‘You have to be joking!’ challenged an incredulous friend who telephoned just as we were dashing out of the house one winter’s evening. ‘You’re going to drive two hours from Alsace down to Lake Biel – in Switzerland – to eat a sausage? That must be some Wurst!’
Years ago, when I was researching A Taste of Switzerland, I came across a mention of a Swiss sausage feast known as a Treberwurstfrass. The book (originally published in the UK in 1992 and in print without a break till last year, thanks to blessed Bergli Books) extols the greatly underestimated and overlooked virtues of Swiss food, not least some pretty fancy sausagery.
This marvellous event, I learnt, was a speciality of wine-growing villages all along the shores of lake Biel and lake Neuchâtel. Traditionally put on by the vignerons during the quiet months of January and February, it required three elements: firstly, it had to be down-time in the vineyards when the vigneron was at a slightly loose end. Second, it should be distilling time when the pips and grape skins (the ‘Treber’) from the previous autumn’s harvest were being brewed up to make marc. And thirdly, a Treberwurstfrass required a plentiful supply of sausages, which were traditionally made during the winter months when the family pig met his end.
A wine-grower with time on his hands, a modicum of marc, some handsome (and probably perishable) sausages – and a group of like-minded friends and/or family: such, I had learnt, are the necessary ingredients for a Treberwurstfrass. Now, finally, I had the chance to taste them.
We battled down through the Jura on a winter’s night in driving rain, emerging two hours later in the little village of Twann at the appointed hour. There wasn’t a soul in sight, but we knew it must be the right place: insistent aromas of winey marc inextricably entwined with that of smoked sausages were sneaking about the courtyard. We poked our heads round the door and caught four burnished copper stills in flagrante. Steam issued from every orifice. The precious clear liquid dripped into waiting buckets.
Monsieur Ruff, our host for the evening, appeared and waved us into the cave. But first he unscrewed the copper top of the still, raised its dome and proudly showed us the sausages reclining in their roasting pan, which was set on a bed of gently seething, powerfully fragrant pips, skins and stalks.
In the cave the party was already well underway. Two large groups of fellow Treberwurst-Fressers were seated on wooden benches at long refectory-type tables, and were doing considerable damage to Monsieur Ruff’s fruity Chasselas. Huge bowls of potato salad flecked with chives were set on the tables, followed by baskets of rough country bread.
In came the patron, holding high his precious trophies, hot from the still. He set them down on a serving table, doused them liberally with marc and proceeded to set the whole thing alight.
Swiss sausages (made of real meat, no rusk to mop things up and bulk things out) have a nasty habit of exploding and showering their juice all over unwary guests when pierced after cooking. Monsieur Ruff – a master of sausage slicing as well as of marc distilling – deftly capped each sausage with a slice of bread, then plunged a fork down through the bread and into the sausage. Treated this way, the juices seeped gently into the bread and danger of splashback was averted.
We bent low over our plates, closed our eyes and inhaled the vapours emerging from the thick, bias-cut slices of sausage. It seemed hardly necessary to eat them, rather like nosing a particularly fine wine. But eat them we did. And what sausages! Succulent, tender, lightly smoky and staggering with marc, they were quite simply the best (and booziest) bangers we’d ever encountered.
All memories of our two-hour drive through lashing rain melted away (along with the prospect of the return journey, conveniently forgotten in the heat of the moment) as we tucked in contentedly. It was indeed, as our friend had surmised, a Wurst to remember.
For more on the Treberwurstfrass on Lake Biel and an address list of places where you can eat this wondrous Wurst during the winter months, go to: http://www.bielerseewein.ch/pdf/treberwurst.pdf