England, part 1: Breakfast and sausages

The first of several essays about my recent trip to England.

The rather large lady sat down with a sigh at the table next to ours with a sigh. Laying down her walking stick, she looked around appreciatively at the sunlit room, decorated tastefully in pale yellows to match the vaguely Edwardian architecture of the hotel. Beyond the large windows, we could see the waters of the Channel sparkling in the morning sun.

“I want a proper breakfast” she declared to her husband, who nodded without any questions and trotted off obediently to the breakfast bar. He returned shortly with a large plate laden with the Proper Breakfast: a mound of scrambled eggs, several strips of bacon, some slices of black pudding, a couple of links of pork sausages, fried bread, and sauteed mushrooms and tomato halves. The lady tucked in happily. “Oh these sausages are lovely”, she mumbled.

I glanced discreetly at their table, where her husband was deep into a similar plate, and then stared down at my own modest plate of English Breakfast Food. I’d assembled it based on the nostalgia I had for such food - in Switzerland or the U.S., I never eat breakfast like that (unless it’s for a sunday brunch),. The black pudding was not bad. (Black pudding is a sausage made of congealed pig’s blood, lumps of lard, pig’s liver, and other ingredients. It’s served sliced and fried, in yet more lard or butter or oil. It is related to the French boudin noir.) I’m not sure I’ve ever had a “good” black pudding, but these didn’t totally disappoint - they were crunchy on the outside, mysteriously velvety or liver-y on the inside, and made me feel properly carnivorous. But the sausages were something else. Contrary to that lady’s opinion, they weren’t a bit lovely.

I have fond memories of sausages, English sausages. When I was quite little and we lived in Berkshire for a few years, I loved to hang around our local butcher shop, listening to the convival banter between the large, genial butcher and his customers. When the flow of customers slowed down, he liked to do what he called “knitting” - which meant, stuffing and twisting marvelously neat bunches of fat little sausages. More often than not, I’d beg my mother to buy a pound or so, which she’d fry up for our supper.

Since then though, I’ve have countless sausages. The standard sausage in New York was the Italian sausage, either mild or sweet, flavored with fennel and maybe some oregano or marjoram and such, always meaty and tasty. Switzerland does great sausages, of all varieties: roughly ground Bratwurst made from pork, veal, venison or even chicken; finely ground Cervelat (or Stumpen); Schüblig, and many more. Most are burstingly meaty, juicy, and for the most part best when grilled. As I write this, the whole neighborhood is filled with the smell of sausages grilling on outdoor barbeques.

The fat little sausages that sat on my white plate, with the sun shining on them, were suspiciously un-meaty. I cut them open to look at the sliced edge. The grind was very fine, which may account for the “smooth” mouth feeling. But veal wurst in Switzerland is also finely ground, but still tastes quite meaty. Something was wrong with this breakfast sausage.

A few days later, we engaged in one of my favorite activities while traveling: roaming the local supermarket. (Tescos in Stow-on-the-Wald, Gloustershire, in this case.) In the meat cases I found several packages of plump, short sausages, “knitted” the way I remembered them. I hesitated for several moments before deciding on one promisingly labeled “pure pork sausage”. We had rented a cottage for the week, so the sausages were going to be the centerpiece of our breakfast the next day.

Bright and early (10am on a holiday is bright and early) I heated up a frying pan and put in the sausages. There’s something about the size of English sausages that makes them so appealing; about 15 centimeters or six inches long, 1.5 cm (three-quarters of an inch) in diameter, they are about the size of the fingers of a large man’s hand. They are easy to roll about in a frying pan. I don’t think there’s any question that one pan-frys these types of sausages rather then grilling them or such.

In just a few minutes the sausages were ready, and I eagerly sliced into one. There was a promising little spurt of juices from within… But alas, the taste was still not lovely. Disappointed, I fished the wrapper out of the trash and looked at the ingredients. Ground pork was listed first, but there was also a list of things that don’t seem to belong in a meaty product. Oatmeal? Flour? Hydrogenated onions could be forgiven. Preservatives and color-enhancers or whatever may be inevitable in a supermarket product. But the oatmeal and other starchy fillers probably account for the non-loveliness. I sighed. Was my favorite butcher from my youth also using fillers? Do all English sausages contain starchy fillers?

We decided to forget about sausages and eggs for breakfast, and found a very nice muesli mix at Tesco’s. With fresh milk and strawberries picked at a pick-your-own farm near the cottage, it was quite lovely, in fact, if not too English a breakfast.

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