I mean, how could I say no?
It was a bold claim for a book that also contained recipes for “Fritters of Sheeps feet” and something called “Pap” (which as far as I could see was just a bowl of milk, flour and egg) so I wasn’t filled with confidence that these would in fact be the best sausages ever. Nevertheless, I bought pork mince instead of our usual Cumberlands and told my husband and daughter to expect the best bangers and mash they’d ever tasted; there was now no other option but to trust in the conviction of an author so sure of the recipe that he had published it anonymously.
The Compleat Cook, or to give it it’s full title in all its pomposity: The Compleat Cook, Expertly Prescribing The Most Ready Wayes, Whether Italian, Spanish Or French, For Dressing Of Flesh And Fish, Ordering Of Sauces Or Making Of Pastry was not one for humility. I mean, if the title itself didn’t fanfare the skill of the anonymous author, three of the recipes have “excellent” their title, two refer to themselves as “the best” and four refer to themselves as “good”. In fact, there was a second recipe for sausages in The Compleat Cook for “good sausages” should one feel unprepared or unworthy to try “the best sausages” (incidentally, if this is you, have a believe in yourself a bit more – of course you’re worthy of the best sausages.)
Of course, all this showmanship does make you wonder why the author felt the need to explicitly state that the recipes in his book were actually worth eating. Were there other cookbooks with recipes for “Substandard Syllabub” or “Gruel to make you gag?” Were some cooks, punished by their masters for burning dinner, secretly flicking through recipes to find a lowest grade of sausage they could to serve in quiet revenge? Well actually, in a way – yes.
The Compleat Cook is actually part of a wider work originally published in 1655 called (slightly pervily) The Queen’s Closet Opened. Part one ‘The Pearl of Practice’ deals with medical concerns, part two ‘A Queen’s Delight’ deals with confectionery and part three ‘The Compleat Cook’ is more of a general set of recipes. And who was the Queen of England in 1655?
Elizabeth I, then? Also no. Try harder.
I don’t know – Victoria?! Well now you’re just embarrassing yourself.
In truth, there wasn’t a Queen. That’s right – we’re slap in the middle of the good ol’ Interregnum years where Christmas celebrations were curtailed, Puritans decreed that fine foods (such as the best sausages you ever did eat) were outlawed and high taxes saw growing public resentment of what had once seemed a bold new way of running a country. Oliver Cromwell, the
king Lord Protector who ruled the UK from 1653 – 1658 had pretty much the same powers as a king but without the title. In 1649, following years of bloody Civil War, Cromwell signed his name on the death warrant for Charles I. Four years later, he had all but replaced Charles. Just as Charles I had believed in the divine right of kings and executed those who did not give him what he wanted, Cromwell also believed in shutting down anyone who disagreed with him until they capitulated and asked him to rule as sole Lord Protector, which was very different from being king because there were more syllables. When he died in 1658 he passed his power to his eldest son and was buried in Westminster Abbey – but remember you better not call him a king!
Cromwell’s ‘reign’ was marred by unbelievable brutality against the Irish by troops he was in charge of (see: Drogheda) and his hope for a 16th century version of religious tolerance towards the various Protestant sects, despite his own strongly held Puritan beliefs, just contributed to huge mistrust among his contemporaries.
After the monarchy fell in all but name many rich households looking to find favour with the notoriously austere self styled ‘Puritan Moses’ would have had to let their distinguished chefs go. Puritan England didn’t look kindly on feasting and frivolity. So the chefs, whose reputations were based on their ability to conjure up fine banquets and ingenious dishes had to advertise their services in the hope that they might find employment in new households – ones that were less concerned with kowtowing to the new Lord Protector. The Compleat Cook can therefore be seen as the worst type of C.V.; long-winded, pompous and well over the accepted 2 page limit. The Queen of the wider Queen’s Closet of which Compleat Cook was a part, was probably Henrietta Maria, wife of the executed Charles I.
This was a bold move which perhaps explains the anonymity of the author; he must have hoped that discreet word of mouth would help him find new employment if his book rose to prominence. People were fascinated by the ways of the rich and The Compleat Cook allowed them to glimpse behind the veil at a way of life that had been, quite literally, killed off.
