Wednesday, 18 September 2013

A Butcher, Two Bloggers, and 300 Sausages!

I have just come back from the most amazing day out at Harper Adams University where I have been hugely privileged to have undertaken possibly my most inspiring role to date - that of 2013 VIP Taster for this year's British Sausage Awards.

"Let's get stuck in!" -
"No Jason, they have to be cooked first!"

That may sound like an exaggeration to those who don't know me well, but long term readers, friends, past business colleagues and employees who work on the deli counter in Sainsbury's will know only too well my love of all things pork related.

It is highly appropriate then that this coveted role should come to me through the Love Pork facebook page, a page whose title needs no further explanation - but please check it out. Myself and 85,000+ others can't be wrong.

So - what actually happened today? Well I arrived this morning at Harper Adams in Shropshire to be ushered into a large conference room where approximately twenty people were seated in groups of two's and three's around the table. There were a combination of people here, students from the University, many wives of pig farmers who have their own association and various journalists, PR people and others involved in the event. I was given a warm welcome from Aarti from the Good Relations team who introduced me to Keith Fisher, Master Butcher, and Laura Liberty, food writer and fellow blogger, known as "Foodie Laura". Laura was to be my tasting partner for the day.

I instantly felt at home in the company of these very welcoming and nice people. Keith is a very experienced butcher who has been doing this for "more years than he can remember" as he described it. He explained to us how the process would work.

Me with Keith Fisher, Master Butcher
During the day we would have 300 sausages to try. 300! Even I, with all my well documented gluttonous exploits behind me found this prospect daunting! However, he went on to explain that we would not actually be required to eat 300 sausages. There were around 10 teams in the room so they would be split between us and we would examine and taste them as they come. So, doing the maths, I guess this meant that over the course of the day, I would be trying about 30 sausages.

So how did all of this work? Well the 300 sausages were all kept in a large storage area, sealed under lock and key and heavily guarded overnight from would be sausage saboteurs. The kitchens would then take several packs of sausages in turn, cook one from each pack and then wrap it in foil (so we could not see it) and send it back in to the room along with the uncooked sausages. It would be then up to us to examine the uncooked sausage first, followed by the unveiling of the cooked one. It goes without saying that strict hygiene practices were applied throughout to keep the two separate, and of course with different coloured utensils for handling them.

The sausages, in the top security holding area, awaiting cooking.

Each sausage would be marked out of 100, with overall scores in most cases being over 90, as they could only lose marks for certain defects. They then would be categorized as either Gold (95%+), Silver (90%+) or Bronze (85%+). The uncooked varieties were assessed on five categories:

Appearance: Nearly all scored very highly in this category. We were to deduct marks for any that appeared dry, faded or pale, but all were presented in an excellent condition.

Consistent size: Quite a few fell down in the category. It is expected that all the raw sausages should be of similar size in the Foodservice industry. For example, if you went out for a meal with your partner and ordered a mixed grill and your sausage was significantly shorter than theirs, you might feel peeved. I know I would. Not that it would be a problem in my case because I would just distract Claire in some way and do a quick swap while she wasn't looking.

Filling: Some sausages can be poorly filled - if they don't fill out the skin properly they can be floppy, it can also create air pockets which can cause them to split.

Internal Faults: This includes things such as the ends not being sealed off properly or containing lumps of hard fat or gristle, thankfully we only found one like this.

Texture: Not too hard or too mushy with ingredients distributed evenly. For example if it was marketed as having a specific ingredient, it should be reasonably distributed throughout the sausage.

In order to judge the last two categories efficiently, we cut open each sausage lengthways.

Cooked and raw, side by side for comparison
Once the raw sausage analysis was complete, it was time to unveil the cooked product. This would again be judged in five categories:

Appearance: Similar to the above really and I have to say once again, virtually every one that we had looked really appetising.

Shrinkage: An area where quality varied quite considerably - obviously there is always going to be some small amount of shrinkage due to the nature of the product, but excessive shrinkage would require some marking down.

Splitting: A big no-no in the sausage world, splits across are bad, and lengthways even worse. These would often be a result of problems we had already highlighted in the raw sausages.

