Smokin’ Sausage Showdown VII

photo/Chris Busby

Barbeque fans, have we got a meaty treat for you! This summer’s Smokin’ Sausage Showdown was the biggest, toughest, meatiest, juiciest competition yet! For past Showdowns, we drafted competitors from butcher shops in Greater Portland, occasionally venturing down to Biddeford (Hoglund’s) or out to Windham (Hoggy’s) in search of fresh meat. Last year we were blown away by the uncured franks from Wee Bit Farm, up in Hancock County, sold at the Portland Food Co-op, but we’ve generally stuck to sausages made within The Bollard’s circulation area.

Mainer has a wider reach, and with this expanded purview a true legend of the links now enters the meat arena: Maurice “Moe” Bonneau. Bonneau, who’s been butchering since before rock and roll was born, had a stall at the Portland Public Market on Preble Street 20 years ago, before the whole market went belly up due to poor management. But his main gig has always been his signature Sausage Kitchen, on Main Street up in Lisbon Falls, a short drive from Topsham and Brunswick.

The BBQ press broke into meat sweats of excitement anticipating this matchup. How would the heavy cleaver-wielders of Portland’s meat league — places like Fresh Approach, on the West End, a Maine Sausage Hall of Famer, and Pat’s Meat Market, on Stevens Ave. — stand up against mighty Maurice? Let’s get right to the action!

In the first round, we got a taste of the battle to come when we put Bonneau’s Italian sausage with black olives on the gridiron — just to warm it up. Like most of the Sausage Kitchen links we found for sale in the city, it was already smoked, ready to eat right out of the package. (Naturally, for the best selection of fresh product, you’ve gotta go straight to the source, which we did for Round 2.) This unconventional take on the Italian (black olives?) let us know we were dealing with a pro. The olives added a subtle yet sublime flavor to the pork, which had a moderately course grind, with tiny chunks of fat, and a mild but lingering heat.

A rookie this year, A&C Grocery, on inner Washington Ave. in Portland, delivered an impressive hot Italian loaded with ingredients, including mustard seed, fennel and something herby and green. Great snap to the casing, too — kid’s got real potential.

Fresh Approach has a jalapeño bacon sausage that also competed for the first time this season. It was juicy and coarsely ground, like little slabs of breakfast meat stacked and squeezed together, and had a sneaky heat that satisfied without being overwhelming (take a bite of their fearsome ghost pepper sausage if you’re into extreme meat sports).

The bratwurst from Pat’s was impressively juicy, and had the shop’s typically finer grind, but the real star on this team was their chicken broccoli rabe. It was amazingly juicy for a chicken sausage smoked for well over two hours (we smoke at between 210 and 235 degrees, and used maple wood for this Showdown). They add a mild parmesan to this chicken sausage that takes it over the top for two extra points. Bravo!

The Sausage Kitchen has, by far, the largest selection of links made in Maine, including German, Irish, Chinese, Cajun, Mexican, Portuguese and Eastern European varieties. There wasn’t any fresh Italian sausage in the freezer-case when we visited last month (you can order it online), so we grabbed a chorizo and a chaurice, which is a spicy Creole sausage.

The chaurice was on the mild side, but quite tasty, and it looked great on the grill, its glazed casing glistening in the South Portland sun. Amber-colored droplets of juice remained on the grill where it had been cooking. They tasted like the honey dew of Xanadu, only smokier.

It was Maurice’s take on the chorizo that made it clear he’s competing on a higher level. “That’s absolutely insane,” one judge remarked, marveling at the warmth and depth of flavor. By comparison, the Pat’s chorizo was too salty. Fresh Approach’s was salty but more palatable, and plenty hot, yet no one matched the complexity and skill that Bonneau brings to the table.

Frankly (pun intended), the Sausage Kitchen’s products are just better made. They’re often very finely ground (emulsified, even), tightly packed and perfectly sealed on both ends, unlike several sloppier links we got this year. That makes the winner of our seventh Showdown Maurice Bonneau — the sage of sausage, the prophet of pork, the Bill Belichick of butchers in Maine!