If you take a second to think about it, sausage is a weird idea. The offal of one animal (or several) is combined with the fat and blood from another, which is then forced into the innards of, possibly, yet another. A bit gory, I’ll admit, but sausage has for ages been an wonderfully resourceful way to make use of less desirable parts. After stewing the shanks, roasting the ribs, and serving up the other choice cuts, a great deal of animal is still left over. The solution to this universal problem took the shape of a dish that’s equally universal: sausage.
In cultures and cuisines all around the world nowadays, people eat different kinds of sausage. In China, there’s lap cheong, made with dashes of a sort of sorghum liquor. For the Turks, it’s a peppery type called sucuk, and from Iberia comes chorizo, traditionally seasoned with paprika. And thanks to literature and historical records, we are able to get a sense of some of the sausages of yore—a list every bit as appetizing.
The earliest extant account of sausage I could find comes from the Mesopotamians. A tablet in Yale University’s Babylonian collection, translated by historian Jean Bottéro, mentions goat intestines stuffed with meat, and it dates to nearly 4,000 years ago!
Likewise ancient Greeks made sausages from goat blood and fat, a treat referenced by Homer around the 8th century BC in the Odyssey. After returning home from a decade at sea, Odysseus has to rid his palace of a gang of nasty, loutish suitors. He gets into a spat with an especially greedy man named Irus. Before the two turn to fisticuffs, one of the suitors puts forth these savory stakes:
Listen, bold suitors, so that I may say something. These bellies of she-goats, which we laid at the fire for dinner, are filled with the savor of meat and blood. Now whichever of the two wins and proves himself more powerful, let him rise and take which of these he should want for himself.
The Romans picked up where the Greeks left off, continuing this sausage tradition albeit farther to the west. And the variety of sausages recorded by ancient writers explodes during this time.
Juvenal, for example, describes a kind of pork sausage called tomaculus (Satires X). Petronius also writes of tomaculus while detailing the lavish feasting in his Satyricon, and tells of a blood pudding-like treat called botulus (preserved in our modern word “botulism,” an ugly sickness that was first noted to come from sausages). A fatty and especially savory type, we learn from the satirist Persius, was known as tuccetum (Saturae). Interesting, isn’t it, that all three of these sources are satires? Works of literature that jabbed at richness and excess are now themselves truly lavish to the modern reader—a treasure trove of dishes that would have otherwise been forgotten.
Many of the references to sausages come only in passing; a writer may drop in one of these names without much useful explanation. Sometimes the name, though, can speak for itself. The word faliscus is thought to refer to a sort of haggis or large sausage, per the writings of Varro. Its name reveals something else: this dish came from the land of the Falisci, an Italic tribe that lived due north of the Latins.
Another type of sausage, lucanica, offers up a hint in the same way. The poet Martial penned a short verse about it in his Epigrams:
Daughter of a Picenian pig, I come from Lucania; by me a grateful garnish is given to snow-white pottage.
(As an aside, Martial’s writings deal even more with ancient food than just this: I’m working to recreate a dinner menu he described.)
From this line, we can learn several things about this type of sausage. It was made with pork, and Martial, at least, ate it over porridge. And as its name would confirm, it’s said to come from Lucania.
Corresponding to modern Basilicata, ancient Lucania lay on the instep of Italy, between the heel and the toe—Apulia and Calabria. The people who lived there in ancient times, the Lucani, spoke the Oscan language. Though Oscan is closely related to Latin, the growing republic paid no heed to linguistic kinship and gobbled up nearly every trace of what was the Lucanian identity. What didn’t help the Lucani was that they allied closely with Pyrrhus of Epirus and Hannibal of Carthage, so once Rome dispatched those two they knew just who to go after next.
The local sausage, however, has stood the test of time, in a way even outlasting the Romans. Versions of the ancient lucanica live on as luganega in modern Italian cuisine, and as linguiça in Brazil and loukaniko in Greece—all smoked, seasoned pork sausages. Even better, the classical recipe for lucanica still exists, preserved in the hefty late-Roman cookbook Apicius. Here it is, in the original Latin and in English:
Lucanicae. Teritur piper, cuminum, satureia, ruta, petroselinum, condimentum bacae lauri, liquamen, et admiscetur pulpa bene tunsa, ita ut denuo bene cum ipso subtrito fricetur. Cum liquamine admixto, pipere integro et abundanti pinguedine et nucleis inicies in intestinum perquam tenuatim productum, et sic ad fumum suspenditur.
