Blood Sausage: Everything but the Kitchen Sink
It was the smell I feared most.
I could sort brains, pull tongue, study eyes and teeth, but I would have teetered had it smelled of rotten, fetid death. It didn’t. It was freshly killed and neither the flesh nor the blood reeked of anything more than pork. It was completely devoid of any unwanted or unappetizing aromas. In wine terminology, it was ‘clean.’ As we sorted through the contents of the pig’s head to add to our blood sausage, I admired her teeth; sharp edged, astonishingly white.
Only a week earlier and with great trepidation, I ate blood sausage for the first time at a semi-hip Argentine restaurant in San Francisco. The sausage was succulent and delicious. After dinner, I felt energized, sexy and youthful, apparently not a unique experience. Carnivores arise the morning after a meal of blood sausage, liver, heart, brains, or lungs feeling vampirically nourished.
Of what was I afraid? In many cultures, the entire animal is utilized for food, hot dogs and bologna notwithstanding. I have fished since I was a child: cod from a bridge near home on the Cape; bluefish in the surf of Nantucket; salmon, its beautiful colors glistening in the sun, hauled in near San Francisco’s Farallon Islands; steelhead while wading waist-deep in Oregon’s icy Rogue River. I’ve hunted deer in the hills of Montana, duck from the rice paddies of Sacramento, dove from almond orchards in northern California; and pheasant, their plumage the dramatic colors of a Jan Steen painting, shot on stubbly corn fields in the gray of winter. I never thought myself squeamish, but was unprepared for head.
Celebrating my 40th recently, I found there was much for which I was unprepared.
“There’s nothing better than fresh head,” muttered The Pig Farmer. With his shock of unkempt white-yellow hair reminiscent of Einstein and a practiced Texan twang, he spoke about the life the porcine lived and his honor at featuring her as an integral part of our evening. On on a muggy Wednesday in late August I was standing in his kitchen, digging through a pig’s head with my hands. Actually, I was editing his pile of pig’s head. Seems the Pig Farmer will really eat almost every part of the pig. I was a bit more discriminating, not wanting to bite into any tough, grisly pieces. Even as I recall this, I’m mentally gagging.
I looked to our lead sausage maker for inspiration. With his quiet demeanor and black ringlets cascading onto a face at once both regal and Cowardly Lion, Christo was not only a talented winemaker in the old-school tradition, but also a great lover of food, working diligently over the years to hone his recipe for blood sausage: rice, onions, spice and the precise amount of fatback to add. We were following his very intricate recipe, written on a crumpled piece of lined yellow paper, marred with handwritten notes, the occasional crossed out instruction, and spattered in blood, now an aged rust color.
“He’s beautiful in his fanaticism,’ the Pig Farmer remarked as I marveled over the process.
The blood sausage would take two nights to prepare. On the third night, a full moon, we’d celebrate Luna de Sangre, a Blood of the Moon celebration, with a huge, rather organized party at the Pig Farmer’s Tuscan-inspired abode. We broke into several groups to focus on specific tasks. I had already chopped pounds of onion and herbs. The several bottles of wine we consumed while we dicing, mincing and stirring lubricated conversation.
Sausage production is the original form of head-to-tail cooking, utilizing every precious scrap of the animal. The blood, organs and meat are salted and stuffed into casing made from the animal’s cleaned intestine. Such cooking dates to 500 B.C. with the kitchens of the Ancient Greeks and Romans churning out delicacies recognizable today. Homer references blood sausage in the Odyssey and comic writer Epicharmus penned The Sausage.
Blood sausage, referred to as black pudding by the Irish, blood pudding by the Brits, morcilla by the Spaniards, or boudin noir by the French, is made by cooking the blood from a freshly slaughtered animal with filler until it congeals so its easy to squeeze into a casing. Fillers include the meat and fat from the same animal, as well as chestnuts, barley, almonds, pine nuts, raisins, onions and rice, bread, or potato. The French add cream and apples while the Brits add oatmeal. The French even host an annual international competition, Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin (Brotherhood of the Knights of Blood Sausage Tasting).
Depending upon which animal you have roaming through the back yard, the sausage can be made from the blood of bovine, duck, sheep, or goat. Most commonly the sausage in the Americas and Europe is crafted from the fresh or dried blood of pigs. As the sausage is fully cooked as it is prepared, it can be eaten cold, but more often it is boiled, grilled or fried in its casing.
While we made the sausage, the Pig Farmer’s tall, sullen girlfriend sliced thin rings of apples and cooked them in a good dollop of salted butter sprinkled with fresh thyme and grated nutmeg. With a scalpel-sharp Spanish knife, she sliced pinky-finger sized pieces of pork from the precious loin, each dressed with a tiny hat of white fat. She laid them in a black-hot cast iron skillet, the fat hissing and spitting. Cooked to pink, the seared meat first rested on small plates, and then was nestled into the small piles of apples and dusted with flaky Maldon salt.
Scents and flavors and memories ricocheted between my mouth and mind, filling me with both excitement and contentment. Gamey, rich, sweet and toothsome, there was not a door to my senses that was not pounded upon by that beast. At that precise moment, with both reverence and awe, I understood the direct, nourishing connection of that animal to our appetizer.
We broke for a supper of grilled steaks, two fingers thick and grass fed from cows roaming The Pig Farmer’s property. Long Romano beans the size of Cuban cigars were plucked from the garden and tossed with mint and good Piedmontese olive oil. The head, however, awaited our return.
I began to envy the decorating committee.
I stumbled home smelling of smoke, expensive wine, and the conviction that I want to know my dinner; its habitat, its history, its production. I raised a herd of Berkshires from piglets to a not so cuddly 300-pounds, rising before the sun each morning for their feeding. Weekly trips to a local cheesemaker ensured a supply of whey for their spring and summer diets, long before the acorns fell from the trees. With such loving care displayed to them during their lives, there was not a scrap of meat or bone that was wasted during the butchering, and I damn well better cook each cut with a highly considerate hand.
Learning to properly wield a shotgun, stone-sharpen a knife, clean a pheasant or white-tailed deer, raise a spicy radish or bitter chicory, and de-bone the halibut I reeled in allows me the ability to raise a fist against factory farming, to communicate with the cycles and seasons of nature, and with the unusual people who speak in the same, impassioned tongue. Knowing from where my food hails, honoring the beast or plant best by utilizing it in its entirety, feeding myself, and those fortunate enough to supper at my table is my practical salvation. It is in the quiet refuge of foraging that I’ve come to glimpse true peace and a gratitude for the richness of the world; and oddly, through hunting, a greater understanding of compassion and love. These experiences are my small, personal rebellions against a world of mass production and tainted foods.