To study the window of a Swiss butcher shop is an education in the art of the possible. It may not be easy to make the proverbial silk purse out of a pig’s ear, but Swiss butchers sure can make magnificent sausages. In November, 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 end was nigh for the family pig. With the harvest in and plowing done; potatoes, carrots, beets and turnips stored, and apples and pears ranged on shelves, things began to quiet down on the farm. As the weather turned cooler, thoughts turned to putting up provisions for winter. And in countries like Switzerland, pork was 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 too perishable to preserve by salting or smoking. These humbler parts — the fattier cuts as well as those pieces which the Brits refer to inelegantly as offal, and the Americans more poetically as variety meats — were chopped up, neatly encased inside lengths of the animal’s own well-scrubbed intestines tied off with string: sausages.
In times past, the slaughter and ensuing sausage feast were family affairs, a celebration of the harvest and an opportunity to invite the neighbors ’round and repay past favors. Nowadays, as the family pig becomes a distant memory, Swiss country inns are the heirs to this age-old custom.
The tradition of La Saint-Martin
The region that has upheld the tradition of the grand sausage feast most faithfully 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 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 Michelin two-star chef should know. He’s steeped in the best traditions of the Jura and has never lost touch with his roots. For the past 13 years, he has paid his own personal homage to La Saint-Martin with a spectacular menu at Georges Wenger, served at lunch and dinner from Nov. 10 for a solid two weeks. (If that span is elusive at the moment, it is worth remembering each year.) 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 this span in favor of homegrown organic pork, butchered and prepared from scratch by Wenger and his kitchen brigade.
Sausage celebrated at Georges Wenger Restaurant
The impressive, nine-course menu includes all the usual Saint-Martin suspects (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 considerable chutzpah.
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 foreign to most of them.
During these two weeks, the restaurant and guests experience something of a transformation. Out go the small round tables seating two to four people, in come big ones seating up to 12. 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 guests from across the border in neighboring Franche-Comté.
“We mix them all up!” smiles Wenger, “that’s [my wife] Andrea’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 pamphlets printed with the songs of the period. They are accompanied on the accordion that another has brought along.
“We like to re-create a place where people can talk to each other again,” concludes Wenger, “where they forget who they are.” This fine ambition, the true spirit of Saint-Martin, goes far beyond a mere menu.
Zester contributor Sue Style is a snapper-up of Swiss delicacies (especially sausages and cheese), the author of A Taste of Switzerland and, most recently, Cheese, Slices of Swiss Culture, both published by Bergli Books.
Top photo: Boudin noir with apples and beets at George Wenger.
Photo and slide show credit: Armand Stocker