THE ELUSIVE SAUSAGE By Pierre Beemans (Article)
It came to me as one of life's little epiphanies.One of those revelations that, like a lit window at the end of a dark street, both illuminates and comforts. We were standing, George H and I, warming ourselves on a chilly June day by a street vendor's brazier on the corner of Arenales and Plaza Washington, a couple of years before the Canadian Embassy in Lima relocated in 1975 to Miraflores.
George studied the little chunks of chicken liver, heart and unidentifiable body parts sizzling over the coals and, holding up a piece of chorizo, intoned morosely, "You have no idea, Pierre, how much of my life I have spent searching for the perfect sausage...." It was pretty clear that he was not going to find it at that particular stand, and we eventually settled for some empanadas on the Avenida Arequipa, but the phrase stayed with me. `The search for the perfect sausage......'
I thought of all those quests that have inspired adventurous souls across the ages, and the need humans have always had to look for something over the horizon. Some were just a bit too esoteric -- the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, Eldorado, the treasure of the Templars.... Others required expensive expeditions and besides, they had already been done: the Northwest Passage, the source of the Nile, scaling Everest, putting a man on the moon.... It was heartening to discover that there were still people who set aside time in their busy lives to look for something unique, perfect and mysterious. And heartening, too, to realize that they could emblazon their banner with something as simple as the humble sausage.
So, for three decades now, I have found it hard to pass by a butcher shop or meatmarket, a charcuterie or carniceria, without checking out the sausage section. My intentions at first were merely to let George know if I came across something worthy of his attention. Once started down this kind of path, however, one never knows where it might lead; I began taking home specimens to check them out myself. Then, ever the professional manager, I realized that I had to develop some general criteria as to what `perfection' might consist in and some indicators as to how well a particular sausage might meet those criteria. I stopped short of developing a computer program to record and rate my findings and a powerpoint presentation to explain them (after all, no point in being obsessive about these things....).
Over time (and over the meal menu objections of some members of my family), George’s quest gradually became mine as well, and as in all such odysseys, one finds much more than one was originally looking for. After nearly thirty years of venturing down narrow Central-European backstreets in search of a fabled metzgerei, of following my nose though the labyrinthine nooks and crannies of Iberian markets to the stall of some legendary longaniza maker, of chatting up a elderly Italian macellaio in a Tuscan hillside village about the secrets of his salsiccia, I would like to say that I am a better man. In truth, however, I am only a bit wiser – and somewhat heavier in the rump.
One of the first discoveries I made was that language is a significant factor. The English language, for example, so rich in other respects, is depressing in its poverty when it comes to sausages. We only have one word of our own for the species: sausage, and even that comes from the French – well, ultimately from the Latin, of course: salsitia or ‘salted meat’. Interestingly enough, there is no English word of germanic origin for the sausage genre (although the Brits have a particularly revolting subspecies called `bangers'), which raises a number of interesting questions: did our anglo-saxon ancestors not have a taste for chopped meat encased in animal intestine? Or did their sausage-making skills gradually die out because the Norman conquerors reserved such delights for their lordly selves? Perhaps, like the key to Stonehenge, it is one of those mysteries we shall never know. In any event, all our other words have been borrowed integrally from alien tongues: wieners, frankfurters, boloney, kielbasa, salami, etc., and collectively, we class them all as `sausages'.
French is a little bit better, with its lexical distinction between the categories of saucisse and saucisson, although one would have expected greater subtlety from such the land of the Michelin five stars. Perhaps, however, our subject is considered a bit too proletaire for such a refined national palate. The Spaniards, on the other hand have with characteristic rococo flair developed within the genus embutido at least four great classes: salchicha, chorizo, longaniza and morcilla, each of which is embellished with uncounted refinements according to which region the sausage came from, what kind of pig and how it was fed, whether the sausage is cooked, uncooked or smoked, etc. etc.! The Germans have a considerable variety as well, upon which they impose categorical uniformity by appending the suffix `-wurst' to roots which can be as long or as short as you like: bratwurst, weisswurst, knockwurst, jaegerwurst, etc. Not terribly imaginative, but that’s the Germans for you ... I have heard rumours of something called a niederhessesischeskalbsfleischpfefferwurst, but it may be apocryphal. I don’t know Hungarian, but a people with such an intricate language and such voluptuous food must have wonderful words for sausages. In any event, it seem evident that these taxonomical distinctions are indices of civilizations that have reached more sophisticated levels of both culinary art and gastronomical taste than might be ascribed to, say, poutine or instant breakfast.
