One of the benefits of writing a food blog is that people are always making suggestions. Friends and acquaintances frequently share articles with me, send me ideas and tell me about their favorite restaurants and products. This is how I found out about Popper’s Sausage Kitchen. My co-worker Nathan sent me an email one day that included a product list from an artisanal sausage maker in Dover, New Hampshire. He told me that one of his wife’s co-workers had ordered some of this sausage and that is was delicious. What the heck, I thought, this is an interesting opportunity to try a local product and see what Popper’s Sausage Kitchen is all about.
It turned out to be quite an adventure. John “Popper” Medlin is the aforementioned sausage maker. When he started his culinary training, he discovered that he had a real knack for butchery and charcuterie. After culinary school, John opened his own place, Pepperland Cafe, and started making his own sausage. On day a customer asked John to visit their table and it turned out to be Master Sausage Maker Dick Jacobs, who invited the young chef to the Netherlands to train in the art of sausage making. Today, John makes many different kinds of sausage, hot dogs, pate, bacon and even what he calls “bacon jam”, some using very traditional recipes and some with contemporary twists, sourcing all his ingredients locally and regionally.
But procuring said meaty delicacies is no easy task. When I placed my first order earlier this year, John did not have a storefront, although he is working toward that goal. He sends out a monthly email with a product list, his customers place their orders by email and on the appointed day, they pick up their orders at a predetermined location. His product list is diverse and interesting, including fresh and smoked sausages with flavors like maple bourbon, sweet Italian, poblano cumin and several varieties with fruit. He makes fig and brandy, apricot and ancho, blueberry and tarragon and dried plum sausages. Each month he runs a special and when I placed my first order, the special was Thuringer bratwurst with a pound of homemade spaetzle. My co-worker Nathan also ordered sausage and I agreed to drive out to Dover, about an hour from where I live, and pick up both orders. It was a bizarre enterprise that felt vaguely like some kind of illegal drug deal. The pick-up location was a pub in downtown Dover. I walked in and there was John Popper Medlin sitting at the bar and on the pool table next to him was an enormous cooler. He fished my order out of the cooler; I wrote him a check and scurried off with a huge package of frozen sausage wrapped in butcher paper. I wasn’t sure if I needed to hide it under my coat and I must say, I had a strange conspicuous feeling when I walked out of that pub.
When I got home, I inspected the package. Since I was a new customer, John threw in a pound of his signature smoked brats. I took the Thuringers and spaetzle out and stuck the rest in the freezer. That night, we tasted Popper’s wares for the first time. The meat was the predominant flavor, but we could also taste caraway and other spices that gave the sausage a warm and earthy flavor. The next day, I carried Nathan’s order to work and left it in the freezer for him.
We placed two more orders during the spring and my freezer started filling up with sausage. I devised a plan to hold a sausage tasting and get impartial opinions from a hand-picked panel of discerning tasters. On Labor Day weekend, I fired up the grill and six people sat down to taste a plethora of sausages. I had five varieties to sample, four of them were Poppers sausage. On the grill were Popper’s smoked brats, fig and brandy, smoky the dog and apricot and ancho. On a recent trip to Texas, I’d brought home a package of Meyer’s Smokehouse spicy pork sausage, my favorite from Elgin, Texas. I decided to throw those into the mix to see how the tasters reacted. I served the sausage with potato salad, cole slaw and kraut and I put out buns, but I also asked the tasters to take their first bites plain with no adornment or condiments. This was a blind tasting and the results were as follows:
Two people placed the Meyers Texas sausage at the top of their lists. They liked the spicy and smoky flavor and appreciated the crispy pop of the sausage casing. Two people, including me, picked the smoked brat as their favorite. The pork flavor was front and center, but they had an herby flavor that was delicate and lovely and the smoke was not as assertive as the Texas sausage. Two people liked the smoky hot dog the best and I have to admit, it was a close second for me. On a bun with mustard and kraut, that smoky hot dog was absolute perfection.
The fruit sausages were not as popular. A couple of the tasters had a negative reaction to the seeds and alcohol flavor in the fig and brandy sausage, although a couple others found both the seeds and brandy to be surprisingly pleasant. The apricot and ancho sausage also got mixed reviews, some saying the pieces of apricot were too big and others commenting favorably on the ancho undertone. For all tasters, texture was a factor and they preferred a finer grind of meat. And they also preferred the smoked flavor. All in all, this was a fun experiment and it made me curious about the other products on Popper’s list. We’ll certainly be back for more of those amazing smoky hot dogs. And when John Popper Medlin finally opens his own store, I can stroll proudly down the streets of Dover, New Hampshire brandishing my package of sausage instead of sneaking it under my coat.