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DWIGHT CASWELL

Fat-free? Ha!: Frenchie White of Montibella Sausage cooks up a mess of tasty sausage.

Local chefs build a better banger

By Dwight Caswell

THE SETTING is a Farmlands Group wine and food tasting on the elegant grounds of Sonoma-Cutrer Winery. At the tables beneath large white umbrellas, with manicured croquet lawns in the background, wineries, restaurants, and other food purveyors serve Sonoma County's famous cuisine. The grazing gourmands sip superlative chardonnays and sample organic breads, smoked scallop, eggplant pesto, sausage . . . Wait a minute: sausage? What is sausage doing here in the land of low fat and good health? Isn't there some kind of county ordinance about that?

"It's very low-fat sausage," says Frenchie White, who is standing at the Montibella Sausage table. "See that?" He gestures at a modest amount of fat in his frying pan. "I've cooked 50 pounds of sausage today, and that's all there is."

Discreetly checking the package, I find the label bears him out. Montibella sausages rang from 7 to 15 percent fat. Not only that, they come in flavors like "Chicken with Potato and Sun-Dried Tomato," "Lemon Chicken with Potato," and "Spicy Pork with Potato." And they're good, very good.

The secret to the low fat content isn't Olestra or some other chemical horror, but the humble potato. "I tried making sausage without the fat," says Montibella owner Skip Lott, "but you could have pounded nails with the result." The problem was that fat gives sausage its sinful texture and juiciness. Then Lott discovered the moisture-holding property of potatoes, and Montibella has done nothing but grow ever since.

The reason for that growth was not only Lott's recipes, but his timing. "Designer sausage" has become a culinary trend, and over 100 kinds are now available in Sonoma County. Not all are as low-fat as Montibella's, but they're leaner than commercial sausages, which by law may be 50 percent fat (those breakfast links in the supermarket cooler are at least 35 per cent).

What designer sausages have in abundance, regardless of fat, is flavor and variety. Dream up a sausage flavor, and you can probably find it in Sonoma County. If not, you can find someone to make it for you.

Sausage makers have different philosophies about their craft. They all want to produce a product that is delicious and distinctive (usually without artificial additives), but there are three approaches to fat: (1) Substitute for fat; (2) use meat low in fat; or (3) the hell with fat.

Montibella represents the first approach, and there are several examples of the second. One of these is Martindale's Quality Meats and Deli, where the first impression is an aroma delectable enough to tempt the most devout vegetarian. The cases are filled with meat of all kinds: aged beef and lamb, marinated sirloin, hickory-smoked ham. And row upon row of sausages, with those little butcher's signs proclaiming, to list a few, "Smoked Chicken Broccoli with Cheese," "Creole Style Smoked Chicken," "Celtic Bangers," and "Hawaiian Portuguese."

That last one "is linguisa with roasted chilies," says owner Ron Martindale, "only mine's about 18 percent fat, half what it would be if you got it in Hawaii." Most of Ron's sausages are 10 to 15 percent fat, with the chicken sausages as low as 5 percent.

Ron and his crew make all his products in a spotless plant visible from the meat counter. Most of the recipes are Ron's, and the flavors of even the spicy links (like "Meyguez," an Algerian lamb sausage) are complex, not merely hot.

Ron keeps the fat low by personally selecting the finest meat available. "I won't buy three fourths of the meat that's out there. I'm looking for what was 'choice' 25 years ago."

Making sausage, it turns out, is something like making bread. Bread is kneaded in order to break down the vegetable protein (gluten), and sausage meat must be "worked" while very cold to break down the animal protein (albumin). "If you do it right," Ron says," you don't need a lot of fat or fillers. All you need is salt, seasoning, and a little water. If you don't do it right, the texture is wrong. It falls apart when you cut it."

Dave Ruedlinger of Food for Thought also disdains fat. "In the old days natural-food stores didn't carry sausage, because they were made with meat byproducts and a ton of additives."

But times have changed; no pork snouts or ears for Dave. "I use only pork sirloin, and for the chicken sausages we use only thigh meat, with no bone or skin." Dave also uses Sonoma County products whenever possible, including Rocky the Range chicken and "Sonoma Lean" lamb. The result: 5-15 percent fat.

Another sausage maker who manufactures and retails in the same location is Oliver's Market, where 10 varieties are made and sold, with Thai and the crowd-pleasing Chicken Apple Sausages topping the popularity list.

The "to hell with fat" approach is usually found among restaurants and caterers, where fat is less of a concern.

At Night Owl Catering, chef Barbara Hom began getting requests for sausage from her customers. Since she makes everything from scratch, she came up with her own recipes for "Moroccan Lamb" and "Thai Dungeness Crab" sausages (the latter is one third chicken and contains--the secret ingredient-- peanut butter).

And at Healdsburg's Mangia Bene Restaurant, chef Todd Muir makes delicious sausage from venison, and "spicy Italian sausage" with fennel and chilies. "Sausage isn't supposed to be healthy," says the outspoken chef. "I want a meaty, juicy sausage with good texture."

Muir is not impressed with the proliferation of exotic flavors. "That's California, always pushing the envelope," he shrugs, "but do you like something because it's different, or because it's good?"

So-called designer sausages are available in such local markets as Petaluma Market, Fiesta Market, G&G, Montecito Market, Oliver's Market, Sonoma Market, the three Food for Thought markets, Martindale's Quality Meats and Deli, and Willowside Meats and Sausage Factory.

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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