Wednesday, April 22, 2009

That sausage tastes like ... a word used for donkeys

Ok, so again, in the spirit of not offending the sensibilities of some people who might read this blog (although, at the same time probably deeply offending any sailors who read it ... are there any?) I have not used that other word for donkey in the title of the post. I do use it later, though. I couldn't resist.

Beyond salami, saucissons secs, or "dry sausages", aren't so widespread in the States. But I love them. So even as someone who can easily live without meat, when market stands have piles of (unrefrigerated) meat in the form of saucisson sec, I think about buying one, or two ... or as I did recently, three (three for the price of two -- what non-vegetarian can pass that up?).

So what makes saucisson sec so great? Well, it's all about the process.

Some friends of ours here have (twice now) bought a pig with some other friends, had it slaughtered, and then used all the meat for various things from pâté to pork chops to saucisson sec. They told us that part of what differentiates saucisson sec from saucisse, or "sausage", which is destined to be eaten cooked, is the cut of meat you use. Saucisse can apparently be anything (hot dogs anyone?) but saucisson sec can only be made with choicer parts of the animal because there has to be the right amount of meat and fat so that it's flavorful and not too dry after the fermentation and curing process.

Yeah, I did say "fermentation". So if you didn't know that salami was fermented, you do now. And you should be glad it was.

Saucisson sec is made by chopping up the meat, adding flavorings of various kinds (e.g., garlic, spices, cheese, fruit), sugar, salt and optional bacterial cultures, and then putting it in its casing. The casing gets tied off and then the fermentation and drying begin. Over the next week or weeks (depending on size), the smell, color, texture and flavor of the saucisson develop thanks to the natural metabolic processes of the bacteria. The bacteria also provide a service: the good stuff proliferates and its lactic acid waste coagulates the meat and makes the saucisson an undesirable environment for bad bacteria. And that's why fermented meat is sometimes better. Also during this time, a coating of natural mold may develop on the outside of the saucisson. Again, this is a good thing because it contributes to the flavor and protects the meat and keeps the fat from turning rancid, as it would if exposed to light. Sometimes the mold gets washed off and the saucisson sec is rolled in flour to the same end.

And here's the final product up close:

From left to right, saucisson sec à la fenouil (fennel), à l'âne (donkey) and aux herbes de provence. The fennel and herbes de provence are made from pork but that one in the middle is made from donkey.

So when I saw all those saucissons secs at the market calling my name, I hadn't intended to buy the donkey. In fact, as I approached the stand, I was trying to decide which kinds I would ask to taste (because I didn't think I should ask to try all 12 or 15 flavors they had) and when I saw the label for the donkey sausages I thought, "well that's one I won't have to be curious about". However, when I asked to taste the blueberry, the sausage lady began cutting little samples of other ones for me to try -- like donkey.

And in this case, tasting like ass is a good thing. It has a really nice flavor, but not one that makes it stands out as a particular kind of meat -- at least not in saucisson sec. Maybe filet de l'âne would be different. It's also really lean. Here's a picture of the saucissons cut open (same order left to right) ...

Note the higher ratio of red (meat) to white (fat) in the donkey sausage as compared to the other two.

So why the photo of saucisson sec on a rock? Well, they're a great food item to take hiking. Because of their curing and drying process, you can keep them for months at room temperature and they hold up really well on a hike -- no getting mashed up or melty like some kinds of cheese. I wouldn't actually recommend keeping them in the sun, but wrapped in butcher paper on the counter works great. And then they can come out for a little while to get their picture taken before you eat them.

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