Smokin’ Sausage Showdown IV
Local links compete on the gridiron again
by Mort Viande
Welcome, barbeque fans, to The Bollard’s fourth Smokin’ Sausage Showdown!
From 2007 to 2010, this was an almost-annual competition in which links from local butcher shops and markets vied for top honors in three categories: Hot Italian, Sweet (or Mild) Italian, and Wildcard. After a five-year hiatus prompted by my move out of state, the Showdown returned last month with some new competitors alongside seasoned veterans, as well as a couple new tasters to assist the usual officiating crew (which consists of our photographer, The Fuge; the editor and shopper, Chris Busby; and yours truly).
After their poor performance in the first Showdown, supermarket sausages from Shaw’s, Hannaford and Whole Foods failed to qualify for the second competition, and were benched again this year. Fresh Approach, the family-owned meat market and grocer in Portland’s West End, has always been a strong competitor, as has Pat’s Meat Market, in Portland’s Deering Center neighborhood. Both returned this year.
Colucci’s Hilltop Superette, on Portland’s East End, scored an A in both Italian categories during the first Showdown, in part due to the distinctively chunky, Old World grind the Munjoy Hill sausage-makers employed. Colucci’s pulled a hammy and was sidelined for the second Showdown, but came back strong in 2010. The business was subsequently sold, and the Colucci family name dropped, but scouts reported this season that Hilltop Superette’s sausages are still being made the old-fashioned way.
Rosemont Market now has locations within walking distance of both Fresh Approach and Hilltop, so we drafted their links this year. Another rookie is Great East Butcher Co., which has locations in New Hampshire and Scarborough, not far from the Maine Mall. Hoglund’s Countryside Butchers, in downtown Biddeford, also got a chance to compete this year, following in the footsteps of such past competitors from beyond Greater Portland as Hoggy’s Market, in Windham, and Prime Cut, in Raymond.
Our two new tasters were Alli and Dave, proprietors of The Thirsty Pig, a sausage and beer joint in the Old Port that opened while I was away. The pair plans to start selling the house-made sausages served at the Pig on a retail basis, at the restaurant, later this summer, so we had them bring a few along to scrimmage with the others.
The smoking this year was done at a higher temperature than in past competitions — between 325 and 340 degrees — for the first half hour or so, then the temp was lowered to around 200 degrees for another two and a half hours. As in past Showdowns, the contestants were cooked by indirect heat — coals and wood on one side of the grill, links on the other. I used soaked apple-wood chunks in the beginning, then switched to dried chunks for the home stretch.
Now for the results…
Great East led off the Showdown with a good working-man’s Italian. It had plenty of fennel, a nice coarse grind, and was juicy. Grade: B-.
Next up was Pat’s. The tasters and I were disappointed by this grainy textured, greasy, loosely packed product, especially those of us who recalled their A-grade entry five years ago. This year’s mark: C.
Rosemont’s sweet Italian was more tightly packed than the Pat’s link, but way too salty: C-. Hoglund’s sweet brought back memories of the awful, greasy, chewy, tasteless supermarket sausages of yesteryear: D-.
Fresh Approach, a three-time champion (or co-champion, with Pat’s) in this category, did not disappoint. Flecked with herbs, more coarsely cut than in years past, and kept juicy by the proper fat content, it scored an A-.
The Thirsty Pig didn’t have a mild Italian to compete, though their Thai-flavored chicken link smoked well, was nicely packed, and had a mild sweetness the other tasters and I enjoyed (B-). So it was up to Hilltop Superette to try to topple their crosstown competitor and claim the Sweet Italian title this year. Their sausage had the coarse, meaty grind of old, but the seasoning appeared limited to small chunks of black pepper unevenly distributed through the link. Grade: C.
First up in this category was Rosemont’s hot Italian. It had a nice blend of not-so-Italian-tasting flavors and decent heat, but was a bit grainy and dry. I suspect Rosemont’s commitment to selling all-natural, healthy meat results in sausages that lack the fat content necessary to prevail in slow-smoked conditions. Grade: C.
Pat’s strongest entry this year was their hot Italian: good pack, snap and juiciness. B+.
“Is that fat?” one of our tasters asked after a bite of Great East’s hot. “No,” another replied. “It’s a gland.” Nice heat, but glandy: D. Yet still better than Hoglund’s. Their hot Italian ranks among the worst of the wurst. Grade: F.
Fresh Approach’s hot was, like the sweet, fairly coarse and chunky. It had lots of fennel, but relatively little heat. (Maybe the missing heat mysteriously migrated to their wildcard entry, the infernal ghost pepper sausage; more about that one in a minute.) I give it a B-. Hilltop’s hot was also milder than it used to be, to the point of tasting bland. Grade: C.
The Pig’s hot Italian tasted too vinegary to me. I’ve been told they’ve since toned that down, to good results, but for this Showdown they got a C.
The Thirsty Pig came back strong in the Wildcard round. Their Caribbean link was a jerk-flavored masterpiece with just the right amount of Scotch-bonnet heat to accentuate the smoky Caribbean flavors. A fiesta in your mouth! A+
The garlic-and-cheese link from Hoglund’s was the best competitor on their team, but evidence of cheese was scarce. Grade: C+. The same style of link from Great East had lots of cheese, but it appeared to be the processed variety, and this sausage was curiously garlic-free: D.
Rosemont’s wildcard was a sujuk link, a style of sausage popular in the Balkans, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, but not so much in South Portland on this day. I liked its cumin/curry flavor more than the other tasters did, though I agree it may be too complex for this competition. It gets a B- in my book.
For reasons too boring and convoluted to explain here, Busby picked an Irish banger from Pat’s as their wildcard entrant. It’s a style of sweet sausage that doesn’t respond well to the slow-smoking method, as evidenced by the grainy mess that resulted when cut: D-, but not their fault; I recommend their Sicilian-style chicken link, which earned an A- in this category at Showdown III.
Colucci’s never had a wildcard player — they only made hot and sweet Italians, sold frozen — but Hilltop has more options and they’re available from the deli case. Their smoky garlic had strong garlic flavor, but its orange color was off-putting, and we were otherwise unimpressed: C-.
Fresh Approach’s ghost pepper sausage came with a warning: do not cook this indoors. Good thing it takes to smoking really well. It also had great snap and just the right amount of heat for a sausage made for those who can stand the spiciness (a group that did not include most of my fellow tasters). A solid B from me.
Until next year, happy smokin’, everybody!