Ask anyone what product they most associate with a butcher and they will undoubtedly say the sausage.
This cylinder of pork-filled meatiness is the mainstay of any good butcher’s shop, but how do you keep customers and attract new ones when people can just buy their bangers from the supermarket, along with the rest of their weekly shop?
In fact, there are ways to raise the profile of the sausage, from entering competitions (generating coverage in the local press), to getting involved in initiatives such as British Sausage Week.
Butchers need to be more inventive than ever to show that their sausage offer is superior to anything in a supermarket, especially when demand is on the rise and food prices rocketing.
Rising production costs in areas such as casing have not helped the sausage-producing butcher this year, and a disappointing summer made the 2008 barbecue season one to forget.
In addition, the supermarkets have been fighting among themselves with even more ferocity in recent months, slashing prices on a whole host of products to curry favour with consumers. In June, Asda offered a pack of eight sausages for 16p as a one-week promotion, and saw an increase in sales of 300%, but Stephen Plume, founder of www.sausagefans.com, was less than impressed. “I tried on several occasions to buy some 16p bangers, on the basis that I ought to try them before I knocked them. There were never any in stock and I felt it was more about clever marketing and less about 16p sausages.
“It has always been possible, of course, to buy value bangers for around 50p, but I think more and more consumers are realising that this is not the way to go. Hopefully, savvy consumers now understand that ‘cheap’ meat is something of a false economy and that meat from the butcher may go further and actually end up costing less.”
Plume, a maths teacher from Diss in Norfolk, is determined to back the British sausage being sold on the high street. This year he is on a nationwide motorbike tour, visiting sausage-makers and food festivals up and down the country and chronicling his adventures at www.sausageking.co.uk. In championing the local butcher over the supermarket, he hopes to motivate other consumers to take a similar approach.
After being inspired by television series The Long Way Down, Plume started his bike tour in March, visiting sausage-makers Musk’s of Newmarket and R J Hirst of Lincolnshire, and stopping at the Ludlow Food Festival. This is no passing fad – Plume has had a passion for sausages for years, starting a website in 2000. But this year, he decided to get his message across to a far greater audience by hitting the open road.
“There are two broad aims. First, to raise the profile of great sausage-makers. If I can help even one get more business, I’ve achieved a big part of what I’ve set out to do. The other aim is to highlight the plight of UK pig farmers. So many consumers have been brainwashed into thinking that pork is a standard product, without being made aware of varying provenance, types of meat, etc. The more consumers know, the more aware they will become and the more discerning.
“Aside from these aims, I get to ride a classic British motorbike, a Triumph Scrambler, around the finest island on the earth. At each destination I meet expert sausage-makers and eat their finest wares! I’ve been very humbled by the response so far. I even got the chance to discuss sausages with my local MP, the aptly named Richard Bacon, representing South Norfolk, who happened to be appearing in the same documentary as me, BPEX production The Pig Issue.”
Plume goes on: “R J Hirst, for example, is a passionate butcher who uses a recipe he has developed from three secret recipes passed to him. He minimises preservatives by making batches of his sausages several times during the day for immediate sale and I saw almost every customer buy sausages while I was there. Most people I meet have an innovative recipe and I’ll be publishing these on www.sausagefans.com as I try them out.”
Plume notes that he hasn’t found a hint of pessimism on his travels so far, despite butchers struggling against the supermarkets as never before. Reassured, he reckons that buying from the high street butcher is riding a wave of popularity.
“The whole of the UK pig market is struggling at the moment, but sausages seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance,” concludes Plume. “Sausage-makers who are innovating and care passionately about what they do, seem to be faring OK.”
He adds: “I’m not sure butchers should feel under more pressure, but I do think this is just one of the advantages they have over other, larger retailers. There is something so reassuring about being able to ask the butcher where the meat has come from and, as butchers live or die by the quality of the meat they buy, consumers are seeing the benefits.
“As the ‘Pigs Are Worth It’ campaign and other initiatives gather steam, consumers are caring more and more about food provenance. It’s also the butcher who can offer you specialist advice – not easy to get elsewhere – on how best to cook joints or how much meat is needed. Perhaps the credit crunch will encourage people to use their local butchers to buy what they need, rather than what they are offered by a supermarket.”
So what does Plume look for in a good sausage? “I like sausages with an ingredient list I understand. If words among the ingredients are unfamiliar, I tend to avoid the product. Also, I like traditional sausages, such as those made by Musk’s, but I often find myself swept along by the enthusiasm of sausage-makers innovating with new flavours, such as Rothbury Family Butchers (Rothbury, Northumberland). “I go through phases of sampling sausages and thinking a particular one is my new favourite, then I try the next one and that is my new favourite!”
