No list of quintessentially British foods would be complete without a mention of the humble sausage - except it’s not so modest these days, of course.
Go back a few short years and the sausage repertoire didn’t extend much beyond pork and beef with the odd local variant like the Lincolnshire and Cumberland thrown in for good measure.
If you weren’t buying bland, additive-laden, rusk-filled mass-produced bangers, how exciting an independently-made sausage was depended on the creator’s own secret blend of herbs and seasoning.
It wasn’t proving a recipe for success. A decade ago it looked like Britons’ long love affair with sausages was coming to an end. With traditional cooked breakfasts on the decline and poor quality brands flooding the market, the writing was on the wall for the once great British banger.
But a remarkable transformation has taken place in its fortunes and sausages are once again sizzling.
One of the reasons is the huge diversity of flavours and meats now available, from venison and goat to more exotic types like ostrich and wildebeest reflecting both the UK’s varied culture and the fact we have always had the travel bug.
The traditional mixed herbs and pepper varieties, while still popular, have been joined by newcomers featuring hot chillies, orchard fruits, sweet and sour Asian pairings, spicy and fragrant North African overtones and even cheese.
There’s also an increased interest in all things British – no doubt fuelled by the recession as people hanker after seemingly better times – with sausages and other home-grown comfort foods being championed by celebrity chefs and consumers.
Of course, sausages aren’t uniquely British. They are a source of great national foodie pride in Germany, for instance. But we do like to think we have cornered the market in them.
Once seen as working class fare, properly-made artisan sausages have now been reinvented to become posh nosh.
So it was perhaps only a matter of time before a restaurant dedicated to this emblem of British culture and taste opened in Newcastle.
The aptly-named Sausage Emporium is the brainchild of couple John and Briony Holliday, aided and abetted by the real star of the show - their friendly and extremely adorable wired-haired dachshund (more commonly known as a sausage dog) Hannah!
It opened last month in the suitably working class and industrial surroundings of a railway arch at the bottom end of the Westgate Road near the Central Station.
The focus is on serving quality bangers, with trained chef John, 37, and his colleague Tom Mullins, 27, making everything from scratch on site in the open-plan kitchen using the finest locally-sourced ingredients.
There is a coriander, lime and coconut spiced sausage, a triple chilli with habanero, jalapenos and chipotle and even a veggie version made from beetroot, lentils and wild mushrooms.
Traditionalists are catered for with a real ale sausage utilising Northumberland-brewed Wylam beer with mashed potato, seasonal vegetables and gravy, the latter served in a cosy covered teapot - a tip Briony picked up on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to keep it hot and prevent it going gelatinous.
And a giant hot dog with sauerkraut, gherkin fritters and bratkartoffeln (pan-fried potatoes) is a culinary nod towards Briony’s German ancestry on her mother’s side.
It’s not all about sausages, though. John and Briony, 38, may be passionate about them but they are canny enough to know they also need to cater to other tastes.
Seafood dishes, including oysters and crab cakes, all sourced from North Shields Fish Quay; steak, pasta and pulled-pork can also be found on the menu. And there is an impressive range of desserts (the chocolate melt in the middle soufflé is apparently already proving popular with diners).
For John – who is currently making around 40 kilos of sausages a week - the venture is more than just a novel marketing ploy to lure in diners looking for the next culinary trend.
When he says sausages are his life it is no idle comment. John comes from a long line of butchers and learned to make sausages at a young age, believing he would one day step into the family business.
But his dad – also called John – who still runs J Holliday and Son Butchers in Pelaw, Gateshead, urged him to broaden his horizons, believing there was no long-term future in butchery following the BSE (mad cow disease) and salmonella scandals and then the disastrous foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001.
Instead, John junior trained to be a chef at Newcastle College and worked at the Fisherman’s Lodge and Vermont hotels in the city before heading for Manchester and Oliver Peyton’s Mash and Air restaurant.
He then went to Nottingham and joined the team at the Pitcher and Piano. It was here he met Briony who was working as a jewellery designer and maker.
The couple headed off ‘Down Under’ and John cheffed his way around Australia before returning to his native Tyneside with Briony where he landed a job at the popular Heartbreak Soup on Newcastle Quayside.
When that closed he joined his father at the butcher’s shop opened by his grandad in 1965, and among the skills he specialised in was sausage-making.
He broadened the repertoire and introduced such flavours as spring onion, ginger and coriander and onion bhaji, which proved surprisingly popular.
After five years John decided the time was right to strike out on his own and combine his love of cooking and sausages. “I had always wanted to own my own restaurant,” he says. “Briony and I had some money put aside and decided to go for it.”
They found the arch, liked the location and feel of the area in the centre of Newcastle and with John’s sausage-making skills he says “it was a natural progression to open a restaurant specialising in them. I thought I may as well use it to my advantage.
“There are so many different flavours and combinations that you can achieve – there are an infinite number of things you can do – and everyone loves sausages.
“Along with things like shepherd’s pie, roast beef, real ale and cheese, sausages are a great British food tradition. They are real comfort food, but at the same time you can do so much with them that takes them beyond the norm.
“I’m looking at putting venison ones on the menu next year and we’ve had turkey and cranberry on for Christmas.”
The Sausage Emporium is not unique. Eateries dedicated to sausages have opened to great success in other parts so the country. But there is certainly nothing like it around here.
Briony works front of house in the quirky restaurant which has the feel of a Tube station with its arched ceiling, white corrugated iron walls and recesses which have been made into private booths.
She admits she wasn’t a fan of British sausages until she met John. “My mum is German and when I was younger I didn’t particularly like British sausages but I did love German ones.
“Then when I tried John and his dad’s really high-quality sausages I realised just how great they could be. In terms of flavour and quality, sausages made by a butcher are a million miles away from the bland, mass-produced ones.”
John, who uses meat from his dad’s shop, adds: “People have this idea that sausages are made from all the rubbishy bits of left-over meat but if you buy the right high-quality ones they’re not.”
Briony and John are confident the Sausage Emporium is filling a much needed dining out void in Newcastle – and at home too. For, there are plans to open a deli within the restaurant next year to meet a growing demand from diners for takeaway sausages.
“People are fed up with mass-produced sausages and want something better,” John maintains. “We are making something people want to eat and we hope will be the best they have ever had.
“They’re a classic hearty British food. Just think of good old fashioned dishes like toad in the hole. They’re affordable and people have happy memories of them.
“We do a great ale sausage and mash but at the same time we know people don’t want to have the same flavour all the time. We are giving people the option.”
Diners have been ranging in age from their early 20s to 50s - “people like us who enjoy good food in a relaxed atmosphere and who like something a bit different and don’t want to be eating at the big chains”, Johns says.
It’s not just the food which has been proving a hit; so has Hannah. Dogs and food don’t usually mix but Briony says: “We adopted her 13 months ago and she doesn’t like being left on her own, she enjoys the company of humans.
“Out of the hundreds we have served we have only had two diners complain.
“She is our inspiration, our face and the best meet-and-greet dog in the world.”
:: The Sausage Emporium, Arch 6, Westgate Road, Newcastle, NE1 1SA, 0191 340 3082, www.thesausageemporium.com