent article (and video) about Bespoke Butchers in Liberty Village.

Sausages have been around for thousands of years, in every culture that butchered animals. Meat, tissue, organs, scraps and blood were stuffed into (cleaned) intestines or stomachs (e.g. Haggis). 

A core set of sausage types is linked (no pun intended) to cultural traditions – but enjoyed by all. Chorizo, for example, is no longer a favourite only with people of Spanish/Portuguese origins. Imagination now seems to be the only limitation to sausage ingredient combinations.

Sausage can be fresh, or some combo of smoked, cured, fermented, dried, aged. The main ingredient may be pork (most common), or beef, lamb, chicken – and there are even vegetarian sausages. Sausages are part of the charcuterie food trend which has experienced a renaissance in recent years. A new generation is rescuing traditions at risk of being lost – and, in part, that is why I sometimes make sausages.

Sausage making used to involve my grandparents and parents. My grandfather went so far as to build a smokehouse at the back of his property – I have no idea if neighbours ever complained. I have one memory of a three generation sausage making session, then just two, and now I have all the equipment – what is one to do?

Technically, this is Italian sausage - no paprika in sight...

Technically, this is Italian sausage - no paprika in sight...

I live in a city with a fairly large Italian community. While sausages can be made year-round, every January / February local grocery stores sell pork butt and casings, and thus we are motivated to haul out the equipment – some of it made by my Dad. The family tradition includes making Hungarian kolbasz (pork flavoured with paprika and garlic). We have added Italian sausage to the repertoire.

Once the meat is ground and flavoured with spices, there are various “tools” used for stuffing the casing. A sausage stuffing device consists of a canister for the meat, a plunger and a funnel (onto which the casing is pushed, ready to be filled). Unhappy with the size of canisters, and wanting optimal control over the plunger, my Dad made his own. It’s an heirloom to be treasured.

One classic Hungarian sausage we have not yet made alone is Hurka (hoorkah) – a flavourful concoction of rice and onions and liver. “In the day”, organ meats were sometimes added. Such nose to tail eating has also experienced a comeback - supported by many talented chefs, notably Fergus Henderson and April Bloomfield - though she is currently on book tour with her new book - "A Girl and Her Greens". Locally, Jennifer McLagan has added "Odd Bits" to her acclaimed publications.

I have a memory of my grandmother washing a lung before grinding it into the sausage mixture. If the grinding was not to my liking, and I encountered a wee hunk of lung – out it came, though I still liked the sausage. It has been said that hurka is not unlike haggis which contains “sheep's pluck (heart, liver and lungs); minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal's stomach and nowadays often in an artificial casing.” (Source). I have never had haggis, but won’t be shy if ever presented with the opportunity.

It's hard to resist the cute little bundle of pepperettes, wrapped in kitchen twine, next to the register of Sanagan's Meat Locker in Kensington. But, truth be told, I could maybe, maybe live without eating sausage. In part, that is because my tummy is not always happy with purchased sausages. I know exactly what goes into ours. The casing is natural – not artificial. Everything I know from food handling certification is in full force, and once ready they are stored frozen. When homemade runs out, I trust a local Italian vendor who makes his sausage daily and once it is sold out, you must wait for tomorrow.

How do you spot a good sausage? "The meat,’ says butcher Andrew Poulsen. ‘With no filler. When you mix in things like breadcrumbs, eggs, stabilizers — they all deteriorate the quality." Sausages destined to be dried are cured using curing salts (sodium nitrate / nitrite) to prevent botulism, and while this is not required with fresh sausages, some butchers add it. The addition of nitrates / nitrites is controversial. Not all countries agree on regulations, and producers who use them offer assurances re quantities and remind consumers that some vegetables have more nitrates than cured meat.

Kolbasz - cooked in a pie plate in the oven

Kolbasz - cooked in a pie plate in the oven

Other things may also be added to sausages. In the UK, “sausages” must contain 32 - 80% meat. So when is a sausage not a sausage? UK television personality Marc Sage explores why “bangers” (as in bangers and mash) are not officially sausages. Endure the first few goofy minutes of this video, and watch as he proceeds to make a banger according to legally permitted ingredients. It seems like nothing anyone would want to eat – yet taste testers give it a thumbs up!?

I fear some readers may never want to eat a sausage again, but perhaps in time will not be able to resist the juicy succulence of a sausage – which seems always to be paired with a carb – a bun, wrapped in a pastry, potatoes or pasta. Google ‘pasta with sausage’ – over 43 million results. Somebody must like it! This Orecchiette with Sausage / Tomato Sauce has come out of our kitchen countless times – and is even a hit with guests!

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