Ever since some bright spark had the idea to stuff intestines with coagulated animal blood, flavourings and other assorted filler ingredients, humans have been making the most of their livestock’s leftover bits, enjoying the results greatly. As a result almost every culture has some kind of black pudding tradition. Miss South and I have been enjoying black pudding in various forms for some time, and as our appreciation and fascination with blood sausage has grown, we’ve idly contemplated a sanguine side-by-side comparison of various favourites. So we finally did it, pitting six of the best we could track down next to each other. But before you read about that, I should make a confession.
I didn’t like black pudding as a kid. Not at all. Miss South and I had it once at the house of a family friend (both it and white pudding, another traditional Irish favourite) and it put me off for a long time. To be honest, I don’t think it was the taste or texture as much as the knowledge at the back of my mind of what it was made from. I wasn’t especially squeamish but it was just too ‘bloody offal’ to contemplate, nevermind enjoy eating. Besides, it wasn’t a family favourite so we had little exposure to black pudding: indeed our mum thinks our modern love of the black pudding is very very wrong, and she’s rarely judgemental about food. So I start this post knowing black pudding can be divisive and disgusting for many folk.
Fast forward to around eight years ago, when as a slightly more worldly adult I sat down to a magnificent Ulster fry at the Bushmills Inn. Perhaps unsurprisingly it came with black pudding, and I decided to allay my fears and taste a little of the dark slice on my plate. Boom… I was instantly converted to the dark pleasures of the black pud. At first gingerly I’d buy the odd link, cook some of it with a fry and then wonder what to do with the rest. After a while I started to add it to stews, sauces and hotpots, revelling in the depth and distinction it brings as a component, as well as a feature in its own right.
Over the last few years I’ve made up for lost time. I’ve eaten black pudding and peas at Bury Market, enjoyed morcilla with Miss South in Barcelona, added black pudding to a massive range of meals, and even introduced the vegetarian version to friends. Likewise Miss South has embraced the joys of a black pud and I regularly courier them to London alongside other local delicacies. She’s even fueled my interest further, buying me the delightful and diminutive “Stornoway Black Pudding Bible” by Seumas MacInnes for Christmas.
So we conspired to gather together a goodly selection of black puddings to taste, test and tantalise us on our quest for ever-greater knowledge. A get-together for my birthday recently provided the excuse we needed to get stuck in to a mammoth meat-fest, all in the interests of gastronomic research. Which black puddings made it through to the rider’s enclosure for this gory feast? Three from each of us, sourced in our respective locales, with the north providing entries from Britain and the south supplying Iberian candidates.
From Mister North, first up was the local entry from R.S. Ireland, based in Rossendale just over the hill from me, rather than near-neighbour Bury (but a very similar style). This is my regular black pudding choice which I buy in Todmorden market, and a veritable Lancashire classic. A short link, rather than a mammoth sausage, this is an archetypical northern English pud.
Secondly, some Marag which I picked up at the Border Country Foods stall at the Sunday market at Hebden Bridge. I didn’t know anything about this dark slice (but loved their description of “just a la’al bit spicy, eh” and we’d really enjoyed their Dux a couple of years ago) so this was an intriguing second northern English entry.
Moving farther north for number three, the oft lauded Stornoway Black Pudding from Charles Macleod (or Charley Barley, as everybody seems to affectionately call them). For the last couple of years we’d both heard tales of this Caledonian candidate: a mate who lived in the Western Isles for a while swears blind this is is the zenith of blood sausage. So when a colleague kindly offered to secure me some from Crombies in Edinburgh I jumped at the chance. As a patriotic gourmand he was convinced of the supremacy of Scotland, and Stornoway in particular, in the black pudding charts. I swapped him a couple of links of Lancashire black pud in return, and he waited for my verdict. More on that later.
Meanwhile Miss South had taken full advantage of the Latin flavours available in the heady climes of Brixton and Stockwell; sourcing a trio of exotic morcilla, morcela and ‘Mourish’ chouriço. We already knew and loved Spanish morcilla, with its distinctive spicing and rice filling it’s already made a couple of appearances here on the blog.
What we’d not tried before were the Portuguese versions: morcela was much darker and smaller, with loads of smoked paprika and a very rich, intense aroma.These samples were more like handmade cooking chorizo than a morcilla, although they were bloody enough in the packet to convince us of their haemic heritage.
