The Swiss are champion sausage makers all year round, but it’s in November that Wurst really comes into its own. This is the season for the country’s annual sausage feasts, variously called Metzgete (in German-speaking areas), La Saint Martin (in French-speaking parts) or la mazza (where Italian is spoken).
Traditionally, November signaled that the game was up for the family pig. With the harvest in and ploughing done, potatoes, carrots, beets and turnips stored, and apples and pears ranged on shelves, things began to quieten down on the farm. As the weather turned cooler, thoughts turned to putting up provisions for winter. And in countries like Switzerland, porky provisions were always a big part of the mix.
The chief objective was to set aside a store of meat for the whole winter. But as anyone who has ever dispatched a pig will know, along with the legs, shoulders, ribs and roasts, there are always bits and pieces that are perfectly good but too perishable to be preserved by salting or smoking. These humbler parts – the fattier cuts as well as those pieces which the Brits refer to as offal, and the Americans as variety or organ meats — were chopped up, neatly encased inside lengths of the animal’s own well scrubbed intestines and the ends tied off with string: in a word, sausages.
In times past, the slaughter and ensuing sausage feast were a family affair, a celebration of the harvest and an opportunity to invite the neighbors round and to repay past favors. Nowadays, as the family pig becomes a distant memory, it’s the Swiss country inns that are the heirs to this age-old custom.
The region that has upheld most faithfully the tradition of the grand sausage feast is the Swiss Jura, particularly the northwestern part known as the Ajoie, where the occasion goes by the name of La Saint Martin. “You have to understand,” explains chef Georges Wenger of the eponymous restaurant in Le Noirmont high up in the Jura, “La Saint Martin is much more than un simple évènement de table (a mere meal) — it’s a popular tradition in the Jura that dates back centuries.” He rehearses the rationale for the feast — the harvest was home, farm workers’ contracts were up for renewal, winter was at the door, bringing the cold weather necessary to preserve the meats. “But most of all,” adds Wenger with feeling, “it’s a social event!”
The chef should know. In spite of his two-star Michelin status, he’s steeped in the best traditions of the Jura and has never lost touch with his roots. Every year for the past 13 years he has paid his own personal homage to La Saint Martin with a spectacular menu, which is served at lunch and dinner from 10 November for two solid weeks. Forget foie gras, lobster, milk-fed lamb and turbot, the kind of raw materials more commonly found in Wenger’s kitchens. All are banished during these two weeks in favor of homegrown, organic pork, butchered and prepared from scratch by Wenger and his kitchen brigade.
It’s an impressive, nine-course menu that includes all the usual Saint Martin suspects (brawn/head cheese, bouillon, blood sausage, pork sausage, pork roast, choucroute, plum compote and damson ice cream), but interpreted – as you’d expect from a stellar chef – with a light(ish) touch and a mischievous sense of fun.
The real beauty of La Saint Martin chez Wenger, persists the chef, is not so much the food, or the local white and red wines and draft beer that flow freely, or the locally distilled fruit Schnapps. It’s the fun of getting people together in a very special context, one that is certainly quite foreign to most of them.
For during these two weeks, both restaurant and guests undergo something of a transformation. Out go the small round tables seating two to four people, in comes a series of big ones seating up to twelve. Suits, ties and plunging décolletés are left at home. Private bankers from Geneva rub shoulders with Brits who come each year from Manchester for the feast; local Swiss share tables with French people from across the border in neighboring Franche-Comté.
“We mix them all up!” smiles Wenger, “that’s Andrea [his wife]’s job – you need le bon mix pour que la mayonnaise prenne!” (“you need the right mix so the mayonnaise thickens!”). Some come dressed up as fine 18th-century Jura farmers, bringing with them pamphlets printed with the songs of the period, which are accompanied on the accordion that another has brought along for the occasion.
“We like to re-create a place where people can talk to each other again,” concludes Wenger, “where they forget who they are.” It’s a fine ambition indeed, the true spirit of Saint Martin, which goes way beyond a mere menu.
Menu Saint Martin photographs copyright Armand Stocker
Restaurant & Hotel Georges Wenger
2 rue de la Gare,
2340 Le Noirmont
Le Menu Saint Martin 2013 is served at lunch and dinner from 7th-17th November.
A version of this article appeared first on www.zesterdaily.com