We all remember Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago, cunningly impersonated by Ferris Bueller when he wanted to take his friends to lunch at a fancy restaurant on his day off. It was to honour him that Ryan Donovan named his spectacular new trophy The Froman Pump. It is part of the prize for winning the Sausage League, the four-month-long competition that came to a fascinating conclusion last night at Marben restaurant, where Donovan is co-chef and butcher. The pump itself is an antique sausage-making machine, rescued from Craig’s List and turned into the Froman Pump by sculptor Iner Souster. Together with temporary custody of the trophy (and a name plaque on its base) the new champion has won a trip to Chicago courtesy of Marben and Porter Airlines.
There were three finalists last night, all of whom had fought their way through tough heats during the summer. Chris Brown from The Stop Community Food Centre was there. Jesse Vallins from Trevor Kitchen and Bar was the second competitor. Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille from Pizzeria Libretto/Enoteca Sociale completed the field. Though there were three of us judging – Jamie Drummond from Good Food Revolution, Kurt Krumme of West Side Beef Co. and me – this was essentially a people’s choice award. Twenty-five bucks bought all three dishes plus a Steamwhistle beer – a great bargain, to be sure.
Jesse Vallins prepared an “all night breakfast” as his dish. The sausage looked absolutely splendid – one of the most beautiful and perfectly formed bangers I’d ever seen. He had ground pork shoulder and belly very finely and spiced it with a subtle blend of mace, ginger, sage and white pepper for a sweet, delicate flavour. Sharing the plate was a lightly cooked poached egg that wobbled and trembled until I stabbed it with my knife. There were soft baked beans, a grilled tomato on top of a disc of fondant potato and a slice of fried bread. Vallins had even gone to the trouble of making his own version of HP sauce – not quite as tangily tamarind-fuelled as the commercial version but much more delicious. It was a great breakfast to be sure and though there were one or two reports of customers finding the egg underdone, the judges (especially Mr. Krumme) were delighted with the dish.
Chris Brown’s creation was a play on cassoulet. His sausage was magnificent, a Toulouse-style pork sausage flavoured with nutmeg, wine and garlic and with a delectable mixture of textures inside with some larger pieces of pulled pork in the finely ground matrix of meat. A smooth rich purée of navy beans and duck fat lay under the sausage and there were soft, tasty nubbins of duck confit here and there. A little mound of choucroute brought a pleasant acidity to the general richness and a piece of ethereal pork crackling was the jaunty crown. As a condiment, Brown added some smooth purple fermented grape mustard that had a sly dry heat that sneaked up on the tongue like a murderous ninja.
Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille gave us their version of piggy-in-a-blanket. They too had made a pork sausage out of shoulder and belly but they had breaded it before frying it so that the juicy sausage was hidden in a crunchy crust. Flavours were big and spiky in this dish. The sausage itself was forthrightly peppery while the salad of cherry tomato and parsley was dressed with tangy pickling juice and the chefs’ house-made bomba. The base-note came from a thick, rich roasted onion aïoli.
Three great dishes. My own vote went to Chris Brown because I thought his dish was so well conceived and because I loved the texture of his sausage. In the end, however, it was Rocco Agostino and Matty DeMille who garnered the most votes. They will get to keep the Froman Pump until next year when the Sausage League will once again unfold itself. The whole thing has been so successful that Ryan Donovan is considering separate competitions in Ottawa and Niagara in 2012. I trust Agostino and DeMille will eat well in Chicago and that they will make all dinner reservations in the name of Froman.