It was in the breakfast bistro of a hotel just off Kensington High Street in London two years ago that I first tasted the pork chipolatas that could well be classed as THE very best sausages I have eaten in my entire life.
I was diving into my second helping of Bircher muesli with poached prunes (my favourite breakfast at hotel buffets) when Peter passed his fork over to me and said, "You have to taste this sausage!" I shook my head and politely said no thank you, when the fork with the sausage at the end of it was extended towards my mouth once more. "Truly," he said, "they are soooooooooo good. They taste just like roast pork."
Reluctantly, I took a bite of the said sausage, as you do when you feel obliged to make your loved one happy. A squirt of the flavoursome pork fat hit my tastebuds, and that was it. I was converted. "Those sausages!!!", I wrote in my journal that night. They genuinely did taste like roast pork and the meat inside them had been chopped rather than minced. Needless to say, pork chipolatas graced my breakfast plate each morning for the duration of our stay. When I asked the hotel's chef about them, singing their praises, he looked at me incredulously and said with a Jordie accent, "They're just ordinary pork sausages from the local butcher."
Our travels that year took us from London to Cornwall, on to Bath, Cardiff and Llangollen (in Wales), back to York, then Darlington (County Durham), Bowness (the Lake District), and the medieval village of Blanchland (in the north Pennines), and finally Edinburgh (Scotland). Rest assured, we sampled plenty of pork bangers (and other good things) along the way. It quickly became clear that the Brits know how to produce a good pork sausage.
The English Breakfast Society (a volunteer-based, non-profit organisation that promotes itself as a "learned society of fellows dedicated to the tradition and heritage of the full English breakfast"), confirms that "Great Britain is artisanal sausage heaven". The Society reports that "some of the most famous kinds of sausage [are] specific to a region". For example, Cumberland (which have EU Protected Geographical Indication status protecting their heritage), together with Lincolnshire, Manchester, Oxford, Marlybone/Hertford and Welsh Glamorgan sausages are among the varieties recommended by the Society. Traditional sausages such as these are said to be made from secret recipes that have been passed down through generations.
I spoke with a bevy of butchers at the Castle Howard farm shop in Yorkshire, and asked what makes English sausages so good. Head butcher, Paul, advised that he sources pork from pedigree pigs raised locally to make the meaty Cumberland sausages sold in the farm shop. The quality of pork is important, Paul explained, as is the blend of herbs and spices, and the filler (cereals to bind) used in the making of the sausages.
In order to be good—that is, meaty, flavoursome and juicy—a sausage must contain a high percentage of fat. In his book, English Pig - cooking with a passion for pork, British chef and restaurateur, Johnnie Mountain, writes that a ratio of roughly one part fat to four parts meat is regarded as a good one to work to. The chef suggests using pork belly and shoulder; and says that the filler (fresh breadcrumbs) should be less than ten per cent of the total weight of the meat.
Mrs Beeton's Cookery Book lists the Oxford receipt for Pork Sausages (to make). The ingredients include one pound of chopped pork (fat and lean without skin or gristle); one pound of chopped lean veal; one pound of chopped beef suet; half a pound of breadcrumbs (which seems too much); the rind of half a lemon; a small nutmeg, grated; half a dozen sage leaves, chopped; a teaspoon of ground pepper and two of salt; together with half a teaspoon of "savoury" herbs and half a teaspoon of marjoram. The mixture is well combined, then put into skins, or formed into "little cakes" before being floured and fried. A Cambridge version is also included, with half a pound of bacon being added to the above.
In her book, A Taste of England, author Theodora Fitzgibbon also offers a recipe for skinless Oxford sausages. Hers is an 18th Century recipe which is, interestingly, quite similar to the above. That said, the spices used are pepper, sage and thyme, and significantly less grated nutmeg. I note that it is recommended that the meat be finely ground. The sausages are placed onto a lightly floured dish or board and chilled before being fried in butter or butter and oil.
