I have an aunt who, although it has been decades since she worked in a butchers, still refuses to eat sausages. “I know exactly what they put in them,” she would say wrinkling her nose in disgust.
And of course she probably did have cause to worry. Even in the 19th century there was a clear demarkation at all levels of society on what ingredients were deemed acceptable contents for sausages (horse meat most definitely was not approved of no matter how poor you were as this Victorian treatise illustrates). Sausages have gained a reputation for containing all the bits and bobs which can’t be used in other areas of meat production. This includes fat (which helps keep the sausage moist and adds flavour), connective tissue (skin rind and gristle) and mechanically recovered or separated meat, known as MRM or MSM. This is a pulp produced in abattoirs when high-powered jets of water are sprayed on animal carcasses after all the decent cuts of meat have been rendered. Then of course there is the rusk or dried breadcrumbs used to bulk out the ‘meat’; seasoning as well as colour additives to make them look pink; sugar and other sweeteners to help them turn brown and MSG to enhance the flavour. Not a particularly appetising prospect are they?
And yet they remain resolutely popular. In the past year alone the British have eaten almost 200,000 tonnes of sausages spending £707 million (source: lovepork.co.uk). Either people genuinely don’t care what they put into their bodies (which I am sure is the case for some unfortunate souls) or not all British bangers conform to the Frankensteinish description above. As testament to their popularity we have a British Sausage Week that is now in it’s fifteenth year during which awards are given out for the best sausage in Britain across seven regions nationwide.
I decided to pay a visit to the South East Regional cook off to try some of this years crème de la crème of sausages. I arrived at The Orange in London to find groups of butchers tentatively huddled in separate groups at the back of the restaurant. There was clearly little fraternising going on. Butchers, it seems take sausage making very seriously and their recipes are closely guarded secrets. BPEX, which organises the week, receive thousands of entries every year and these are whittled down to just 56 finalists across the country. Most of the butchers take the results in their stride irrespective or not of victory. However, occasionally there is contention over the judging and tempers do get frayed.
“We’ve had to separate butchers at a few previous events to avoid outright war,” one of the judges told me.
These particular butchers looks like a calm, if a little anxious, bunch of fellows so I felt confident there would be no violent outbursts following the awards ceremony.
The first of the eight sausages I tasted called Dragon’s Fury Ring of Fire by A Turner & Sons from Aldershot, Hampshire.
“You might want some water with that,” advised stand-up comedian Al Murray ‘The Pub Landlord’ who was judging the awards as this year’s ‘King of Sizzle’.
He wasn’t wrong. The punch from the Dragon’s Blood chilli sauce was almost enough to blow my socks off. This sausage is coiled (rather like a Cumberland) to represent the iconic Olympic rings forged in fire at the opening ceremony. I could see why it had been finalised for the Iconic sausage category for a pork sausage that represents a notable British figure or event, past or present, but sadly the chilli kick was not for me.
More cooked sausages followed and were judged according to their appearance, texture and flavour. Some of the sausages had a decidedly nostalgic theme to them such as such as Grandad’s Recipe, Pork and Sage Sausage made from a recipe dating back 100 years by J C Rook & Sons from Ramsgate or the Spitfire Banger produced by Tony Swatland Butchers in Richmond. It was a tight contest and they were all delicious. After much debate a winner was agreed. The Best British Banger award for the South East went to The Sussex Whole Hog and Ale sausage (which uses locally sourced Sussex pork marinated in Harvey’s ale) created by Knight Butchers in Worthing.
“We are over the moon to have won a British Banger Award. It’s one of the most recognisable awards out there and traditional butcher shops like ours, which was set up over 50 years ago, really benefit from recognition like this,” said Chris White of Knight Butchers.
The British Banger Awards demonstrate that there is a wealth of tasty and innovative sausages out there made by independent producers right on your doorstep. This means you can give the Franken-sausage described above a wide berth. Of course, if you want to be absolutely sure about what is going into your sausages you could always make your own. I had a go myself recently and made some flavoured with fennel, coriander, garlic and red wine. They weren’t bad for a first effort. I could divulge the recipe with a little persuasion but then I would have to kill you….