So what about these sausages then?
Oh yes, the sausages.
A glance through the recipe suggested these wouldn’t be too bad at all – all they were was pork mince, suet, onions and herbs and spices. Interestingly and reassuringly there was no casing involved, just a confident conviction that binding the ingredients with egg yolk would create a meat paste that would hold its shape when fried.
First I combined pork mince, beef suet, diced onion, sage, nutmeg, salt, pepper and egg yolk in a bowl until it formed a thick mush. I’m not sure I’d call it a paste and I was unconvinced it would hold its shape during cooking, but if I wanted to experience the best sausages I’d ever eaten I had to respect the process.
It became apparent that rolling the meat into sausages wasn’t going to work; bits of onion and suet kept flaking off and ruining the shape. I ended up rolling balls of the mixture in my hands and patting each ball into a sausage shape.
And that was it. It was all really straightforward. The recipe assured me that the uncooked ‘paste’ would last for 14 days but I saw no reason to make my un-Puritan heathen family wait that long and risk food poisoning, so I cooked them straight away.
Usually I bake sausages rather than fry them, and since the mixture was enough to make 10 good sized ones, I fried four and baked six to see if there was a difference.
I was surprised to find that both fried and baked, the sausages retained their shape well. Even when being turned and prodded to see how much longer to go, they held up. They even smelled pleasant – much meatier than shop-bought ones and fragrant with the sage. The only worrying thing I noticed was that thanks to the suet there was a lot of fat in the pan. But more fat meant more flavour, right? Maybe these were going to be the best sausages I’d ever eaten.
After twenty minutes or so it was time. I arranged the sausages as artfully as one can arrange tubes of meat without making it look like a sculpture of solid turds, squeezed some tomato ketchup that I’m sure Heinz followed an authentic civil war recipe for into a pot, and served my meal.
My husband took an enthusiastic bite. I waited.
“Is it good?”
“But is it the best sausage you’ve ever eaten?”
A shake of the head.
No matter, I was prepared for this. “Well, is it the second best?”
“I don’t know! Who keeps a mental list of their top five sausages ready to reel off? It’s good. It’s a bit bland, but it’s fine.”
He wasn’t wrong.
I can’t think of another way to describe them apart from meaty. I don’t know if it was because lots of shop sausages include breadcrumbs, or mince the meat very fine, but these felt almost more like burgers. The lack of casing made the fried ones slightly drier than I was used to – for some reason, though, the baked ones weren’t as dry.
The sage and nutmeg were noticeable and worked well with each other, particularly the nutmeg which created a subtle spiciness at the end of each mouthful that I wasn’t used to with modern sausages.
Overall, if I were a noble family looking for a new chef in 1668 I’d need to see another showstopping dish from The Compleat Cook before employing the author. They were good – but not the best I’d ever eaten.
In a weird way, maybe the simply “good” sausages which followed a similar recipe (with more spices and no onion) but encased the mixture in traditional “hoggs guts” would have tasted better, but the rulers of 17th century England were unlikely to find out; in 1660 Charles II retook his father’s throne ending the Protectorate and restoring the monarchy. Upon his return the custom of spectacle and lavish dining (usually at the expense of the nation) came back into fashion. Charles II would often be served 26 dishes and used silver-gilt and gold plates as he sat at a table covered in embroidered linen under a canopy of state. Spectators who could only dream of such luxuries were invited to witness the royal gorging from behind railings. “Good” sausages probably wouldn’t have cut it anymore.
The Best Sausages That Was Ever Eaten
500g pork mince
450g beef suet
2 egg yolks
Salt and Pepper
2 handfuls of sage
- Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl until well combined and sticky.
- Take enough mixture to form a ball in the palm of your hand and shape into sausages.
- If frying, place sausages in pan and cook for 15 minutes, turning regularly to ensure they are cooked through.
- If baking, place sausages on a baking tray and cook for 20-25 minutes in an oven at 180 degrees.