Most of the pork sausages that Peter and I have tasted in Australia over the course of our lives do not come close in flavour or texture to those we enjoyed in the United Kingdom. The question begs to be asked: why is it so?
In a 2013 report titled What's in a Sausage, Australia's consumer advocacy group, CHOICE, noted the following:
"We found a variety of intriguing additives on ingredients lists that add flavour and colour while keeping costs down for manufacturers. These included sugar, spray-dried wine, HVP preservative, yeast extract, natural roast beef flavour and smoke flavour."
The report went on to talk about labelling requirements and "the definition of meat"; and also preservatives (Sulphur dioxide 220, sodium and potassium sulphites 221-225 and 228), which can be harmful to those who are sensitive to such additives.
In the middle of last year, the Good Things team conducted an "Aussie pork sausages taste-test" with a range of sausages bought from artisan butchers, as well as independent supermarkets and the two majors (Woollies and Coles). We tried the "Uniquely Australian British Sausage"; the "London Pride" (with caramelised onions and cheddar cheese); gluten-free Aussie pork chipolatas; several kinds of plain pork sausages; pork and fennel sausages (from two different butcheries); pork chipolattas (sic); and Irish pork sausages.
Each variety was pan-fried in a lightly-oiled cast iron skillet before being sliced for tasting. A common problem with several of the sausages purchased (perhaps I should write here "the snag with the snags"?) was the lack of fat. Little or no fat = dry, tasteless sausages, which are difficult to cook and unappetising to eat. Surprisingly, several of the pork sausage varieties produced by a local Irish butcher in a Belconnen shopping centre were found to be so.
The flavour of the skin on The Uniquely Australian British Sausage from Woolworths was reminiscent of our London chipolatas, but the filling wasn't quite as tasty. The plain pork sausages produced by The Butcher at the Dickson shopping centre in Canberra's inner north were definitely fattier and had good flavour. But most of the others fell short.
Overall, we agreed that the very best of the bunch, the "Blue Ribbon Aussie Pork Sausages", were the pork and fennel sausages produced by Matthew and John Mauger from Mauger's Meats at Burrawang and Moss Vale in the NSW Southern Highlands, and also those from The Ainslie Butcher at the IGA Supermarket owned by the Xyrakis family in Canberra's old inner north. Both butchers produce pork and fennel sausages of exceptional quality that are both flavoursome and pleasing to the palate.
In the fullness of time, and the interests of being curious foodies, we will keep taste-testing Australian pork sausages and, of course, will report back. We shall also be travelling back to the UK in the not-too-distant future. English bangers are at the top of our tasting agenda. So, stay tuned.
I used an old favourite recipe of Peter's to make a few batches of curried bangers from the leftover, uncooked sausages. In true English style, this dish should be served with mash.
1kg (good) pork sausages
2 tablespoons light olive oil
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon (good) curry powder
1 tablespoon plain flour
1/2 cup sliced celery
1 carrot, chopped
1 plump Roma tomato, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup frozen peas
1 cup vegetable stock
sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
For a dish that is lower in fat, you can par-boil the sausages briefly in simmering water, then remove the pan from the stovetop and allow the sausages to cool slightly. Slice them into 2-cm rounds and pop the slices into a lightly-oiled, hot skillet or frypan. Cook, turning, until browned on all sides.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage slices from the pan and set them aside. Meanwhile, add the onion to the pan and cook until golden, then add the garlic and cook briefly, taking care not to allow the garlic to burn. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the curry powder and the flour. Pop the pan back onto the heat and cook, stirring for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the stock, making sure there are no lumps. Finally, add the vegetables and cook for 10 minutes, before adding the sausage slices. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes longer, then serve on a bed of mash. Serves 4.
Please note: while yummy, curried sausages do not make for the prettiest dish, hence there is no photograph on this occasion.
So, dear readers, do you have a favourite pork sausage? Do tell.
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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- Liz Posmyk
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.