An authentic Italian sausage is a world away from the low meat percentage, cereal filler and mechanically recovered detritus of the shameful British bargain-basement banger, a missing link if there ever was one. From cotechino in the chilly north-east to plump and garlicky napolitani in the south, zampone in Emilia-Romagna and mazzafegati in Umbria,every region has its speciality and they all grunt loudly of pig.
Although it pops up in as many regions as it has spellings, credit for the invention of lucanica, or luganega, a substantial cooking sausage of prime, free-range pork shoulder, flavoured with a secret blend of herbs and spices is claimed by Basilicata, the rugged expanse between Puglia in the heel of Italy and Calabria on the toe. It’s something of a fallen arch, tourism-wise, having neither trendy trulli nor chic resorts, but what it does have is small but hot red peppers (peperoncini) and a fine tradition of pig-rearing.
These two ingredients inspire a meat sauce which may be served on a bed of penne, or in a make-ahead lasagne, say for Boxing Day. The fennel seeds add a delicious twist and the chilli makes a welcome dent in the bechamel sauce. Serve with a spice-friendly white from the region, or a medium-bodied and very fruity Italian red.
Italian Sausage Sauce
A pasta main course for 4, or lasagne for 6.
Taverna Dry Muscat, 2006
Ponte Pietra, Merlot-Corvina, 2006
- A coil of lucaniche or 5-6 plump Italian cooking sausages
- A medium red onion, finely diced, or use some fennel bulb trimmings
- 1-2 dried red chillis, deseeded to taste
- 1 tbs dried fennel seeds, lightly toasted and crushed in a mortar
- a clove of garlic, crushed
- 175ml fruity white wine
- 400g tin of Italian plum tomatoes
- a generous tablespoon of fresh marjoram or rosemary, roughly chopped
- olive oil for frying
Snip the sausage casings and squeeze out the meat, pinching it into small clumps as you go. Discard the skins, and wash your hands thoroughly – they will be very piggy.
Warm a casserole dish or deep frying pan (one with a lid) on a brisk flame. Add a splash of olive oil and fry the onion or fennel dice with the crumbled chilli and fennel seeds for a minute or so. Don’t let them overbrown. Now add the meat, breaking up any overlarge pieces with a wooden spoon. The ideal texture is tiny meatballs, rather than mince.
Move the meat around to brown it on all sides. Sprinkle in the garlic, add the wine and let it reduce. When it has all but evaporated, leaving nothing but a fruity tang, pour in the tomatoes, breaking them up if they are whole, and add half the herbs. Lower the heat, cover and let the sauce reduce gently to a thick, concentrated paste - about 45 minutes or so.
Add the rest of the herbs for the last ten minutes of cooking. Taste for seasoning – none should be needed. A little of the pasta-cooking water added before serving with penne or pappardelle will help the sauce coat the pasta. Finish with a light dusting of aged pecorino or Parmesan cheese.