A Brief History of Foods: Blood Sausage
Updated: Jan 5
Introduction As the name implies, blood sausages are sausages filled with blood that is cooked or dried and mixed with a filler until it is thick enough to solidify when cooled. Variants of the basic recipe are found worldwide. Indeed, in many languages there is a general term such as blood sausage (American English) or blood pudding (British English) used for all sausages that are made from blood, whether or not they include non-animal material such as bread, cereal, and nuts. Sausages that include such ingredients are often called by more specific names such as black pudding in Britain.
Blood puddings, or black puddings as they will be referred to from hereon, are supposed to be one of the oldest forms of sausage. Animals are generally bled at slaughter, and as blood does not keep unless prepared in some way, making a pudding with it is one of the easiest ways of ensuring it does not go to waste. While the majority of modern black pudding recipes involve pork blood, this has not always been the case. The blood of pigs, cows, horses, donkeys, sheep, ducks and goats have all been used. One 15th century English recipe used that of a porpoise in a pudding to be eaten exclusively by the nobility. While in Scotland, until at least the 19th century, cow or sheep blood was the usual basis for black puddings; Jamieson's Scottish dictionary defined "black pudding" as "a pudding made of the blood of a cow or sheep".
Ancient History The earliest appearance in literature of a type of black pudding was around 800 BC when it was mentioned in Book 18 of Homer's classic saga “The Odyssey”:
“Here at the fire are goats' paunches lying, which we set there for supper, when we had filled them with fat and blood.”
The first recognisable recipe, using lengths of intestine, rather than a stomach, as the container can be found in Book 2 of Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (“On Cookery”). The Apician recipe botellum sic facies instructs the cook to:
“Take the yolks of six hard-boiled eggs, chopped pine nuts, onion, and sliced leeks, and mix with blood [and forcemeats]. Add ground pepper and fill the intestine with the stuffing. Cook in stock and wine.”
Mediæval Meal In Britain the dish has been known as black pudding for centuries; blak podyngs having been recorded c. 1450. A number of dialect names have also been used for the dish, such as black pot in Somerset and bloody pot, particularly in reference to versions cooked in an earthenware pot rather than in a sausage casing. The latter seems very reminiscent of the descriptions of the ancient Spartan melas zomos, or black broth.
Throughout the Mediæval period it was commonplace for even relatively poor families to own, raise and slaughter a pig each autumn. Not wishing to let any of the animal go to waste, the pig’s blood might be blended with minced onions and diced fat, spiced with ginger, cloves and a little pepper, and stuffed into lengths of intestine to make black puddings. As a product of the slaughtering process, eating black puddings was historically associated with Martinmas, when the annual slaughter of livestock took place.
Black Pudding’s Religious Controversy In the late 17th-century, at a time of numerous disagreements on matters of religion, the consumption of black pudding became highly controversial. In 1652, Thomas Barlow, a future bishop of Lincoln, wrote the “Trial of a Black-Pudding” in which he asserted that God had specifically proscribed blood eating among the Hebrews. Barlow claimed that no meat was unclean in itself, but black pudding was a violation of both Jewish law and the Christian exemptions as dispensed by the Apostles. Many Christian scholars (particularly Methodists) thus argued that Christians were not to eat blood products and black pudding was definitely off the menu.
At some point Sir Isaac Newton was dragged into the middle of these arguments. In “Vegetable Love”, an article for The New Yorker in January 2007, Steve Shaplin wrote “it was put about that Sir Isaac Newton abstained from this dish because of the Old Testament prohibition against eating blood.” It turns out, however, that he “thought the eating of blood inclined men to be cruel [to animals]” and had nothing to do with a religious conviction. Even so, those against the eating of blood products claimed Newton’s abstinence from black pudding as non-religious support of their beliefs. By the time of Newton’s death (in 1727), both sides of the black-pudding debate had been feuding for almost 100 years. To this day black pudding still divides people between those who enjoy eating it and those disgusted by the prospect.
By the 19th-century black pudding manufacture was linked with towns known for their large markets for pork, such as Stretford, then in Lancashire, or Cork in Ireland. By this time, black puddings were generally omitted from recipe books aimed at urban housewives, as they no longer usually had access to home-killed pork. Recipes would continue to appear in Scottish books until the 20th-century, however.
A Nutritious Meal Black pudding is a good daily source of protein and iron, is low in carbohydrate, but many have very high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.
The most traditional recipes from the UK involve stirring the fresh blood, adding fat and some form of rusk, typically oats or barley, and seasoning, before filling the mixture into a casing and boiling it. Despite this, black pudding recipes still show more regional variation across the country than other sausages, with many butchers having their own individual versions. Breadcrumbs or flour are sometimes used to supplement the oats or barley, and the proportion and texture of the fat or suet used can also vary widely. Pennyroyal, marjoram, thyme, and mint are all traditional flavourings, although other herbs and spices, such as cumin, rue and parsley, are sometimes used.
As it has travelled around the world, the ingredients in the humble black pudding have changed according to whichever were cheapest and most readily available. In Europe and the Americas, typical fillers include meat, fat, suet, bread, cornmeal, onion, chestnuts, barley, oatmeal and buckwheat. While on the Iberian Peninsula and in Asia, rice is often used instead of other cereals. As global trade evolved more spices could be added and the dish changed again.
And Finally Black pudding has changed with the times. A highly adaptable food it is now made in many different ways by many different companies. Its evolution went from a traveling culinary delight to a staple food providing sustenance to those who needed it most.
1. Blood sausage in the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
2. Blood pudding in the Oxford Dictionaries Online.
3. Jaine, T. and Davidson, A. (2006), The Oxford Companion to Food, OUP, p.104.
4. “Take the Blood of him, & the grease of him self, & Oatmeal, & Salt, & Pepper, & Ginger, & mix these together well, & then put this in the Gut of the porpoise, & then let it boil easily, & not hard, a good while; & then take him up, & broil him a little, & then serve forth.”
5. Jaine, T. and Davidson, A. (2006), ibid.
6. Jamieson, J. (1825), Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, v1, p.95.
7. Homer, Odyssey, Line 44, translated by A.T. Murray.
8. Edwards, J. (1988), The Roman Cookery of Apicius, Rider, London, p.26.
9. For most of the mediæval period spices were an expensive luxury. Those who could afford to lavish money on imported spices used them as conspicuous sign of wealth. With the re-emergence of a global spice trade, such luxuries became more commonplace. 10. Martinmas, or St Martin’s Day, is the Funeral day of Saint Martin of Tours (Martin le Miséricordieux) and is celebrated on November 11th each year. This is the time when autumn wheat seeding was completed, and the annual slaughter of fattened cattle produced "Martinmas beef".
11. The New Yorker, "Vegetable Love", retrieved March 18th, 2020.
12. Waugh, E. (1869), Lancashire Sketches, p.78.
13. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929), Volume 20, p.13.
14. Leach, H. (2008), "Translating the 18th century pudding" in Clark et al (eds), Islands of Inquiry: Colonisation, Seafaring and the Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes, ANU, p.390.
15. SELFNutritionData, "Blood sausage - Nutrition Facts", retrieved March 18th, 2020.
16. Natural casings of beef intestine were formerly used, though modern commercially made puddings use synthetic cellulose skins.