Exploring Europe through food: Meats & sausages
You have spent the better part of a day exploring and having a new European adventure. With your stomach growling, you sit down at a local restaurant and stare blankly at the menu. It is not in English, and while you can pick out a few items, most of the menu is completely unfamiliar. Don’t fret. Whether it is Saumagen in Germany or Jamón in Spain, Europe’s sausage and meat delicacies should not be missed, and shortly, you will be an expert. Let’s start exploring … and eating!
Bratwurst and Frankfurters are perhaps the most famous of German sausages, but did you realize that there are more than 1,200 versions of wursts? In Bavaria, you should try the Weisswurst. These white sausages are made with veal and a small amount of pork. They are mild in flavor and are traditionally boiled and served with sweet German mustard. A popular sausage at Oktoberfest, Bockwurst is another popular sausage in Bavaria, although it is available throughout the country. Parsley, cream and eggs are added to ground veal and pork, and the sausages are gently simmered. A strong mustard is an excellent accompaniment, along with a Bock beer.
Thüringer Rostbratwursts can only be made in the Thuringia region of the country. This sausage is distinctive not only because of its ingredients but also because of the cooking method. Made predominately from pork and beef, it is highly spiced. The sausages are cooked over a wood fire on a grill greased with bacon fat. To add even more flavor, Thüringen wursts are frequently basted with beer during the grilling process. The finished product is served on a cut roll with mustard.
Knacken is the German verb meaning “to crack.” Take a bite of Knackwurst — a short, thick sausage made with finely ground pork and garlic — and experience the snap or crack of the casing.
In the Pfalz region of Germany, once a poor man’s dish, Saumagen has been lifted to new flavor heights. Ages ago, butchers used leftover cuts for this regional delicacy. Today, it is made with lean pork meat, herbs, spices, bratwurst filling and diced potatoes. It is first boiled like a sausage, then sliced and pan fried. Sauerkraut and mashed potatoes are frequently served as accompaniments for a delicious and hearty meal.
Fifty miles from Madrid, Segovia is popular daytrip destination, not only for tourists, but for locals as well. While the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage destination, many head to Segovia for the Cochinillo Asado, suckling pig. Historically, in this region of the country, it was too dry to raise cattle or crops. Pig is king here, and Cochinillo Asado is a centuries-old tradition. A special breed is milk fed for no more than three weeks. The small pig is cooked whole in a special clay dish over an open fire. The resulting meat is very mild and very tender.
Spain is also known for jamón, cured ham. Jamón Ibérico hails from the Ibérico pigs, which are black. Its distinctive black hoof remains on the ham while curing and distinguishes it from another popular Spanish ham, Serrano. Because of its high fat content, Jamón Ibérico can be cured for a longer period of time, which increases the complexity of its flavor. For a true explosion of flavor, search for Jamón Ibérico de Bellota. These pigs spend much of their lives foraging on herbs, grasses and acorns. The resulting ham is dark and marbled with fat and a taste of acorns. Due to the diet of these pigs, the ham is also high in monounsaturated fats, which lower LDL and raise HDL — so it is good for you as well!
Prosciutto is the cured ham of Italy. There are two primary types of prosciutto: Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto San Daniele. Each hails from a specific region of the country. Parma ham is prosciutto from the region of Parma, which is also the home of Parmesan cheese. Pigs here feast on whey from cheese making, in addition to foraging for chestnuts. The result is a smooth, lightly salted flavor. North in the Friuli region is Prosciutto San Daniele. Its location provides a unique microclimate for curing, with winds coming from the Alps mingling with the sea breezes of the Adriatic to create a salty-sweet flavor.
Gascony, a region in the southwest of France, is the world’s largest producer of foie gras. Foie gras is synonymous with French cuisine and is a delicacy around the world. The fattened livers of ducks or geese are cooked on very low heat. The most popular and widely consumed form is terrines or pâtés, which are cooked over low heat and flavored with truffles, mushrooms and cognac. It is typically sliced, served at room temperature with toast and a sweet sauce, such as an onion confit.
Another popular dish from Gascony that is served throughout the country and beyond is Confit de Canard, duck confit. Duck legs and thighs are cooked and stored in their own fat. It is then allowed to cure for one day surrounded by garlic, thyme and nutmeg. This preserves the meat, which was vital before refrigeration was invented. When ready to consume, the legs are pulled from the fat and cooked briefly to crisp the skin. The duck is served with thinly sliced potatoes fried in duck fat and a hearty red wine from the region.
While Europe has many cultural sites to explore, do not miss the opportunity for an exceptional culinary adventure as well. Bon Appetit!