Smokin’ Sausage Showdown V
by Mort Viande
Welcome, backyard carnivores, to another action-packed edition of The Bollard’s Smokin’ Sausage Showdown! This is the fifth Showdown we’ve staged in the past 10 years, and the competition has never been stronger. We long ago weeded out the weaker links available at supermarket chains like Hannaford, Shaw’s and Whole Foods, and once-promising rookies from several local butcher shops have undergone this trial by (lack of) fire and failed to make the cut.
Two past champions competed again this year: Fresh Approach, the neighborhood grocery store and butcher shop in Portland’s wild West End, and Pat’s Meat Market, from the dangerous Deering Center neighborhood (well, maybe dangerous is a stretch, but there are a lot of bees around there). Returning for a second season was The Thirsty Pig, the Old Port bar and eatery on Exchange Street that began retailing its sausages last year.
The two new competitors were The Other Side, a deli with locations in East Deering and the West End, and A Wee Bit Farm, located in the small town of Orland, in Hancock County. Though regionally renowned for its Scottish Highland cattle, A Wee Bit Farm also makes sausage that’s available locally at the Portland Food Co-op.
Sausages compete in three categories: Hot Italian, Sweet (or Mild) Italian, and Wildcard. This year we also decided to crown the Best of the Wurst — the top sausage overall. We use a standard Weber charcoal grill for the Showdowns, and maintained a fairly consistent temperature of about 220 degrees for almost three hours. Maple was the smoking wood of choice this time — its high sugar content makes it excellent for pork. In addition to yours truly, Bollard editor Chris Busby, and staff photographer The Fuge, we were joined by guest judge Keith Costello, who recently opened a genuine Philly cheesesteak joint, The 5 Spot, across from the Greyhound station on Congress Street. We cleansed our palates with cans of Peak Organic Fresh Cut pilsner and growlers of a few different styles of beer from Bunker Brewing Company.
Leading off the competition was A Wee Bit Farm’s sweet Italian. Their links are a wee bit smaller than the rest (they’re sold prepackaged at the Co-op, whereas most of the others chill in the meat case). The casing delivered a satisfying snap. The finely ground pork, relatively loosely packed, was flavorful without being showy. An impressive debut, for sure.
The mild Italian from Pat’s, by contrast, had a bold fennel flavor that prompted one judge to call a foul: “It’s like chewing a spice rack,” he remarked between bites. But the link smoked beautifully, and when sliced revealed a complex grind of different cuts interspersed with fat and (again, probably a few too many) fennel seeds. The Other Side’s mild Italian had a kielbasa-like build and a much subtler use of fennel — another strong showing by a rookie. (The Thirsty Pig did not have a mild Italian in the line-up.)
Fresh Approach’s mild Italian has taken top honors in this category before, and didn’t disappoint this year. The shop’s signature chunky grind combined with this sausage’s powerful herby flavor, a little heavy on the oregano this time, was a hit. This is an excellent mild for use in Italian dishes, and arguably retains the Sweet Italian title this year, with Wee Bit and The Other Side nipping at its heels.
The Wildcard category is always a toss-up. Some sausages just don’t perform well after a slow smoke, though they may be perfectly delicious when cooked by other methods. That said, I doubt the Buffalo chicken sausage from Pat’s works under any conditions. “If you took the bleu cheese out and put it on a Buffalo wing, it’d be delicious,” one judge charitably remarked. I highly recommend the Sicilian-style chicken link at Pat’s, which won this category in Smokin’ Sausage Showdown III.
Wee Bit Farm’s garlic sausage was inexplicably greasy. The rabbit sausage from The Other Side was, quite explicably, dry (not enough fat on bunnies), though the flavor was exquisite and we had no doubt this sausage would shine under other circumstances.
Thirsty Pig’s Wildcard entrant was a Thai chili link with a coarse, chunky grind. Bursting with juice and sweet hoisin flavor, it leapt to the front of the pack in this category. The only Wildcard with a chance to beat it was Fresh Approach’s daunting (and haunting) ghost-pepper sausage, the most hotly debated link of Showdown IV.
Wary of having scorched taste buds unduly influence the Wildcard judging, we saved the hot Italians for last and the hottest of them all, the ghost pepper, for dead last — or so we thought.
The hot from Pat’s took an early lead. Though slightly dry (likely a consequence of having been positioned closer to the heat source on the crowded gridiron), its fine grind delivered just the right amount of spice, followed half a minute later by a low after-burn. Wee Bit Farm’s hot sausage matched its mild in quality — a very respectable showing that’ll earn Wee Bit a return trip.
Fresh Approach’s hot Italian had great snap, that famously coarse grind, and a well calibrated level of heat — just what you expect from a pro. Next up: The Other Side’s hot Italian.
Fuck us. This sausage was not food, it was bombs — a nuclear bomb of pure heat that left us staggering around the yard, dazed and confused, tongues scorched so badly that even big slugs of cold beer could not extinguish the fire. Someone (Busby, basically) had mislabeled a link on the sausage map, and we’d chomped into the ghost pepper expecting a mere hot Italian. The real Other Side hot Italian was actually the salve we needed to vanquish the blaze raging inside our mouths. It counteracted the ghost pepper (not unlike the way a hit of acid can sober you up, sorta) while replacing the pain with a nicely spiced flavor.
The last sausage standing turned out to be the Best of the Wurst. The Thirsty Pig’s juicy, densely packed hot Italian delivered good heat and a very tasty blend of Italian flavorings. This meaty brawler from the Old Port thus takes two categories and top honors at Smokin’ Sausage Showdown V. Congratulations, Alli and Dave — newlyweds in life, champions on the grill!