However, I digress.
Thirty years after my original epiphany, I cannot claim to have discovered the missing, final link in the search for the summum sausage, but there have been some superb candidates. What could surpass the tremors of delight produced by the morcilla that I stumbled across in a student house in Montevideo, with its delicate flavoring of orange zest and white wine? Possibly only the sense of cosmic fulfillment after eating the incomparable Galician morcilla encountered in Santiago de Compostela, with its stuffing of pine nuts and green grapes, or the sensuous smoked morcilla de Burgos with its savor of old sherry.
(Morcilla is the Spanish counterpart to what the English, with singular lack of imagination, call ‘blood sausage’ or – even less graphically – ‘black sausage’: a bland, rubbery thing whose dark reddish, putty-like texture and taste explain the repugnance in which it has been held by generations of boarding school children. I regret to say that our Quebec boudin is not much more edifying than its English cousin. My PQ friends assure me that this is yet another of the lesser-known results of all those years of perfidious colonialism under les maudits anglais.)
The Swiss, a secretive lot about their banking system and their armed forces, have long held the charms of the saucisson de Vaud close to their chest as well, and with good reason. Like the Swiss, it is deceptively nondescript on the outside: a stubby runt with a leathery casing the color of old horse harness and the specific gravity of pig iron. But, like the Swiss, it holds hidden wealth. Set it to simmer in a bed of choucroute or of leeks and onions for an hour or so, cut it open, watch the tightly-packed minced pork spill out across your plate in a pungent cloud of pepper, paprika and caraway aroma, and you will understand why there is a confidential ‘decret federal’ prohibiting its export.
One could go on for pages about other wonders produced by the Poles, the Hungarians, the Germans, the Italians, just about any nation except the English and their North American offspring, it would seem. Are we to conclude, then, that our homeland is condemned to remain a sort of ‘sausage Sahara’, across which the discriminating palates of the world must chew their way looking in vain for something more fulfilling than the ubiquitous and generally synthetic hot dog (with enough unidentified chemicals in it to set off alarms at an American border checkpoint), or the anaemic tubes of pinkish paste one sees labeled on supermarket shelves as ‘pork and beef breakfast sausage’ — the nutritional equivalent of white bread?
Not quite. Here and there in our cities one can find little shops run by magicians who learned their skills in the great sausage centers of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe and who have not yet been run out of business by mega-supermarkets and fast food factories. You have to search them out: often they will be tucked away in suburban strip malls or in modest glass-fronted additions to old houses in working class neighborhoods of inner cities. The key is to keep on walking past any place that has ‘European’ in its name and little dwarf statuettes with conical hats in the window, or whose owner is not called Hans, Jan, Otto, Zoltan, or something along those lines. Do not be deceived by the offerings of supermarket counters called ‘the Deli section’ – their sausages are generally made by huge conglomerates in plants only slightly smaller than GM’s Oshawa works, or assembled by hourly teen-age workers in the back room from batches of instant ingredients – a kind of ‘sausages by numbers’ mode of production.
And does our little tale end here? Not at all. Subsequent chapters of this sausage saga will take us to Ottawa’s own demi-monde of sausage makers and purveyors. We will look at the etiquette of sausage-buying and at the major classes and types available. We may even peek into the murky world of international food markets to find out why decent (or even indecent) European sausage are not available on Canadian counters. We will examine (well, not too closely, perhaps) the intricate processes of mincing, mixing, spicing and ageing the meat, the preparation and serving of sausage dishes, and where the wise aficionado might go in his or her own quest for these porky pieces of paradise.
Tags: Pierre Beemans