Sausage Secrets

Discover Traditional Cumberland Sausage in the Fells and Dales Area of Cumbriacumb

Cumberland sausages have a strong regional association with Cumbria and have been a local speciality for around 500 years. The fat coiled ropes of sausage meat are a distinctive sight in many local butchers' windows, with each producer closely guarding their 'secret' recipe.

It is not known how the Cumberland sausage came to acquire its special shape and taste. Perhaps the coiled loops provided the only practical means of combining all the ingredients in a single skin. Another possibility is that they were 'invented' by the German miners who came to Cumbria during Elizabeth 1's reign as a reminder of the thick meaty sausages that the miners were used to eating in Germany.

Whatever the historical provenance of the Cumberland sausage, it soon became a well established feature on the household menu in Cumbria.

Historically, the sausage was more highly seasoned than it is today. This is largely attributed to the influx of exotic spices into Whitehaven during the 18th century when the town prospered as the third largest port in the country. During this time Cumbria was introduced to black pepper, ginger and nutmeg, as well as other foodstuffs such as sugar, molasses and rum. Many of these ingredients have been incorporated into some of Cumbria's local specialities, such as Grasmere Gingerbread and Cumberland Rum Nicky, as well as the spicy Cumberland Sausage.

Up until the 1950s, most farms and many households kept a pig or two as part of their regular husbandry and means of self-sufficiency. Towards the back end of the year, the pig would be killed (or 'butched') and then cured to give the meat its keeping qualities to over the winter period. Pig killing time was an important occasion and all members of the household and even some neighbours would take part in the event. Once the pig had been killed, it would then be hung for a day or two before being cut up. All parts of the pig would be used; the most perishable parts being eaten first (e.g. the offal) with the best cuts of meat often salted and cured for future consumption. The blood would be made into black pudding and the small cuts of meat would be formed into sausages, faggots, pies, etc. Even the intestines found a use - as casings for the sausage meat.

'We ate everything, except squeal. Apart from the head, the snout could be boiled, ears were put into t'brawn, and the tail helped to make a good broth.'

Over time a local variety of pig was bred that was suited to the cooler and wetter climate of Cumbria. It was known as the Cumberland pig - heavy with a thick layer of fat, an upturned snout and ears that flopped forwards. Its meat had a distinctive quality and flavour that was unique to the breed. Unfortunately, the last representative of the breed died at Bothel around 1960 and, with its demise, many of the older generation of farmers believe that real traditional Cumberland sausage would never be tasted again. But local producers are determined to prove them wrong.

cumbCumberland sausage is identified by its distinctive shape and texture. Most sausages are divided into links but the Cumberland sausage is one continuous rope-like coil that is sold by weight or length. The sausage is typically filled with coarsely chopped pork and black pepper, and sometimes other ingredients such as herbs and other spices. The meat content is high - occasionally up to 98% - but more usually there is at least 85% meat (a mixture of lean and fat) with the remainder being cereal or rusk (to act as a binding agent), spices and other flavourings.

The closely guarded recipes were passed down the generations and, today, many butchers still use recipes that date back a hundred years or more. Often when a shop moved premises, the recipe moved with it. When Peter Myers inherited a 100-year-old recipe from his father (a butcher in Keswick), he took it with him when he emigrated and now sells Cumberland sausage in his New York delicatessen, describing it as 'the best Cumberland sausage west of Allonby'.

The popularity of the Cumberland sausage has become so widespread in recent years that many large food producers started to mass-produce it and, in order to meet demand, sacrificed its original quality and taste. Some outlets are able to sell so-called Cumberland sausages with a meat content as low as 45%, containing emulsified rather than coarse-cut meat and being sold in thin links rather than thick continuous lengths.

The producers of genuine Cumberland sausage are increasingly concerned at this devaluation of their product, and action is being taken to protect the distinctive characteristics of the Cumberland sausage through European legislation. This would give the sausage protected status under the PGI (Protection of Geographical Indication) directive. If successful, this means that the sausage cannot be called traditional Cumberland sausage unless it meets certain criteria to do with its meat content, ingredients, processing and place of origin.

Many European foods now enjoy this protection: Parma ham (which was the first to gain protected status), French wines under the Appellation Contrôlée system and Normandy Cheeses. In the UK, Scotch Beef, Stilton Cheese and Jersey Royal Potatoes (among others) have all gained protected status, with others such as Melton Mowbray Pork Pies and Lakeland Herdwick Lamb in the process of seeking recognition.

The Cumberland Sausage is an obvious candidate for protection through this directive. It is linked to a distinct geographical region, has a strong historical legacy, and is still made today by local producers who have retained the knowledge and skills to make the product to a high standard. A number of producers of Cumberland sausage are working together to secure protection for their product.

Thanks to Leader + Made in Cumbria for above content

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