Making artisanal sausage with local links."Mystery meat" is a disparaging and frightening term for sausages of all types. True, it is made from the less desirable parts of an animal, as it should be, in a tail-to-snout philosophy, but ugh. Do you really want to know what is in there? Do you want to look behind the curtain?Yes, says John "Popper" Medlin of Popper's Sausage Kitchen (PSK) in Dover. Medlin is all about transparency. He wants his customers to know what meats are in his sausages and the dedicated local farms where the animals are raised. He is even concerned about what the livestock eat. As his business card says, "You are what your food eats."Medlin has been preparing sausages for about four years, working out of a variety of kitchens on the Seacoast. Currently he sells his product to Popper's Sausage Kitchen club members at a monthly pickup in Dover at the Barley Pub. But he has bigger plans.One evening at the Barley Pub the bartender said, "Hey, you two should meet, you both like pigs." Fortunately, they understood what he meant. Medlin was introduced to Joachim Barth, a young lawyer whose parents had just bought a farm in Lee. Barth and Medlin found they were both interested in local food sourcing - from farm to the final product - for environmental and health reasons. It came together pretty quickly. John and Marie Barth, Joachim's parents, now provide pork and chickens for sausages. The couple retired from their professional jobs to live and work on a self-sustaining farm. Joachim has partnered with Medlin to build a retail storefront in downtown Dover.Planned for an August opening, Popper's Sausage Kitchen will be more than a deli case filled with links. Medlin, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, will also be serving his Pop Dogs, Smokey the Dogs and Dwatt Dogs, offering his own ketchups, ground mustards and a variety of pickled vegetables, chutneys and jams as condiments. Diners can sit at a 19-foot communal table and enjoy pork pies, chicken pot pies, mac 'n cheese and sausage sandwiches made with buns prepared in a Hole-E-Cow toaster. The machine makes a perfect pocket in the center and toasts the bread from the inside, too.Medlin has done his due diligence in culinary training. In 2001 he came from Omaha to attend McIntosh College in Dover for his Cordon Bleu training and decided to stay in New England. With partners, he opened Pepperland Café in South Berwick, Maine, to rave reviews. While at Pepperland, a visiting sausage maker from Holland was impressed with his venison sausage and eventually Medlin left Pepperland for a six-month apprenticeship abroad. In Holland he learned European techniques to make dry-aged meats, emulsified sausage, fermented summer sausage and the importance of developing relationships with suppliers.Back in New Hampshire he has found trusting relationships with the Barths, Kellie Brook Farm, Birch Hill Farm and Ryan Frye at Emerson Farm, who is also a partner.Frye, originally from New York City, has what could be called a gentleman's farm. He asked Medlin to process his sausages to his specifications, which excludes the use of nitrites. Nitrites are traditionally added to all processed meat for proper curing and for the pink color.Medlin has experimented with reducing salt and nitrite additions as much as practical. His product does not have any fillers and he claims it is those fillers that demand the high sodium levels found in commercial products. Also, his farmers do not use restaurant flop to feed their pigs, making his products acceptable to those with Celiac disease. If there is a healthy hot dog, his might lead the pack.Without the benefit of a USDA kitchen, Medlin has the animals processed at Lemay & Sons in Goffstown. He receives the animal carcass cut in half along with a bag of innards. As a seam butcher following the naturally defined lines in the musculature of the meat, he can use the product most efficiently, grinding up each cut for a specific sausage. Yes, he uses it all, except for the tenderloin, which is saved for special use. Ironically, the tenderloin is the only part prized by some chefs.Most of his sausages are made from Heritage Breed pork pastured at the Barths' farm. Barth has Old English varieties, including Gloucestershire Old Spot, Tamworth and Large Black, each with flavorful characteristics. The mantra of the Heritage breeders is "Eating them to preserve them."With his prime quality swine, Medlin uses his creative ideas to produce some unusual sausage flavors. His favorite may be the Bournewurst with a hint of clove and nutmeg and a touch of Dijon mustard, in an ode to the house sausage where he trained. Other combinations include a touch of sweet with figs and brandy or savory with his breakfast sausage with sage and ginger. Other products include bacon, liverwurst with apples and fried onions, and country paté with pork, chicken liver and ham with a taste of hay. Hay? Medlin says it gives the meat a "country" flavor.His hot sausages are just that. He says, "I do not play around." Spicy varieties include a Spanish chorizo, hot Italian and poblano cumin, which is perfect for tacos. In addition to bacon, his hot dogs are customer favorites, including the Pop Dogs with garlic and onion, and special dogs that include caramelized onion and garlic. Medlin seems to enjoy experimenting with sausages and more, so you may be surprised at what may turn up in the future. I heard tell of a demand for his bacon-wrapped carrot cake for the ultimate marriage of sweet and savory. I imagine the carrots were local, too. NHClick here for Chef John Medlin's Grilled Jalapeno Poppers recipe.
This article appears in the June 2011 issue of New Hampshire Magazine