On a visit to southwest France some Junes ago, I found my all time favorite sausage: Say the word once and you’ll see: Merguez. It’ll coat a guileless mouth in Moorish mystery and unctuous intrigue.
We stayed with our good friend Martine, who returned to her native France after a 30 year stint in London. Her house sits in a tiny village an hour’s drive from Toulouse. It’s an ancient stone structure with interior walls constructed of rough-hewn wood, river sand and horse’s hair. We were there for her daughter Aisling’s wedding and the house was filled with famished folks from England and France for days upon days. Such is life in the southwest.
The butchers all stocked merguez. Embraced with open mouths by the local cuisine, you’ll find them stacked alongside traditional Toulouse sausages stuffed with pork and bacon. There were others too — a particularly plump and affable one, translucent and crammed with roughly chopped combinations of offal.
But the merguez stood out from the crowd: tall, dark, slender with a seductive allure, and an oozing — when met by a fire of grape-vine trimmings from the local Gaillac vines — of dripping fat colored by paprika and spicy harissa.
Born in Tunisia, the merguez migrated north through the ages, up through Arab Andalusia, and came to settle in South West France. Containing no pork, they’re made exclusively from lamb and sometimes beef, and seasoned with a heavy dose of cumin, paprika and cayenne.
Growing up in Dublin we ate only two kinds of sausage: a mass-produced pork breakfast link seasoned with, I don’t know exactly what — it may well be a state secret — but I know they added bread as a filler like classic English sausages. We ate them for breakfast, or as leftovers eaten cold on family picnics, sliced lengthways, in a white bread and butter sandwich with mustard and a flask of hot tea to wash them down, more often than not in the steamy back seat of the Vauxhall with the rain lashing down outside.
The other was black pudding, a delightful concoction of fresh pig’s blood thickened with oats, fried, and eaten also for breakfast. Sometimes we’d have white pudding along with the black. It’s basically the same but lacking in blood. I’ll take the black over white any day except Sundays when we had both along with the breakfast sausage and fried eggs, mushrooms, tomato and bread fried to crispness in bacon fat. Such was life in Ireland.
At the tender age of 16, my world exploded when my cousin, Conn and I fled the fair city of our childhood and bummed around Europe for six weeks surviving on meager funds, wits, and four thumbs between us. Hitchhiking through France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany, we encountered sausages like never before. Short, long, thin, black — and white pinkish fat ones bursting out of their skins like the German motorcycle cop who harassed us with child-like fits and screams for hitchhiking on the Autobahn.
Of course we could never afford to buy these beauties. Our diet was one of bread, often day old, softened with bottled water and fruit. An occasional piece of cheese. For variety we’d scavenge leftovers from sympathetic American hippies in camp sites and youth hostels.
A few times, we rested on pavements in towns and villages along the way, backs against our packs, in front of butcher shops, just to stimulate the imagination. These stops were brief as we were encouraged by threatening butchers in blood stained aprons to move on.
But as luck would have it, fortune looked our way, as we caught a ride near Stuttgart from a large and jovial German in a silent leather clad Mercedes, a far cry from our family Vauxall Victor.
Shortly into the ride, it became apparent that our host was nothing, if not gravely concerned about our weight or lack thereof. In fact he saw it as his moral and patriotic duty to insist on our coming home to his farm where his wife, he assured us, would fatten us like pigs.
We slept in a straw loft above the horses. One night I woke in alarm to my feet being chewed by one of the two residents. I shook my foot free and saw that the bastard gelding had chewed a sizable hole through my hard-earned bag.
For breakfast the jolly woman fed us cold meats, cheeses, salty breads, jam, fruit, mugs of milk and coffee.
Lunch was the main affair and always the same. A pot of boiled, salted and lightly vinegared cabbage, a mound of potatoes, a platter of poached sausages and splashings of mustard. We felt right at home.
At our host’s insistence, we stayed for two weeks happily gorging on his wife’s fat sausages. We polished off eighty-four meals and about eighty-four sausages between us, but we never gained an ounce — visably saddened, he ruefully showed us the door, which was fine by us as Amsterdam was calling — it was the summer of 1969 — but that’s another story.
This story, as I recall, is about Merguez, and it was inspired by a recipe written by David Tanis in the New York Times. The spice amounts (perhaps with New Yorkers in mind?) seemed a little tame to my tongue. So I doubled them and it worked out nicely, but they didn’t have enough fat compared to the ones we’d eaten in and around Toulouse, so the next time I added a couple of spoons of harissa to the mix and that seemed to do the trick. The added fat brought back the ooze and the unction of dripping fat. The drawback is they can flame up on a grill and that’s the last thing you want: organise your grill into hot and cool space and move the sausages around. Or if that’s too much trouble, like most things in life they’re pretty tasty fried up in a skillet too.
Recipe adapted from David Tanis, of The New York Times.
We ate ours with a few grilled vegetables dressed with olive oil and,
a plate of hummus topped with roasted pumpkin seeds, cherry tomatoes, cilantro and,
a plate of stuffed grape leaves.
2 pounds of ground lamb
6 large garlic cloves, mashed
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground
6 all spice berries ground
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
4 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon of harissa paste (See recipe from February, 2017, on this blog.)
Put the lamb in a bowl and add everything else. Mix it up with your hands. Refrigerate overnight. Form into oval patties and grill on a moderately hot fire.
Next time you make it adjust the spices to your liking. If you want it smokier omit the sweet paprika and double the smoked. Adding more harissa will give it a redder color and richer flavor, but verge on vigilance— for the fire may flare with flame.