Lucanicae: grind pepper, cumin, savory, rue, parsley, bay laurel seasoning, liquamen, and mix well-minced meat, so that again it will absorb the spices well. Mixed with liquamen, whole pepper, and an abundance of fat and pine nuts, fill the sausage casing carefully, then hang it over the smoke.
Now we have a recipe to run with, but something has to go on the sausage, of course. Luckily for us, two millennia back, Roman cooks had already devised the best condiment to pair with sausage.
We’re able to find several recipes for mustard in the historical record. The one I’ve recreated comes from the fourth-century-AD agricultural writer Rutilius Taurus Aemilianus Palladius (known more succinctly as Palladius), so it would have been written down slightly before the time Apicius was compiled.
Senapis semen ad modam sextarii unius et semis redigere curabis in puluerem, cui mellis pondo quinque, olei hispani unam libram, aceti acris unum sextarium miscebis et tritis omnibus diligenter uteris.
Grind one sextarius of mustard seed with five pounds of honey and one of Spanish oil, diluting with one sextarius of strong vinegar. Carefully grind everything together and use.
A sextarius is a Roman unit of volume. Ancient measuring vessels often varied in size, but a sextarius is somewhere between 500 and 600 mL, or just larger than a pint. The formula as-is makes a boatload of mustard—a pint of mustard seed is plenty more than the average cook would need—so I sized everything down while keeping the original proportions.
For five sausages:
1 lb of pork
1 tsp of cumin seeds
1 tsp of peppercorns, plus 2 tsp
1 tsp of laurel berries
2 tsp of salt
A pinch of curing salt (sold as Prague powder or Instacure 1)
5-6 sprigs of thyme
8-10 sprigs of parsley
2 tbsp of liquamen
1/4 cup of pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 oz of lard
Sausage casing (hog or sheep intestines or collagen—mine were about 1 1/8 inches wide)
For the mustard:
2 tbsp of mustard seeds
1/4 cup of honey
2 tbsp of olive oil
2 tbsp of red wine vinegar
Before making these sausages, give the casings a water bath for about half an hour. This rinses out any preservative salt and makes them a little less likely to rip. To keep everything clean and safe, and to make mixing easier, keep the meat and lard cold for as long as possible. Close to freezing is about right. And to ensure that cold smoking works for the sausages (see more below) it’s important to make these on a cool day.
Start by grinding the cumin, peppercorns, laurel berries, thyme, and parsley in a mortar. Add these spices to a large bowl with the pork, salt, curing salt (not too much, since a little goes a long way), pine nuts, and liquamen. Mix until it all forms a paste—your hands will probably start to cramp.
Wet the casings and slip an appropriate length, around four feet, over the end of a long funnel. Or if you’re lucky enough to have a sausage maker, this will help greatly. Tie the far end of the casing, then begin to feed in the pork mixture. Measure out about six inches of the stuffed sausage and pinch both ends, then twist this link so it ties itself off. I had a tough go of it for some and had to use a little twine to help. Continue so that you have five good-sized links. If you find any air bubbles, prick these with a knife.
Now for the smoking. I had to improvise a bit, and if you haven’t got a focus in your home, you might have to avail yourself of this too. I made do with a gas grill. On one side I threw down the sausages, and on the other I set down a metal pan filled with wood chips.
I was able to find a sack of wood chips at my local outfitter, which stocks a decent selection of grill supplies. This worked out well, but I did have to take some care when choosing which wood to buy. Pecan and mesquite, though flavorful smoking woods, aren’t native European trees. For the most accurate preparation, I would have to opt for an appropriate Old World species—I went with apple, a tree that has long grown in Italy. Other strong candidates for smoking woods include oak, cherry, or beech.
Under this pan, turn on the heat so that the wood chips start to smoke. Close the lid of the grill and leave the sausages for about four hours, checking and turning them occasionally.
In the meantime, add the mustard seeds, honey, and olive oil to a mortar. Begin grinding them together, and slowly pour in the vinegar. The mustard should take on a coarse, grainy consistency.
Once the sausages have smoked adequately, it’s time to cook them through. Either frying or grilling works; I picked the latter. Give them a few minutes over the fire and ecce!
These sausages are strong and savory, with a hint of bitterness from the laurel berries and heat from cumin. I’ve got to say, though, that the mustard makes all the difference. But no matter how you choose to try your lucanicae, whether over a steaming bowl of Roman porridge like Martial or in a hot dog bun, take a second to think about this dish stuffed with tastily seasoned pork and with a long history of thriftiness.