I've never met a sausage I didn't like - even those fundraising barbecues of burnt semi-meat snarlers outside the big box stores will get my $2.
Someone must have heard my prayers, because in the past three years I've worked my way through dozens of the country's best sausages, judging at the annual Devro New Zealand Sausage competition, run by Retail Meat NZ. I've now got the t-shirt (and the trucker hat) to prove I know my sausies.
But the judging is not lolling about beside the barbie, shooting the breeze: this is serious business, as a win is an immense fillip to butcheries' businesses. Judges are expected to provide good enough feedback to the butchers to allow them to tweak their product and produce the best banger for their customers. It's all very scientific. The judging teams of four, have two folks judging technical stuff (those are the real butchers, who know how to make the sausages) and two of us on aesthetics (food writers, chefs, the people who buy and use the sausages). This year, after years of apprenticing in the wilderness of pre-cooked and barbecue sausies (how did they know I was the $2 girl?) I'd worked my way up to the coveted Continental Fresh category. That's the glory of Spain, Italy, South Africa, France - merguez, chorizo, bratwurst, Toulouse, a large round up of boerewors and even some Polish specialties. Sadly we're not allow to sully out taste buds with coffee, but the fruit platter for lunch was a welcome relief.
We had 30 sausages to get through in a few hours, with technical judge Ivan Mansell and Gerry Hogan, and fellow aesthetic judge Del Griffin. All these guys have been in the trade, Ivan is a bit of a poster boy for the new generation of artisans - his Clarks Butchery of Glen Eden delivers its organic and free range meat and charcuterie all over the country (he's also a bit of a fashion hunk, see our Viva profile) - while the others are old industry hands, tutoring and mentoring the trade.
Judging the sausages.
They know their stuff - the fine differences between fat and gristle, the smoothness of the grind, the hairiness (yes, really) of the casings. They could even taste when there was nitrate or not, estimating the fat percentage (10 per cent is good, but if it's well done, even up to 20 per cent is just fine) and even guessed who had made some of the sausages we were judging (apparently, butchers have their distinct styles). Helpfully they could also guess how much each sample might be retailing for - clearly a buyer of a $20 - 25 a kilo is going to have higher expectations than for the $10 a kilo bangers.
Along the way we exchanged recipe tips - Ivan's gumbo had me longing to live in New Orleans - and the guys assessed the state of the industry, giving me great tips for the best butcheries around. After years of standardised supermarket meat, they're all excited about the next generation of artisan butchers who are creating their own charcuterie, smoking hams with no additives, dealing directly with careful farmers. All the while we were sniffing and poking and prodding the raw sausages before they were whisked away and fried up for us. A lovely fresh aroma is a good start on the raw beast, not floating in fat starts the cooked tastings off well. In previous years I've over-dosed on spongy emulsified bangers, but this year I was in heaven, chowing through the smokey, the spicy, the herby.
Head judge, Kerry Tyack.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. There was some spitting over a particularly terrible 'chorizo" (basically a rubbery pre-cooked snarler loaded with chilli) but we all went into raptures about an astoundingly good Cajun-style Andouille and a Toulouse. We're judging blind, but turns out that this beauty, from Mangawhai Meat Shop won a gold. After sampling 10 boerewors I kind of got the hang of this South African favourite - Nelson's New World got the gold. Apparently they need to be cooked in the round to retain their moisture, if they're broken up and cooked like a regular banger they go tough. Westmere Butchery took a gold for their Italian Bandiera as well as the 2014 People's Choice for their peri peri chicken sausage. The guys particularly loved a 'happy' bratwurst, but there were too many other goodies for it to score a medal.
Appropriately, prizegiving was a waterside barbecue today for all the medal-winning butchers. Final judging, where the 22 gold medal winners from the 11 categories (there are traditional beef, poultry and pork, saveloys, gourmet and more) are tasted one more time, awarded the Supreme Award Allenton's of Ashburton for his beef and blue cheese. Butcher Paddy Kennedy was mum about how he got such a lovely even spread of the cheese through the sausage meat, but was prepared to disclose that he uses local dairy Talbot Forest's Pure Forest Blue.
Supreme Award sausage, from Allenton Meat Centre, the beef and blue cheese.
I am now planning a road trip to Greytown (the butchery scooped golds for their beef flavoured, their black pudding and their saveloys) and Waikanae (gold for their white wine and fennel), while the South Island clearly know their sausages - Christchurch's Euro Gourmet meats' chorizo bierstick and Peter Timbs' Moroccan chicken, Dunedin's Agora for traditional beef, Harris Meats from Cheviot's traditional beef and Nelson's Raeward Fresh pork as well as the famous Blackball Salami's black pudding all scooped gold medals.
Like I said, never met a sausage I didn't like.
Supreme Award Winner:
Allenton Meat Centre, beef and blue cheese.
People's Choice Award Winner:
Westmere Butchery, Peri Peri Chicken.
Paddy Kennedy of Allenton Meat Centre, Brian Tilbrook of Devro and Dave Rossiter of Westmere Butchery.
Gold Medallists by Category:
Continental Fresh Category Mangawhai Meat Shop, Toulouse; New World Nelson City, Boerewors, Westmere Butchery, Italian Bandiera.
Continental Ready-To-Eat Category: Euro Gourmet Meats, Chorizo Biersticks (Christchurch); Farmer Jones, Cheese Kransky (Mount Maunganui)
Flavoured Category: Agora - The Good Food Shop, Traditional Beef Flavoured (Dunedin); Greytown Butchery, Beef Flavoured
Gourmet Category: Allenton Meat Centre, Beef & Blue Cheese (Ashburton); Waikanae Butchery, White Wine & Fennel (Waikanae)
Pre-cooked/BBQ Category: Farmer Jones, Big Red (Mount Maunganui); Hellers, Super Savoury Pre-cooked
Poultry Category: Peter Timbs Meats, Moroccan Chicken (Christchurch); Westmere Butchery, Peri Peri Chicken (Auckland)
Rounds Category: Blackball Salami, Black Pudding; Greytown Butchery, Black Pudding
Saveloy/Polony/Cocktail Category: Greytown Butchery, Saveloy; Hellers, Original Cocktail
Traditional Beef Category: Eastbourne Village Meats, Beef (Wellington); Harris Meats, Old English Beef (Cheviot)
Traditional Flavoured Category: Aussie Butcher New Lynn, Beef & Onion (Auckland); Foodstuffs South Island, Pams Fresh Express Pork, Apple & Sage
Traditional Pork Category: New World Rototuna, Pure Pork (Hamilton); Raeward Fresh Nelson, Premium Pork.
Recipes from Bite.co.nz
Photos / Bite magazine
• For the barbecue, skewer your sausages for a change
• Turn them into a healthy weeknight salad
• Do as they do in Mexican and make them into a hot toasty sandwich
• Bake them with mashed potato
• Or go very British with toad in the hole