Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Forking Foreigner: Blood Sausage

Blood sausage—there, I said it. That is as gruesome as this post will get.
 But I wanted to put it out there, blood sausage. It’s not something I grew up thinking about, certainly not eating. In my small town in the middle of Ohio, Wonderbread and tuna salad ruled, not this deeply cultural food found in equally uneventful, small European villages.

Boudin Noir in France, blutwurst in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, black pudding in the UK, and in Spain it is named morcilla. Regardless of the country, they are all made from the similar ingredients: pork, herbs, spices and one key ingredient—pig’s blood. Yes, they may dress the name up, make it a bit more palatable, but take just one look at the deep purple sausage and there is no mistaking what, indeed it is.

We moved to Europe seven years ago and up until that point I had managed to avoid blood sausage for the most part. There were references to it in charcuterie class in culinary school of course, but that amounted to no more than the answer to a multiple choice question on a final exam. 

When we moved to Switzerland in 2003, blutwurst was displayed in every butcher’s shop window. It lay snugly shrink-wrapped in the supermarket meat case. It hung from the ceiling of specialty sausage-making shops. I became used to its presence, but resisted actually trying it.

Have you seen how it is made? I don’t want to talk about it. I said that mentioning the term ‘blood sausage’ was as gruesome as I would get, and I’m sticking to it.

Then a couple of years ago we moved to the UK and found black pudding; it sounds so benign, like something your granny would place down in front of you on a lace doily, in a pretty, glass cup for dessert. It’s not. It’s sausage made from the blood of pigs.

And maybe that is my hang-up—the fact that it is made mostly from blood. I mean, I am a card-carrying carnivore, I happen to love leberwurst (pig’s liver made into a paste). And, the last time we were in Scotland, my husband and I ordered Haggis (sheep’s heart, liver and lungs—for God’s sake—that are minced, mixed with herbs and oats then stuffed into its own stomach and boiled for three hours—sorry, I said things wouldn’t get more gruesome, but I think I just turned that corner) anyway, we ordered haggis and loved it. Maybe it was because we had just come from a whiskey tasting on empty stomachs, but it seemed pretty good at the time.

Strolling the sausage section of my local grocery store (and most grocery stores in the UK do have a section devoted entirely to sausages) I began to think, what up Holly Hypocrite? You’ll eat a sheep’s innards, and a pig’s liver, but not its blood? And you call yourself a foodie?

So I bought what is supposed to be the best brand of black pudding, brought it home and cooked it up for breakfast that Sunday morning. We had an official ‘Full English’ that British weekend brunch consisting of black pudding, bangers (sausages), fried eggs, grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms and fried bread (…and Alka-Seltzer).

In my life as an eater, there have been just a handful of foods that I simply could not swallow. My motto is, try everything, swallow most, spit-out few. Black pudding joined the ranks of the select few. And it’s not that it tasted bad—it didn’t, it tasted mostly of the herbs that seasoned it, but even the thought of it now… it makes me shudder. I couldn’t do it, that morning at breakfast I couldn’t swallow the black pudding. My husband, on the other hand, cleaned his plate then finished my black pudding, as well. He’s even requested it several times since then (but bare in mind that this is a guy who travels often to Asia, digging into plates of unrecognizable things that are still moving when he puts them in his mouth, so his opinion doesn’t really count.)

A friend of ours named John, (who sounds exactly like Sean Connery), loves black pudding; he grew up eating it and adores it. Savours it. I asked him to come over, eat a plate of black pudding and explain to me why he loves it so.

He got as far as holding a forkful of warm black pudding to his nose and smelling its essence. Eyes closed and inhaling deeply, he let out a satisfied sigh then said, “It smells of old socks.” And he meant it.

I told him to enjoy (!), turned around and did the dishes.

So the mystery continues. Thousands of years ago, when animals were slaughtered for food, blood sausage was also made, and enjoyed, not just by one exceptional culture, but in most regions in Europe. It is no less loved now that it was hundreds of years ago, when eating meat was a great luxury. And it transcends socio-economic divisions. Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter; eating blood sausage is a cultural thing. For many devoted Europeans, enjoying it is simply in their blood.

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