For German Butchers, a Wurst Case Scenario

As Germans turn to American-style supermarkets, the local butcher—a fixture in their sausage-happy culture—is packing it in

Otto Wolf readies meats for the smoker at the Glasbrenner Butchery, a shop near Stuttgart owned by one of a dwindling number of master butchers in Germany. (Andreas Teichmann)
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“But these days tradition counts less than appearance. It’s mainly pensioners who continue to buy their sausages from the butcher rather than the supermarket, because they know the difference; younger people never learned the habit. Children today prefer sausages with smiley faces or animal designs, something no German butcher can do by artisanal means.”

Traditional butchers put a lot of care into the appearance of their sausages. Every sausage has its traditional size and shape, and butchers also make sausages with fancier designs for special occasions. Slices of tongue might be arranged into a star or clover pattern, for example, with a blood-red background of well, blood, which is then sprinkled with tiny white lard cubes, thus producing a sort of starry-night effect. But such craft today pales in popularity with mass-produced, two-toned sausages extruded and molded into animal shapes with paws and smiley faces. One favorite—“little bear sausage”—even has matching children’s books and board games.

Gero and I are picked up at the Stuttgart train station by a distinguished-looking gentleman named Hans-Peter de Longueville, who is the local representative of the butchers’ association. He drives us out of the valley and into the hills beyond, where we soon arrive in the little village of Böblingen, next door to the world headquarters of Mercedes-Benz.

An elderly docent wearing a coat and tie greets us in front of a 16th-century Tudor-style building housing the butchers museum. He shakes my hand and stands at attention, awaiting direction from Herr de Longueville. I sense my visit has ignited a degree of excitement. That anyone, let alone an American writer, would want to delve so deeply into butchering has clearly awakened a certain amount of pride. All three men possess an extensive knowledge of butchering, but few outside the industry are interested in hearing what they have to say. I’m the red meat they’ve been waiting for.

I am ushered into the first exhibit hall, which is filled with historical equipment arranged into make-believe period butcher shops, beginning with the Middle Ages and ending with the early 20th century. Apparently, early butchering gravitated toward a form of gigantism. Everything is huge: knives are swords, scales are the size of Lady Justice herself and cash registers weigh hundreds of pounds.

In front of the 19th-century display is a hefty butcher block that appears severely warped. Atop it rests a tool with three crescent-shaped blades used to mince meat with the aid of two men. The docent grabs one end and demonstrates its seesawing motion. Meat workers sang songs and danced a sort of jig while mincing, like sailors raising sails on a clipper ship. When I join the docent at the other end of the mincer, I am surprised by the weight of the tool, which explains the table’s deeply uneven surface. This is what it took to mince meat for sausage or hamburger at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Peasants began flocking to cities a thousand years ago. Urbanization demanded specialization, which led to the formation of the four primary guilds—butchers, bakers, shoemakers and cloth-makers—and the beginnings of a bourgeoisie that would one day threaten monarchical rule. Among tradesmen, the butcher held a place of honor. Meat, the most prized of foods, is also the most difficult to handle.

Because of this level of responsibility, as well as a deep knowledge of all things sharp and deadly—butchers were known as Knochenhauer, or bone-hackers—they were granted permission to carry swords and often placed in charge of a city’s defenses. They also made frequent trips to the countryside to purchase cattle, sometimes delivering written correspondence along the way for a fee, which eventually led to the formation of Germany’s first mail service, called the Metzgerpost, or “butcher post.”

Until an 1869 law weakened the guild system, the butchers guild exercised total control over the profession—deciding, for example, who could become a butcher and what one could charge for a cut of meat or sausage. Acceptance into the guild was the medieval equivalent of becoming a made man. The profession survived the Industrial Revolution and though it has had its share of difficulties—if it took a wheelbarrow of reichsmarks to buy a loaf of bread during the Weimar Republic, imagine how many it took to buy a roast—it wasn’t until the rise of supermarkets in the early 1980s that the profession went into a tailspin.

Herr de Longueville has arranged a special lunch at the nearby Glasbrenner Butchery, featuring local sausages prepared by a master butcher. Once seated, Herr de Longueville sets the stage by explaining the three main categories of sausage: “boiled” (think hot dogs), “raw” (smoked or air-dried, like salamis) and “cooked.” The last is a bit more difficult to explain, but it’s basically a sausage containing already-cooked meats. Although I have little experience with such sausages, from what I can tell they’re the ones with names like “headcheese,” whose casings are filled with the sort of things a delicate eater like me studiously avoids.

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