Category - General

The Italian Sausage Story

When I opened the butcher shop six years ago, I really wanted to make sausages. I was making some at a restaurant I was working at, and loved combining different seasonings for new and interesting links. This mentality is how recipes like the Cheeseburger Sausage, Lamb and Wild Leek Sausage, and Maple Syrup and Chinese Five Spice Sausages were born. Some flavours weren’t quite the hot sellers (where did you go Deli and Mustard Sausage?), but they were always fun to make. As we grew though, I realized I had to make some of the more conventional flavours as well; sausages people are used to buying at other stores. And the one people asked for the most whenever they came into the shop was the Italian.

The idea of an “Italian” Sausage kind of bothered me though. Back in the old days of the shop, I was snobbier than I am now. I had worked in Italy and spent much of my culinary career working in Italian restaurants, and to just choose one style of sausage and call it “Italian” seemed to be disrespectful to the regional diversity of that nation’s charcuterie. So we made a Pork Sausage with Chili, Garlic and Toasted Fennel. I thought this was a good compromise, but soon I realized that just confused a lot of customers. Every time someone would ask for an Italian Sausage I had to explain the reasoning, and after a year or so I finally conceded. Sanagan’s Italian Sausage was born. Soon after that we decided to make a spicier version using double the chilies. We consistently sold out of both types, and now it is a butchery crime to not have one available at all times.

A couple of years later, after we moved into the larger store, I met a guy named Sohaib who owned a spice importing company. He had a family-run spice farm back in India that used to supply many of the big spice companies, and he had a vision to go to the retailer direct with his spices. The benefit of this, other than the cost savings, was that we could get our hands on the freshest spices available. We started using fennel seeds, peppercorns, and chilies the flavour of which I have never tasted! They were so potent and fragrant! I was in love with this stuff, so we immediately changed our spice-buying program to almost exclusively Sohaib’s stuff. Now I made an error during this change over. All of our sausage recipes are in an Excel spreadsheet that ratios out the ingredient list by weight depending on how much ground meat we start with. After switching to Sohaib’s spices I failed to adapt the recipe to use less chili in our Mild Italian Sausage, and because of the strength of the chilies we’ve been selling “mild” Sausages that were actually quite hot. Not a big deal if you don’t mind the heat, but not great for sensitive mouths, especially children’s. I received a lot of complaints recently about this, and we decided to do something about it.

We are going to try to modify our recipe. We’re going to start making our Mild Italian Sausage without any chili at all, so basically just garlic and toasted fennel seed. We are going to run it like this for a while, and we ask for customer feedback.  We will still carry the Hot Italian for those who like the heat, but going forward I want to see if we can appeal to more mouths with a toned down version as well. Keep in mind it will still have the big flavour we are known for, just without the burning tongue. And, as always, we will be creating new flavours as well, to keep our mind and tongues fresh and exciting. Because otherwise, what's the point???

Me, Murray, and The Royal (or why you should spend your money in your backyard)

Lisa was my Head Butcher for a year. She proved herself worthy of this role after working hard for us at the little shop, being awesome with customers, learning a ton, and hustling her butt off. Originally from the Guelph area, she left to go work on a farm for a season in between jobs with me, and it was during that time where she really went to school, learning what it takes to raise hogs and keep a sustainable farm working. She also learned a great new word, one that she applied to me (in good fun) one day when I was teasing her about being from the country.

Cidiot.

This portmanteau of city and idiot had me laughing then, but recently I realized that city-folk actually live up to that name from time to time. I have many friends and family who live outside of Toronto in small communities, but I am through and through a Torontonian. I wear corduroy jackets with leather patches on my shoulders. I will spend $15 on a cocktail. I like brunch (although to be fair I don’t go out for it that much anymore). I am a stereotypical cidiot, but I support farmers with my shop and my food, so I like to think they accept me. I really felt this last week when I was at the Royal.

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is an annual event held on the Exhibition grounds since 1922. It was started as a way to help improve all domestic animal breeds and establish national judging standards for breeders throughout Ontario. The Royal is a huge event that combines horse shows, specialty foods from all over the province, and of course the agricultural competitions. One of my suppliers and friend Greg Nolan of Artisan Farms invited me to the Queen’s Guineas, which is a exhibition geared towards young competitors from their local 4-H. Young farmers from all over Ontario show off the steers they’ve been raising with care since birth, hoping to win the title of Grand Champion. Along with the prestige of the title and a cash reward, the exhibitors then get to auction off their animals to the highest bidder. The champions sell for quite a bit over market value, but it is an opportunity for the buyers to directly support the local industry as well as the next generation of farmers. The buyers are usually the larger meat packers, the guys who have been involved with the community for decades. And then this cidiot stepped in the ring.

I didn’t know what I was doing at all, so I started to do what I always do in that situation – keep to myself and act like I’ve done this a million times. Then Greg bought me a beer and introduced me to a couple of people. I asked him what the average price is per pound for the live animals. He said it depends, but that usually he tries to keep the bidding going by placing false bids. He does this to ignite the buyers, but it sometimes doesn’t work. He usually buys a lot of beef every year. One woman he introduced me to thanked him for supporting the show, because (in her words) “god knows no one else effing supports us”. She didn’t actually say “effing”, but the much stronger word, which made me ask her what she meant. She feels, like many others, that the agricultural community is talked about in Toronto by chefs, restaurateurs, foodies, and whatnot as being “vital” to the community but at the end of the day people are still not putting their money where their mouths are. Beef from PEI, Alberta, and the States still dominate our markets and fruit and vegetables from Central and South America sell way more than local produce. “It’s a joke”, she finished.

That fired me up. That and half a beer (I’m a bit of a light-weight these days). So I was determined to buy an animal. I stood at the back of the live auction. The first animal they brought out was the Grand Champion. “Last Chance”, raised by Sylvia Megens, was a beautiful animal; all fluffed hide aided by a sprinkling of glitter, and was swiftly purchased after a flurry of bids. I knew I couldn’t afford Last Chance, but I was willing to try for the Reserve Champion. Here is what I learned about bidding in a live auction.

   1. Know your limit before you start. I didn’t.

   2. Don’t start nodding your head as a way to accept a higher bid. I did and realized that shaking my head        “no” looked the same, as in “no way, Meghan’s going to kill me when she sees what I’ve done with the          company credit card.” The bid went up.

   3. When they ask you whom you’re buying for, don’t say your first name. It doesn’t mean anything to              them. They’re just asking for a company name.

   4. When everyone is looking at who thinking “who the cuss is this guy?”, just look straight ahead and                shake the farmer’s hand. Avoid stepping in cow shit.

   5. When you tell your wife/business partner how much you spent, maybe wait until she’s asleep. It                  would have gone over better.

So what ended up happening is I purchased the Queen’s Guineas Reserve Champion at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair from (16 year old) Jarrett Hargraves of Proton Station. Murray is a gorgeous animal, and I can’t wait to get him into the shop. We will be dry ageing the loins in time for Christmas, and everything else will be sold at slightly –more-than-market value. He is a Reserve Champion after all.

The moral of the story is to support your farmers. Go to the Fair. Ask questions. Meet people who have been working since they were eight years old (while you were playing Super Mario). But most importantly spend money. You don’t want to be known as a cidiot forever.