On the tracks of sausage-making in the Palatinate

Return of the Metzelsupp

Text and photos:
Hendrik Haase

"'Lewwerworscht' and 'Grieweworscht' sausages belong together – just like a married couple," proclaims master butcher Walter Adam on the sunny terrace as he cuts into the hearty sausages we have just fetched straight from the pot. I've been observing him and his team the whole morning long as they've slaughtered, cut up, boiled, stirred and seasoned.

The days start early in Mr Adam's butcher shop in Herxheim, near Landau. Even as early as four o'clock in the morning on slaughtering day – long before the sun comes up. A few hours of hard work later, a good twenty halved pork carcasses are hanging in the cold store, the intestines have been cleaned and work in the sausage kitchen can continue. But first, it's time for a quick break.

Once Mr Adam the butcher has taken a gulp of cold wine spritzer from his "Dubbeglas", he holds the vessel out to me. That's how things are done here. It's share and share alike once the sausages are made. This is every bit as true for the sausages as it is for the refreshing Riesling from the vineyards on the slopes nearby, which is just as much a vital accompaniment to the sausage as a slice of good farmhouse bread. Anyone who wants to get to the bottom of the sausage culture of the Palatinate first needs to know about its "home slaughtering" tradition, from where the majority of the familiar specialities originate. 

Almost everyone had a pig in the barn in those days – or so I learn as we sit in the butcher's parlour later on to look at old photos of butchers' feasts in the village. For a long time, there wasn't any proper industry here. People in those days were farming folk and home slaughtering subsequently has a long tradition in the region's villages. Once the pigs had been fattened up enough – usually in winter – they would be slaughtered. Of course, not just anyone was allowed to kill a pig, meaning that butchers were always kept busy in the slaughtering months – essentially any with the letter "R" in the name. The butchers' feasts were not just an excuse for filling pantries and hungry bellies, however, but also an occasion for getting together – whether as a family or a village community. Everything was done together, from slaughtering and making the sausages through to laughing, drinking and "having a good knees-up" as Mr Adam recalls, his eyes gleaming. He doesn't get asked to slaughter so often nowadays, however. Although somewhat diminished, the tradition is still upheld. These days, it's mostly associations and private individuals (but also the occasional winemaker) who send invitations to come and try the "Metzelsupp", the name given to the traditional broth cooked in the sausage pot with a hearty portion of meat added. It's just as much a part of the butchers' feast as sharing wine from the "Dubbeglas".

The large pots used to cook the pork and sausages are also the birthplace of many classic Palatine specialities, such as liver sausage and blood sausage, dumplings and "Kesselfleisch" – the boiled pork belly held in such high esteem among the older generation and known in certain areas as "Wellfleisch". The whole time I stand next to the butchers as they are busy making sausages, I keep getting passed small, steaming bits of meat to dip quickly in salt and pepper and pop in my mouth with a piece of freshly sliced onion. With an impish grin on his face, master butcher Walter Adam asks the same thing after every morsel: "Well? What do you think it is?"

The piece I'm eating melts in the mouth. It is tender with an intense flavour and a wonderfully savoury aroma. "I honestly have no idea," I reply. The list of ingredients is surprising. What I just ate was "Bäcksche", "Schniffl" and "Bauch", as the butcher explains in the local dialect: in other words, pork cheek, snout and diaphragm. In a time where many diners only eat pork fillet and chops, these parts of the animal are hardly remembered at all. However, they are uncommonly tasty and have always been used as a base for a multitude of home-cooked specialities. The much-vaunted motto "nose to tail", which is the watchword of so many ambitious gourmet chefs at the moment, seems to be something of a given to those working in a traditional Palatine sausage kitchen. That's the way it's always been done here. Without "nose to tail", there wouldn't be such a rich tradition of sausage-making in the Palatinate. 

"For the 'Kesselfleisch', it's important that the butcher has an expert standing next to him," a sprightly pensioner from the village confides to me later. Early every Monday morning, he comes to Mr Adam the butcher to sample the fresh sausage mixture. He tries a little of everything together with the butchers before the sausage skins are filled. "Everyone has to test and sample the produce, that's important," says Mr Adam. "Then they do whatever the boss says," he adds, laughing. The liver sausage mixture in the mixing vat in front of us needs another handful of marjoram added to it, comes the unanimous decision. Marjoram is the classic herb that gives the Palatine liver sausage its familiar character. Salt, pepper, mace, coriander – not a lot of herbs are added to the sausage, but the ratio has to be just right. There's no recipe here that's precise down to the last gram. "I make all the home-made products by hand," says Mr Adam as he mixes the seasonings into the sausage mixture; both of his forearms soon disappearing into it.

