The humble sausage is a food that we see almost everyday and we eat it often. In my case probably a bit too often! Wonderful, juicy and succulent sausages are part of everyday diets. From Breakfasts to BBQs sausages are one of the most versatile foods around. In Britain we eat about 190,000 tons of sausages every year. It’s not just us Brits who are crazy about them. Most countries in the world have their own variations of sausages and often it’s quite a few variations as well. In the UK it is now said there are 470 different types of sausage (we make 170) We know the English name ‘sausage’ comes from a Latin word ‘salsisium’ and means something that’s salted and preserved but where and how has the humble sausage became so varied and popular in modern life?
Sausages date back well before the Greek or Roman Empires. It is thought they date back to the Middle East in Babylon times. This could have been anytime from 2300 BC. However, it is during the Queen Sammu-Ramat (also known as Semiramis) rule 811-806 BC, that it is thought the sausages were first made. Being so long ago, it is difficult to know exactly when and who the genius was but it is thought they stuffed intestines (skins) with chopped meat and roasted them. However, the humble sausage first appears in the history during the Ancient Greek times…
Sausages come up numerous times in Greek history. Fifth century literature refers to salami. It is thought to have originated from a small city called Salamis on the east coast of Cyprus. Cured and dried sausages would have been an essential way of preserving meat without the luxury of refrigeration.
In the famous Homer’s Odyssey believed to have been written 675-725 BC, he says ‘As when a man besides a great fire has filled a great stomach with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it roasted.’ Early black pudding!!
Sausages were so in vogue there was even a play in Greek times written about them. ‘Orya’ the Greek word of the time for sausages was also the name of a play written by Epicharmus. The sausage as you can see was an important food with the accounts in their literature, it was seen as a gourmet food and was always served to important guests.
The Romans also enjoyed the humble sausage and are said to have brought them to Britain some time before 400 AD. Sausages were a staple part of Roman festivals. However it wasn’t all just sausage eating, partying and fun. The Roman Emperor Constantinus I and the Catholic Church banned sausages due to their association with pagan festivals. This remained in place through several Emperors reign. Like alcohol during prohibition in the States, the sausages went underground and with back street trading rife and after huge protest, they were finally reinstated. I am thinking about writing a screen play about a Roman style Al Capone that was the king pin of the illicit sausage trade. A cross between Gladiator and The Untouchables… I’ve seen worse!
Spice Wars Attack of the Colonies
The huge impact of spice routes and famous explores like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus play a huge part on modern sausages around the world. There are a number of factors that go into regional variations of modern day sausages. Climate, local taste, availability of spices in the early days and colonial imperialism all play a role.
Climate and taste impact can be seen when looking at hot countries. Most hot countries ironically eat spicy food. Therefore lots of their sausages are hotter. Established spice routes meant these areas had access to spices before others and sausage recipes seem to reflect that. Finally, colonialism and migration has also had a huge impact. Ideas, methods and recipes of sausage have travelled with people across the globe and became part of local recipes.
Here are a few great examples of how the various factors interplay and fuse in modern sausages. The Goanese Curry sausage we make is one of my favourites. It’s a traditional recipe and blends Indian flavours with Portuguese. Goa was a colony of Portugal 1510-1961 and the fusion of the two make a brilliant sausage. South America sausages all have very similar ingredients to Spanish Chorizo due to Christopher Columbus and the colonial expansion under the crown of Castile. They vary due to local tastes. The Argentine Chorizo is very similar to Spanish but uses beef as well as pork and is spicy. Cattle farming is big in Argentina and makes sense it would be used.
In the UK we have lots of traditional variations of the humble sausage. Southern sausages seem to be milder with more herbs while Northern sausages have less herbs and more spices like cayenne pepper. This could just be local taste, Northerners might argue southern softies couldn’t handle food that was slightly spicy. My theory is that spices like cayenne were first brought into the country through northern ports and therefore taken up by local sausage makers.
The Cumberland sausage is an interesting British regional sausage. It should be made with no filler. It is the only traditional British recipe that was. It also should be slightly spicy. They say the reason this sausage is so meaty and has more pepper than other British sausages is because of German miners brought to Cumbria in 1564 by Queen Elizabeth I. They created jobs and revived a mining industry around Derwent Valley and Keswick. The Cumberland sausage is therefore a blend of German and local Cumbrian tastes. It almost helps me get over of all the times they’ve knocked us out on penalties. The Cumberland is definitely my favourite British regional sausage.
Britain’s Dark Ages and the return of the humble sausage
Although historically the Dark Age was between the 6th and 14th century, it is after the Second World War to the late 1980’s that sausages in the UK had their darkest times. Due to rationing, sausages where pumped full of filler and water with little actual meat. This is where the name ‘banger’ came from. Because the sausages were full of water, when cooked, the steam would make them explode. Unfortunately, as the country recovered from post-war food rationing, butchers saw a chance to make more profit and kept the cheap nasty recipes created just after the war. It is where the saying, ‘there are 3 types of bread, white bread, brown bread and sausages,’ came from. All the fantastic recipes that had evolved since the Romans conquered Britain were forgotten about. We became the laughing stock of the continent. Luckily since the late 1980’s British sausage making has had it’s revival. The quality has massively increased and many old recipes are coming back. All our traditional recipes that aren’t our own creation date back to the 1800’s before the dark times. We are once again making some of, if not, the best sausages in the world!