Miss South had also provided a wildcard candidate: an intriguingly-named Mourish Chourizo. We don’t know very much about this, although I suspect there’s not a huge tradition of eating pig’s blood in the Maghreb so Moorish is possibly a bit of a misnomer, unless it refers to the spices and herbs used. However I only made one Portuguese flag for the photos so in some photos this fellow sports a fetching Moroccan number to distinguish it from the morcela.
We took this testing seriously; planning both to leave enough room for the six candidates on the day of the bloody banquet, but also the supporting cast on the plate. Miss South knocked up a superlative batch of potato bread while I poached a couple of duck eggs, and we sautéd some chestnut mushrooms and griddled some fresh English asparagus. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: asparagus, duck egg and black pud are a holy trinity. Had the neighbours walked past my kitchen window at this point they’d probably have thought we were slightly deranged, posing and snapping every combination of proud puds and building up the excitement levels to dangerous levels.
Wanting to maintain a semblance of healthiness we to elected to grill, rather than fry, the assembled sausages. We cracked open a beer… this was my birthday weekend and even if it was still morning when we ate I was determined we’d celebrate this long-awaited moment. When we did eventually sat down to tackle a behemoth plateful of blood sausage a satisfied silence descended, broken only by occasional monosyllabic comments. There was bloody serious work to be done here.
Never mind the meat sweats, I’m sure I was close to having blood sweats by the time I managed to clear my plate. Weighed done by both charcuterie and sagely thoughts, we made a pot of tea and retired to mull over the results. All the candidates had their merits and were quite distinct. The local link (sounds like a bus service) was familiar, friendly and jewelled with white fat, but struggled to compete with the more distinctive flavours of the others. Marag had a good texture, almost like fruit cake, and plenty of bite from black pepper, as they’d warned. The Stornoway was the smoothest of the lot, more pâté-like. The flavour, too, is rich without being overwhelmed by herbs, and the oats gave it a smoothness against the bite of the English barley.
Meanwhile the Iberian trio were all jostling for attention too. The morcilla was pretty good: we both love the bite of the rice and the spices, and we’d enjoyed it a couple of evenings before with fabulous pork chops. This wasn’t the best morcilla I’ve ever had, but it represented Spain well. Across the border the morcela had the most dominant presence: rich, smoked paprika galore, and a sourness from the fermentation. It was also rather oily and didn’t fare well under the grill, almost turning inside out in the heat. Don’t get me wrong, this would be a great as an ingredient in a dish, but it was the loudest and most brash flavour on the plate. Meanwhile the chourizo was firm and fine
Could we decide a winner? Actually, this wasn’t terribly difficult as one front-runner emerged rather rapidly. The smooth, refined texture and flavour of Charlie Barley’s Stornoway took pole position, due to Miss South’s enthusiasm. I say objective as I’d eaten a series of well-rationed portions from frozen over the previous couple of months (and had conceded to my colleague that Scots beat Lancashire hands-down), whereas Miss South had never eaten it before. Our interest had been piqued by the reputation and writings about this Hebridean food hero, but in the end it was a champion due to its superlative texture and taste. Move over haggis, your time as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin-race” may well be over. Even if the idea of black pudding is inherently off-putting to you, you should try a bit of Charley Barley’s pudding. You may well be converted by this sublimely smooth operator.
However the trouble with trying to get a definitive grasp of any subject or field is that as soon as you do it you realise there are plenty of potential challengers you’ve not examined. Now this epic tasting session feels less like the ultimate black pudding cook-off, and more like round one of an ongoing series of exploratory heats. This time Charley Barley’s tops the North/South Food charts, but there are many more wonderful options to try from around the world. With our background of course we just have to sample some decent Irish black pudding; perhaps a Clonakilty or some of McCarthy’s artisan Boar’s Head; an ‘official’ Bury black pudding; perhaps a special from Dudley; some boudin noir from France; bloodwurst from Germany; Korean soondae. The list goes on and on…
Incidentally, if you want to know more about about black pudding (sounds like one of those warnings you get on the BBC… “if anything in this blog post has affected you please call…”) you could do significantly worse than to visit the nice folk at blackpudding.org The site launched recently as an online celebration of all things bloody and sausage-y, and is stuffed with facts and fans of black pudding. Looking at the world of the true black pudding aficionado, I realise we’ve still got a lot more varieties to trial and taste. Bloody marvellous!