JK Rowling hasn’t written it yet but Harry Potter and the Last Polony would make a very good title for a book. A polony is a red-skinned boiled sausage which once was a Sheffield speciality but has now been all but forgotten.
But I have found it still being made in Wombwell, near Barnsley, by award-winning pieman Neal Potter, third generation butcher and son of Harry, very possibly the last surviving artisan polony maker in the country.
It’s a sad fall from grace for a sausage, which, if it was never exactly posh although once made in Bath, had been a pre-cooked, quick-fix meal for generations. Today it is mostly bought by the elderly in South Yorkshire and by anglers. A commercial, tinned variety is preferred by carp fisherman to luncheon meat for bait.
My search was inspired by a tweet from city-born writer Rachel Cooke who wrote in the Observer that she remembered polony “as not particularly nice.” I’d never heard of it and then confused it with saveloy, also bright red, which I used to eat Down South. I asked around. People who had heard about it hadn’t seen it for years.
But if it was still made I had to taste it. Traditional Foods in Britain (Prospect Books 2004) describes it as “a cooked pork sausage … the skin is bright red, enclosing pale pink meat. Flavour: mild cured pork, lightly spiced and smoked.” Well, that is how it was.
The name polony is a mystery, being either a corruption of Bologna, the Italian city famous for its sausages, or Polonia (Poland). By the end of the 19th century one reference book said “Sheffield is more celebrated for these cooked sausages than any town in England.” There were two polony mixes, Bath and Yorkshire. Sheffield used the Yorkshire recipe, of course, which included pork, mutton or corned beef, ham or beef fat, flour and rusk, with salt, pepper, mace, ginger and coriander as seasoning.
The authors of Traditional Foods add: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that individual butchers used whatever ingredients they felt would achieve the correct texture.”
Polony survived two world wars and Waterall Brothers of Sheffield used to make it until three years ago, according to Kevin on their stall at the Moor Market. From what he says I gather pretty much anything went into it (no bad thing in itself) until the regulations changed and made it too expensive to manufacture for the price people wanted to pay.
But polony still exists. Potters make it for sale on stalls in Barnsley market and you can buy it at their shop in the middle of Wombwell. Polony is listed on Potter’s website under savouries, between black pudding and savoury ducks. I bought two ‘sticks’ or ‘links’ of polony at their shop in the middle of Wombwell. They are in 15cm lengths wrapped in red plastic ‘chubs’ weighing just under 200g and costing a few pence short of £1. The label gives the pork content as 59pc.
The factory is half a mile down the road and boss Neal Potter was happy to see me even though I called unannounced. Aged 51, he is a delightful man, very passionate about his products for which he has won many awards. Polony is made to his father Harry’s recipe and he uses a mix of shoulder and belly pork with water, rusk and their own seasoning. He cut up a polony for me to taste.
It is quite bland with a soft texture, just a bit firmer than potted meat, and you can feel the rusk on your tongue. The meat is beige rather than the traditional pink. The sausage is boiled – a new batch was in the vats as we spoke – so I’m guessing this is a version of the economy frying sausage Potter’s sell. “We make it every day,” he said. It’s pleasant but modest in flavour.
Neal, who runs the business with his wife Catherine and two sons, said polony sells well but not as much as his black pudding. “It’s the older generation who buy it. We are trying to educate younger people. . . If you could get them to taste it I am sure they would eat it.”
As Catherine said, you still see it on local buffet tables and at funeral teas, along with ‘savoury ducks. Neal has his sliced in sandwiches or fried along with his bacon and egg for breakfast. I tried and it doesn’t taste bad that way. Now that would be a unique selling point for local hotels and B&Bs, the Full Barnsley Breakfast: bacon, egg, Potter’s black pudding and polony.
Potters of Barnsley, Barnsley Road, Wombwell, Barnsley, S73 8DJ. Tel: 01226 753323. Web: http://www.pottersofbarnsley.co.uk