When sausages go wrong - this one shrank and split quite badly,
possibly due to its compact shape. It still tasted nice though.
Texture: Not too smooth but not too crumbly either, and you should be able to slice them cleanly without them disintegrating.

Taste & Smell: The fun bit! We had a huge variety of flavours. Obviously I cannot go into specifics for reasons of confidentiality but various fruits, cheeses, herbs and spices were used for sausages in the Speciality category. There are a few different categories within which sausages can be entered. We would have a slice or two of each sausage, more if we really liked them! Which we did - a lot!

Clearly a lot of love and care had gone into preparing these sausages and we had a number that came with written testimonies about how these sausages were the best in the town, famous in the local area, that sort of thing. I have to say that in the vast majority of cases we could not disagree. Some of these truly were amazing and I have a few favourites I could mention, but I shall wait until after the awards have been given out in November.

I found I got on very well with Laura and we were able to pick up the process very quickly and pretty much reached a good consensus of opinion on each one. Laura loves food as much as I do it seems and has her own blog, facebook page and website dedicated to all things food related. Her involvement in today's events also came through Love Pork for whom she holds the highly privileged position of "Hambassador", a brilliant title in itself, and something which I have great aspirations towards becoming myself. I think through my books and blog I have already been somewhat of an unofficial Hambassador for some time. I just happened to have a copy of Austerity Dad with me (as you do when you are a writer, any opportunity to show it to someone influential is taken), and showed her the chapter on my Ultimate Honey Roast Ham recipe which seemed to impress.

Laura and I, with of course, the sausages.
We were joined by Claire before lunch who eagerly joined in with our little group and continued the tasting until we broke for lunch which I am sure you will be relieved to hear was not sausages, but a collation of excellent breads, fruits and cheeses.

Before the tasting continued for the afternoon we posed for a photo shoot. I don't have these photos to hand yet, but Claire took some with the phone in addition to the ones I had taken earlier and these are the pictures you can see throughout the blog.

Sampling the wares.
We continued on until mid afternoon when all 300 sausages had finally been judged and made our farewells and headed back to the hotel. We really did have a lovely day and met some fantastic people and I really do hope to get the opportunity to participate and write about more such events in the future. The actual awards ceremony is taking place in November and I am hoping that today went sufficiently well that I may get an invite for that and see some of the butchers receiving the rewards for all their efforts in creating these fantastic sausages we have been enjoying today.

As a final thank-you we were given a bag containing our aprons, badges, and a small plastic pink pig which remarkably and coincidentally looks almost identical to the one on the cover of my most recent book, Austerity Dad! Perhaps when I published it and chose that photo to adorn the cover I subconsciously had a premonition of today's event.

I hope you enjoyed the blog, sausage lovers, and if I do get to visit the awards ceremony in November, you will be able to read all about that here too. And you can of course read lots more food anecdotes in my two previously published books, the links to which can be found here:

Fortysomething Father
Austerity Dad



  1. What a great overview, many thanks Jason it was good to meet you and we're glad you had an enjoyable day with the BSW team.

  2. Thank-you Claire, and thank-you for making me feel so welcome. I hope to see you again at future events.


  3. You won the sausage lottery! Welcome to the awesome World of quality meat! I stumbled into that beautiful World about 12 years ago when I became an accidental sausage expert and ended up touring the country to try and find the ultimate British sausage!

    It would be really great to interview you for and do a podcast for if there was chance. I will be at the British Sausage Week launch if you are around?

    1. Hi Sausage King! Good title! Yes, I am hoping to be at the launch and I am sure we can set up some interviews, either then or beforehand.

    2. Yes it's an amazing nickname isn't it! The press thrust it upon me about 3-4 years after I started and I can't really complain! :-)

      Just read that you might do some stuff with Max Mason. He does some good work so I recommend it if you can!

      Hopefully see you on the 1st November.


    3. any advice as i want to start my homemade sausage production (small scale).

    4. Have a look on Amazon - if you type "Sausage Maker" into the search box it brings up a few machines you can buy and a book. Good place to start. There are plenty of sausage related sites on the web too.

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  5. We held our wedding here and I can only rave about it. It's a beautiful place for a city wedding (or any big event for that matter), with a nice area where your guests can relax and enjoy the views.