Gillian Riley on sausages – the breakfast of centurions

Doing her wurst: Gillian Riley. Photograph: Jason Fidler

Doing her wurst: Gillian Riley. Photograph: Jason Fidler

The people of our fair borough cowered in the bushes as the Roman legions stormed up Kingsland Road to subdue barbarians and rebellious tribes up north.

Sausages were what kept these centurions going, portable and long- keeping, tasty and nutritious, and can still be had along our end of the Great North Road where Gallo Nero imports them from Italy or has them made up in London to a traditional recipe.

Turkish stores have a variety of sucuk, beef sausages. Polish delis offer cured and fresh delicacies, and once upon a time Godfrey’s the English butchers (now flourishing in Highbury Barn) had a fine selection.

But if the legions had deviated a little from the long straight track north, and meandered westwards along the high ground that is now Stoke Newington Church Street, they might have hit Meat N16, and refused to move.

Hadrian’s Wall would never have been built, and British history might have taken a different course. This small independent local butcher sells organic meat and fowl, and an array of sausages that demand critical assessment.

These are made to standard recipes, Cumberland, Toulouse and plain pork, and in more adventurous mixtures with herbs, spices and additions like leeks (with lamb), funghi porcini, sun-dried tomatoes, juniper berries.

Customers submit recipes every autumn and gather for a greedy tasting; the Master Butcher chooses the winner, and adds it to his imaginative range. This year’s winner has pigeon, smoked pancetta and prunes, a wonderful combination.

Hackney tribes along Kingsland Road might well have sniffed aromas of the famous North Italian sausage Luganega from the mess kitchens of the Roman legionaries. It is said to have been brought all the way from Lucania (now Basilicata, a part of Calabria in the south of Italy) as vital supplies for the invincible Roman military machine. These sausages lasted all the way to Lombardy and Veneto in the north, where the subdued tribes took them to their hearts, and have been making them ever since.

By the time the exhausted and footsore Roman squaddies had got as far as the Vale of Pickering, on their arduous trek to Cawthorne Camp then over the North Yorkshire Moors to Whitby, they might have found solace in the splendid sausages of what is now Grange Farm in Levison, near Pickering, where breeds similar to today’s Tamworth ginger pigs, and the dark Berkshires, might well have been reared during the four centuries of peaceful Roman occupation, after the defeat of the wild Brigantes, my ancestors.

Today recipes vary but mainly consist of the cheaper, fattier cuts of pork, well seasoned with garlic salt and pepper, and sometimes coriander, cinnamon and cloves as well. But thankfully, we can once again drool over whiffs of the conqueror’s pig products, for today we have the Ginger Pig butcher in Lauriston Road, where meat from Grange Farm is for sale, along with a range of eight or more delicious sausages. These include an imaginative use of onion and black pudding, a peppery pork mixture, and a chunky Old Spot, all meat and fat but no breadcrumbs, for casseroles and stews; there is a home made smoked chorizo and a stonking merguez.

Sausages, those ubiquitous links, can be a delicacy, made from quality cuts, or a shameful repository for unmentionable and unhygienic body parts, slaughterhouse slurry, padded out with all kinds of stuff. Dubious ingredients can be fed into a processor and stuffed into casings, along with preservatives and synthetic flavourings, to become an anonymous wodge, and sometimes a health hazard as well as a gastronomic crime.

Horsemeat is the least of our worries. We need to be sceptical about cheap mass-produced sausages, and critical, in a good way, of what gets into our designer sausages. Fortunately this column is all about good things, not the murky politics of food fraud, so we celebrate here the benign aspects of the sausage.

Throughout history sausages have been made to be eaten fresh, or preserved in some way or other, wind dried, smoked, salted, fermented, or cured in tubs of lard. The content varies depending on the process. Once preserved they can be sliced or cut into chunks, eaten as they are, or added to stews and soups and sauces.

A sausage made with prime lean pork would be a sad and sorry offering on the plate, for fat (where the flavour is) and something cereal like breadcrumbs to absorb it as it cooks, are essential for an unctuous softly chewable result. Trimmings from posh cuts, with their fat, and meat that can’t be sold as an item, are all useful.

Surprising things like tripe, offal, kidneys, liver and lights all get used. Perhaps the ultimate use of fat is in a version of the Jewish kishka, where matzo meal and schmalz (wonderfully tasty chicken fat) are combined with unctuous effect.

One spin-off from pig killing was the collection and coagulation and then cooking of the blood to make black pudding, at its best in French boudin noir, and Spanish morcilla. Tasty fat and something like rice or barley to soak up the juices are often used, but the lack of seasoning and the fear of fat make many British versions sadly stodgy.