There is something almost poetic about listening to a chef distill the passion for his craft. It is even more impressive when all the talk is about sausages. I set out for Nelson County to learn about the process of turning ground hog meat into succulent, encased slugs of utter deliciousness. Little did I know that what seemed like a fairly streamlined process is, in fact, a complex game of alchemy that involves fat/meat ratio and a handful of imagination.
Ben Thompson and Will Gray take sausages very seriously. The owner and general manager of The Rock Barn (TRB), respectively, have perfected more than 10 different varieties of sausages from the simple bratwurst breakfast links to their personal takes on sausages from different countries. But their knowledge extends to many other pork products—possibly every part of the 200-pound hogs they work with: cheeks, snout, and pigtails.
What began as a catering company (Thompson boasts a rather sophisticated pedigree, having worked for revered chef Thomas Keller in Manhattan’s per se and California’s The French Laundry) is now a prime cuts selling enterprise, and a really successful one at that, with accounts with several local restaurants and appearances at the Charlottesville City Market and the Nelson County farmers market. What distinguishes TRB from other retailers is its deep-rooted ideology to protect and preserve our food sources, from “field-to-fork,” as the business’ tagline promises.
“The requirement to become part of this team is to think that our food culture is worth protecting,” said Gray.
Both men could talk about sausages for hours, and every minute is filled with vital information. After showing me around their digs, Gray delved into the science of lean meat and fat content that is necessary for a sausage to exist, and to ultimately be tasty. The close-to-perfect balance of lean meat to fat is 75 percent to 25 percent, respectively, or as I found out, the exact ratio found in pork shoulder or pork butt. The 75/25 balance facilitates the cooking process, said Thompson.
All we know about fat from popular culture is that it is mostly bad for you. There is some truth to the fact that an appealing sausage, one that has a “mouth feel,” must contain some fat and the distinct fat type depends on how the animal is raised. A pastured animal is healthier and has better Omega-3 than one that has been kept in one place its whole life. When hogs are grown on the same farms where they’re slaughtered, their genetics are contained, thus eliminating some risks associated with mass production. Even in low-fat diets, something’s gotta give. “Something must be added somewhere to have a similar mouth feel,” Thompson rightfully reflects. “Most likely it’s sugar.”
Once the exact ratio is achieved, the meat is ground and mixed with a particular spice blend, one of more than 50 currently in The Rock Barn’s own repository. The mixture is emulsified, which, depending on the preferred process, could change a sausage’s texture and appearance, and is ready to be encased—or not. The Rock Barn offers uncased sausage for a few of their varieties (spicy Italian, sweet Italian, TRB breakfast, and Mexican chorizo).
The next step is casing. The casing industry is highly regulated and animal casing cannot be produced in house, but rather must be bought from USDA-approved vendors. And there are many varieties. Since casings are an animal’s intestines, they have different thicknesses and sizes. Most of TRB’s are from hogs, but for smaller sausages, like TRB breakfast, they are made from sheep’s intestines—smaller sausage, smaller diameter casing, smaller animal. Casings can also be synthetic, not that Gray or Thompson would ever consider it.
“It’s part of our culture and tradition to use natural casings,” said Gray. “It’s silly to cut costs, because the casing is the most important part of a sausage. The snap is what people are looking for; it’s a pleasing sensory element.”
Indeed. If you’ve ever bitten through the casing of a sausage, you know that a snap-less experience just won’t do. But like all good things, natural casings are expensive and can add $1 per pound of meat mixture.
The Rock Barn’s smoked sausage repertoire is just as impressive, with classics like andouille, kielbasa, and hot dogs, which, according to Gray, are extremely hard to make. Two smoked sausages that are fairly new additions to the lineup are interesting in their respective uniqueness. The botifarra Catalan is a take on a Spanish smoked sausage peppered with fresh parsley and fresh garlic for punch and flavor. The linguica calabresa is the local rendition of a hot Portuguese-Brazilian sausage with marjoram, lemon, and spicy calabrese peppers.
Thompson has taken a liking to the linguica and andouille, but in small quantities, “more like side notes to dishes,” he said. “It’s the best way to enjoy the bounty of summer and winter.”
But what really rattled both men’s tails is experimenting and creating. They are men of vision.
“We go through a lot to get to the best result and it’s because we care about it,” said Thompson, whose calm demeanor and encyclopedic knowledge of his subject reveal a certain degree of purpose. He and Gray pick from a “mental drawing board” where projects are thought out, tested, tasted and, if they make the cut, finally produced. On any given day, three projects are in the works. The latest is a lager sausage, with beer as the emulsifier. Since a liquid is necessary to bind the meat and spices together, “why not use beer?” asked Gray. This seemingly easy change will require a balance between salt and meat.
Even a hot dog has its challenges—especially if you introduce crispy bacon. Gray and Thompson are trying something new: bacon hot dogs. Although tantalizing, Gray warns me that it is easier said than done. First, the bacon needs to be cooked to crispiness, diced, and folded into the meat and fat mixture. Then it needs to be encased. It’s possible that the crispy bacon will rupture the casings, causing the whole thing to fall apart. But can you imagine if they pull it off? Stay tuned and bring your taste buds.