The lore surrounding the special flavour has been passed down from generation to generation in the Palatinate over centuries. Sometimes it's the 6th generation – in other places even the 9th and 10th. When watching the butchers at work, you can see how much flair and true artisanal craft goes into each of the specialities. The only machine here today to make work easier is the filling machine, which comprises a large funnel and a filling spout. Cutting up, trimming, blending and stirring is all done by hand – just as it always was.

As far as the appreciation for this laborious work was concerned, the situation looked bleak a few years ago. Later, at the lunch table, the butcher's wife explains that there was a real rough patch back then. Rustic, home-made specialities seemed to have gone out of fashion and were even derided to some extent. Many butchers in the region suffered as a result, she explains, some of whom even had to shut up shop. The line of succession also gives many butchers sleepless nights to this day. Without motivated trainees, the lines of many butchering dynasties in the region threaten to come to an end. What will be lost in the process is not only the village butcher, however, but above all a vast pool of knowledge about the Palatinate's culinary heritage.

For country butchers like Walter Adam, it's about much more than just this. It's also about the close bonds and connections in the region that he wants to help uphold with his work. He therefore tries to procure everything he needs from the region itself. This starts with the pigs, which he obtains from three farmers close by, continues with the bread made by the village baker for his meat dumplings and ends with the feed for his own cattle. A small regional brewery supplies him with "draff" – the leftovers from the brewing process – which his animals love as a tasty alternative to green fodder.

In the afternoon, as we visit the cattle that the butcher keeps on the pastures and in a cowshed close to the village, it's plain to see how much the animals mean to him. "I've always enjoyed being close to animals," Mr Adam explains as he feeds his cattle fresh green fodder and lays new hay in the shed. He regularly helped out on the farm at a young age. It might seem like a strange contradiction to some, yet a butcher's love for animals is a fundamental requirement for high quality and flavour, as I learn in the car later on.

For country butchers like Mr Adam, it goes without saying that he procures the pigs for his sausages from farmers in the region and slaughters these animals himself. For the animals, this means short transport distances. For the butcher, it means a direct exchange with farmers about quality, breeds and animal welfare in addition to unparalleled freshness. Pigs, lambs and cattle are always delivered a day in advance – and by the farmers themselves. The short distances to cover and this additional resting period means that the animals are not stressed, which is important for the quality of the meat and sausage alike. The slaughtering process is quick, with a focus on the individual animals. There's no place here for the haste of a conveyor belt.

When you watch butchers sweating at work in the early morning and it occurs to you that their day will only end in the late afternoon, that liver sausage looks more and more like a little work of art; one which involves a phenomenal amount of effort.

"As children in the village, we were always in awe of the priest, the mayor and the master craftsmen," Mr Adam explains somewhat wistfully later on. "That's sadly no longer the case." But is this really true?

A new trend has been on the rise for some years now, at least according to some of the remaining artisan butchers in the region. For them, regional country butchers are on the right track to becoming "in" again in the best possible sense. Producers haven't sold as many home-made products as now for a long time – and not just to older consumers, as the butcher's wife explains. Young people are once more crying out for simple and authentic products and paying close attention to their quality. More and more men and women are taking up cooking and shopping with greater awareness. Those who previously left the region for their studies enjoy buying from their local butcher now when they're back home. Tourists come because they cherish that special flavour and actively look for typical produce from the region. Tinned sausage – a wide variety of which is available from butchers in the Palatinate – even allows the specialities to withstand longer journeys and has become a popular souvenir.

Meanwhile, high-end restaurants have also picked up on this trend and incorporated it into their menus, even if experienced butchers can't help but smirk at the thought of "blood sausage pralines" and "carpaccio of pig's stomach". The pig's stomach competition is also becoming more popular: artisan producers from the region use this to pit themselves against others in their trade and thereby help this delicacy achieve greater recognition.

At the end of our tour from the butcher's shop to the farmers, we pause on top of a hill, from where the view stretches out on one side towards the vineyards and the Palatinate Forest – and to the Rhine Valley and the cattle pasture outside the village on the other. Master butcher Mr Adam stretches his arms out before him as we step out of the car. "Everyone always dreams of Ibiza and Mallorca, but I don't need anything else – this is my home!" Preserving this region with its many traditions and flavours is what many of the master butchers here strive for. It seems as though an increasing number of connoisseurs are rediscovering this exceptionally delicious world for themselves.

Hendrik Haase

writes and talks about food. His  world is all about our culinary heritage, our food culture and the origin of our daily meal.