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Toasted spices, Sausage making and Rudyard Kipling.

Just prior to the lock down beginning, we had started to have some building work done at the back of the house. Perfect timing! In preparation for this, sheds had to be relocated and in amongst all the off cuts of wood (always useful) and surfboards (less so!) that had to be unloaded and reloaded I came across a hand cranked meat mincing sausage making machine. A monumental chrome plated cast iron beast of a mangle packed neatly in a cardboard box under a pile of tool boxes and fishing rods. At the time I thought nothing of it. No idea where it came from or if it had ever been used, so I made a mental note of its location and moved on to wrestling with an army of half empty (or should that be half full?) paint pots.

Then a few of days ago while discussing things we miss in our lives at the moment, the subject of Merguez sausages came up. We often have them in casseroles and cooked over the open fire pit when we are home in France and their deep rich, harissa spiced flavour is a highlight for us. At this point I mentioned that I had come across the sausage machine in the shed and well Julie was off! A woman on a mission! We could make our own, as well as chorizo and salamis. It turns out the sausage machine was Julie's and she had used it often in a former life. Now the desire to make her own charcuterie filled her with enthusiasm and the hunt for recipe ideas, sausage skins - known as casings, no I didn't know that either, and spicy embellishments began.

Now before I go any further, what follows is not a recipe as such, it's more a retelling of novice sausage makers experiences.

And so it was that, with everything we needed now in place, we arrived at the time to make sausages. The casings had been sourced via the internet and soaked overnight in water and now it was just a matter of putting everything together. Merguez sausages are traditionally made with lamb, sometimes with a small portion of beef added. However, we decided to start simply by making pork sausages that have a Merguez flavour to them. So for this batch we used a combination of spices including whole cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, my harissa mix, sweet noble paprika and cayenne pepper.

The whole seeds were toasted (essentially dry fried in a non-stick pan) and then ground. Now you can do the grinding bit in a electric spice grinder or even a coffee grinder (remember to thoroughly clean it afterwards. Clove flavoured coffee is never going to catch on believe me!)

As I say you can do it that way, however, don't! Do the grinding bit by hand if you can in a mortar and pestle. There are two reasons for this. First, a slow hand grind allows you to control how coarse you have your spice mix and also grinding hot spices too much can sometimes turn them to a claggy paste. The second reason is the most important. Just do it for the intense pleasure of doing it. The smell, oh the smell! Nothing in the kitchen beats the smell of freshly ground toasted spices. If you have never do it, you MUST give it a go. Once the seeds were done, they were combined with the other spices and a generous teaspoon of Himalayan rock salt and a long grind of black pepper.

The other advantage of working with a shoulder of pork as our key meat was that it allowed us to play with some slightly calmer flavourings to make a second combination. We did this using a version of my Lavenham herb mix enriched with onion and garlic powders.

To prep the pork, the skin was parred from the joint leaving as much fat on as possible. (Use this skin to make crackling as a snack.) Now I know at this point the more experienced charcutiers among you will be muttering about adding more pork fat and all sorts of things and I respect your greater knowledge. However, to para-phrase my university Professor, "it's your sausage, you do what you want with it!"

So, we used what we had. The pork was roughly chopped into chunks that would go through the opening of the meat mince, a quite important but often overlooked factor, and then divided equally between two bowls ready for the spices. Now at this stage you spice and season your meat and if you so desire, add rusk. The reason you add rusk is to improve the texture and bite. It also helps to bind the fat within the sausage and retain moisture making for a more succulent sausage. However, as I have a sensitivity to wheat, we experimented with no rusk at all in one batch and substituting a small amount of Psyllium husk in the other.

I always tell people that I talk with on the stall that when you are adding spices to raw ingredients, especially meat, take your time, allow the natural juices of the meat to absorb the spices. It deepens the flavour and quite frankly is a more pleasurable experience because you get to sniff your creation from time to time as it matures. Half an hour is enough, just give the ingredients time enough to get acquainted before you move on to the next stage.

For those of a certain age, we were about to get all 'Generation Game' in the kitchen. (For those who have no clue what I am talking about, Lucky you! You have better telly.) It was time to stuff the sausages. This turned out to be a two person (and one dog) job. But if you have never done it, there is definitely a knack to it. I was convinced we were over stuffing our casings as they bulged in sorts of interesting directions when made. However, I was prepared to experiment, making traditional bangers and more french style whorl.

We chilled the products of our labours for an hour or so while we cleaned up and then chose to cook the Lavenham sausage whorl.

It was all going marvelously as the glorious sausage sizzled gently in the pan and then, disaster! My fears had been realised. The meat and fat began to swell alarmingly, proving too much for the casing as it split at one end and then in a strangely hypnotic way, slowly unzipped itself at an increasing pace spiraling inwards towards the middle of the whorl. There was nothing we could now do and as we stood there helplessly watching as our first venture into the dark arts of charcuterie gave a final convulsion of disdain, turned itself over in the pan like a grass snake feigning death and then just lay there, destroyed. A damning testament to our schoolboy errors, mocking our inexperience. Mind you, the remnants baked in the oven and served up with Brazilian mushrooms still tasted amazing.

Unperturbed, Julie decided to make some gentle modifications to our Merguez bangers. They would need to be somewhat 'de-stuffed.' And so it was that on the second day, the meat was massaged and molded from fat, plump fingers of spicy French style sausages into a less bloated, dare I say, safer looking whorl and once again we went for it!

After some gentle browning in the pan the whole thing was transferred to the oven to cook through.

What emerged was a triumph! Okay, perhaps not the prettiest sausage you have ever seen, but none the less, a rich, spicy, firm and generally intact sausage with all the pungent taste of an Ariège breakfast treat. Indeed, we managed to make all the sounds one should make when confronted with a mouthful of quality sausage!

So what did we learn? Well, Kipling taught us the lesson that if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same, then the joy of making a good sausage should never be underestimated. We can make a product that fills us with the enjoyment of knowing that we did ourselves no matter how it looks. And that there is so much more to try in terms of taste and texture combinations. I now have an image in my minds eye of our cellar in the mountains in France bedecked with reams of hanging salamies, chorizo, hams..........

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