When I was very young, my family made sausage at home. My great grandfather raised hogs, had his own smoke house and was an artist with pork, of French Huguenot descent. He smoked country hams and bacon, made sausages, liver pudding and head cheese, and rendered the delicious lard that helped make my family's cooking so very good. After he passed away, at the age of 96, my grandmother stopped making her own sausage. I was able to get her sausage and head cheese recipes though, and I will be sharing those on this blog in the near future. Some of our distant cousins operated a small grocery store and made sausage in house, so that is where we bought our sausage for most of my formative years.
The great specialty sausage made by my family was air dried country sausage. Air dried country sausage is very difficult to find outside of southeastern North Carolina and South Carolina. Last winter, I learned that one of the few independent grocery stores that still made it in house was closing down. This store was one run by those distant cousins I mentioned. After nearly 100 years of selling fresh produce and operating a real butcher shop, they were forced out of business. They could no longer compete with chain stores in our era of intense brand consciousness and in a time when so few people cook from scratch. It was for this reason that I returned briefly to my ancestral home county, to buy all the sausage they had left and to learn how to make it myself.
I was fortunate to be able to speak with the sausage makers in the butcher shop and to learn the basics. I was told, "Back on the farm, we made up a lot of sausage every year at hog killing time. It was just country sausage - basically half lean and half fat, but we go a little leaner in the store. We just mixed in salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper and sage. Now we use a standard country sausage seasoning that comes pre mixed. We didn't use any pink salt back then, but we have to use a little nitrate now - the government requires it and it gives it more of the color people want. We'd make all our sausage loose, wrap it in paper. Then, after the the casings were all washed, we'd stuff some in casings and dry them to preserve them. The casings were just hog intestines. We would use the bigger ones for sausage and save the rest, and any we didn't use for sausage, for chitlins. The dry sausage was just a way of preserving the sausage back when we didn't have freezers and such. It would hang up in the kitchen or the larder and if any mold grew one it, we'd just wipe it off with vinegar. But, the white mold sometimes gave it a better flavor. The old folks liked theirs dry and hard, covered in mold - like dried salami. We wipe it down just about every day in the store. People don't want to see any mold any more, even if it does make the sausage better."
In the photos, you will see some very dry sausage and some that is fresher. The length of time it has been hung determines the dryness. In the store, the sausages were hung in the nifty screened case pictured above, to keep vermin away (not that there were any vermin, but the case is required by law).
To cook dried sausage the way my mother taught me, simply put the amount you want in a pan, cut into serving sized portions, add a little water, put the lid on and let it simmer for a few minutes at medium high heat. Then, remove the lid and let the water cook out, add a little oil and brown the sausage. This simple air dried country sausage is far too delicious and far too easy to make for this tradition to slip away.