Two years ago, I ate such a good sausage, I never stopped thinking about it.
I ate it during a weeklong house party of friends at a chateau in Rougemont, in the Swiss Alps, a few miles from Gstaad. Directly across from the chateau, a small funicular rose thousands of feet from the valley floor to the Rubli, a craggy granite promontory. Five of us climbed into two small red gondolas and rode high above green grassy hills, stands of pine trees, clusters of clanking cows. Up, up, over the tree line, we cast shadows on gravel screes until we reached a barnlike structure at the very top and disembarked.
On every side lay jagged Alps, green valleys dotted with tidy brown chalets. Above, blue sky, fat white clouds. We set out down the mountain on foot, zigging and zagging for several hours until we came to a restaurant in a meadow near a rushing stream — the Chalberhoni. We took a table under an awning on the porch, and ordered green salads, white veal sausages, French fries.
The sausages were soft and light as air, mild yet tasty, just borderline miraculous. Curiously, nobody spoke of the sausages as we ate them — I think each was silenced by the small, unexpected pleasure. Not until several nights later, when I told new visitors about the sausages, did the other sausage eaters chime in with equally ardent praises.
Throughout my weeklong stay, then, I ordered veal sausages in cafes and restaurants around the area, assuming the quality was local, possibly generic. But other sausages were coarser, drier, less flavorful. Home in Los Angeles, I found that Atlas, a sausage company in North Hollywood, made excellent, light veal sausages — but these proved that food is more than what you put in your mouth. Eating takeout Atlas sausages in Atwater, I missed the Swiss summer air with its scent of fresh-mowed hay and constant clanking cowbells.
Two years passed, and five of our party met again in the chateau in Rougemont. By mutual agreement, on the very first day we set off, our destination sausage.
Wildflowers — orange dandelions, purple campanulas, white and yellow marguerites, pink clover — peppered the fields. In one stretch, the air smelled of raspberries; we pulled them warm and ripe from the bushes. We passed huge, healthy milk cows, white and red in patches, and greeted calves that had spiked rings in their noses for weaning.
Memory, we reminded each other, is tricky, apt to distort, embellish, burnish and otherwise set us up for disappointment. Indeed, I had forgotten how frightening it was to ride up the mountainside in the tiny gondola — and also how green the grass and vast the view. I‘d also forgotten how long and steep the descent was on foot, how dangerous the loose gravel trails, the unremitting strain on our knees. Several times we had the same conversation.
”The sausage won’t be as wonderful as we remember it,“ one person would say.
”It probably won‘t be as fluffy,“ another might rue. ”Or as creamy.“
”If we even get to eat them,“ a third would whine.
Our progress was so slow, there was some question about whether we’d reach the Chalberhoni in time for lunch. Finally, we spotted the wide wooden porch with its familiar red, yellow and blue umbrellas. And yes, lunch was still being served.
We ordered sausages with salads and, this time, rosti, the national dish of crusty, butter-drenched shredded potatoes — part hash browns, part potatoes Anna. These spuds, dark brown, profoundly crisp, scattered with salt, were stunning. And the sausage? Slashed symmetrically, grilled to a toasty brown, served with individual tubes of mild mustard, it was every bit as subtle, rich and meaty as we recalled, and so fine-grained as to seem silken. But it was firmer than before, even bouncy. A bit like a white knackwurst. Not creamy. Nor remotely fluffy. ”Not bad,“ we agreed, and promptly began to argue about what made the sausage bouncy.
”Cooked too long,“ said one person.
”Too much filler,“ speculated another.
”Filler?“ said a third. These weren‘t ”filled“ sausages, she said. She’d lived on a farm and seen calves butchered — ”You take out the intestines to where they turn brown,“ she said. These lengths, when knotted, became milk-fed sausages.
The medical doctor among us chuckled and accused her of ”primary process thinking“ — like thinking baby oil is made from babies.
Before our sausage argument reached an acrimonious stalemate, we resolved to seek a professional opinion. Back at the local Rougemont boucherie, a young butcher revealed the secrets of Swiss sausage making. Swiss veal sausages, he said, are stuffed with ground veal, pork fat, dried milk, spices, and usually ice, then promptly precooked. (The ice prevents them from cooking too quickly.) The lightness of the sausage has more to do with the amount of dried milk in the recipe, he said, than length of cooking time.
Some things, a person is just as happy never knowing. Now, however, I‘m obsessed with something new. How in the world do you make that rosti?
Atlas Sausage Kitchen, 10626 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood; (818) 763-2692. Open Tues.–Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m.