Statistics show that the humble sausage has fared quite well in 2008. In data provided by TNS, spending on fresh sausage sales went from £392,478 in the 52 weeks ending August 2007 to £421,038 in the same period to August 2008, with butchers accounting for 4.2% of the retailer share, slightly up from last year. Spending on economy and microwave sausages went down, while expenditure on low-fat, premium and standard sausages went up.
“They are doing quite well,” says BPEX butchery and product development manager Keith Fisher. “And that’s despite the dreary summer, which saw poor sales for sausages, as well as other barbecue products such as burgers.
However, with British Sausage Week fast approaching (3-9 November), Fisher adds that the number of entrants for ‘The Hunt for Britain’s Landmark Bangers’ competition was over 160 and the 11th nationwide celebration of the British sausage will be bigger than ever before.
There will be roadshows in nine major cities in England, including Newcastle, Nottingham and Southampton, while independent butchers have been encouraged to hold their own events at their shops, showcasing what quality sausages actually consist of. Says Fisher, “Butchers have always been open about what their sausages contain. They take considerable pride in their products.”
BPEX has also announced that former cricket umpire Dickie Bird is to be the celebrity face of National Sausage Week. BPEX sees Dickie and the sausage making an ideal partnership; they are both regarded as quintessentially and reassuringly British.
Despite supermarkets seriously undercutting butchers this year with sausages, he feels that many butchers query the quality of meat that goes into the products of the big retailers, without sweating too much about whether it is going to affect their business.
“They [butchers] wouldn’t try and compete on that basis,” says Fisher. “Customers are looking for a higher quality of sausage, and locally-sourced produce is increasingly popular.”
Fisher will also be taking part in MTJ’s annual Champion of Champions sausage competition, on October 27 at the Butcher’s Hall, London (see pg 6). What, exactly, does he look for in a good sausage? “The appearance, both uncooked and cooked; does it split; is the colour too light or too dark; is it coarse or is it fine? I also like them to be all the same length on the breakfast plate!” Rulers at the ready, then, if you ever want to impress Fisher.
WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS
One man who knows exactly how to impress the judges is Michael Bachyk, owner of Michael Kirk butchers in Wolverhampton city centre. Michael won last year’s Champion of Champions with his Traditional Pork Sausage, a recipe the shop has been perfecting for over 20 years.
He will be joining Fisher as a judge at this year’s competition and has no doubt how much winning the award aided his sales. “It helped to increase sausage sales and the profile of the business. Now we supply one or two retailers.”
Overall, despite the current economic climate, sausage sales have actually gone up. Yet butchers still have to struggle with rising production costs. Michael says, “Even if production costs are on the up, we don’t want to wallop customers with massive price increases.”
However, summer in the west Midlands has been “awful”, admits Michael, as the barbecue season came and went with a whimper and the battle against the big supermarkets continued. “It has left us scratching our heads sometimes. The multiples get away with calling ingredients by different names, which can confuse customers, leading them to believe they are buying a wholesome sausage.”
Undaunted, Michael has faith in his products. “People who come into my shop will always get superior quality.”
PRIDE OF THE NORTH
Another group of people who have had a superb 2008 is Made in Cumbria and the Cumberland Sausage Association. It has taken three years of hard work to obtain government support for a bid to achieve protected regional status for the Cumberland sausage, but in July there was good news. Defra confirmed that the Cumberland sausage met all the necessary criteria to be submitted for European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).
The battle is not over, however. The application has now been sent to the European Commission in the hope that the Cumberland sausage will join Welsh lamb, Parma ham and Melton Mowbray pork pies, among others, and earn the coveted label of protected status.
“It has been a very successful year for us,” says Made in Cumbria senior food marketing officer John Anderson. “However, it is now a bit of a waiting game. The application is with Brussels, but there is a backlog from new EU countries, so it could take 18 months to two years before we get an answer.”
The Cumberland sausage is thought to have been imported to the region from Germany some time in the 15th or 16th centuries and now, in the 21st century, has found a new lease of life.
The first Traditional Cumberland Sausage Day, on 5 July this year, saw farmers, producers, farm shops, restaurants and hotels invited to take part in a host of events to support the protected status campaign; 30 entrants took part in the Traditional Cumberland Sausage cook-off competition, won by G Gordon Butchers in Carlisle.
Currently, Anderson adds, Made in Cumbria is not involved in any nationwide push to get more butchers across the country to supply traditional Cumberland sausages, but if and when the sausage does get PGI status, butchers will only be able to sell sausages under the Cumberland brand.
AN ONGOING STORY
These are exciting times. This year alone has seen defender of the sausage faith Stephen Plume take to the road to get his message across, a 16p eight-pack on sale in a supermarket for one week in June, and a paper submission on the Cumberland Sausage now safely nestled in a civil servant’s pigeonhole in Brussels – an eventful 12 months for Britain’s signature pork product.
It may well have been another disappointing summer, but despite hard financial times in Britain today, the sausage is clearly holding its own – with the promise of greater things to come.