Sappho gave us Ode to Aphrodite. Beethoven composed the musical setting for Ode to Joy. John Keats praised a songbird in Ode to a Nightingale. But seemingly nobody has paid poetic homage to those odd little Estonian verivorstid (blood sausages). And frankly, that’s a tragedy.*
Traditionally the centrepiece of the Estonian Christmas Eve meal, verivorstid are a mixture of pork, barley, animal blood, and spices. The filling is stuffed in casings and the links are boiled until firm and then roasted to a crispy crimson black. A rather unique treat, they deserve a bookmark in poetic lore. So with all apologies to the masters, let’s recognise these Estonian oddities with an Ode to Verivorstid.
Verivorstid, verivorstid you are so very
Dear to me on each Christmas Eve
Such a treat next to the lingonberry
Without you a Yule I could not conceive
Best washed down with a Saku brew
‘Cause suds so complement your spices
To verivorstid I pledge my love anew
Truly, you are one of my vices
And so I ask, what Christmas fool would eat plain ol’ ham
Instead of barley, cow blood, and marjoram
My verivorstid epiphany, when I realised what those freakish little links were truly about, occurred one early December morning in my childhood. Leaving my toys behind to fetch a drink, innocent and unaware, I wandered into the kitchen.
And there they were: my mother, godmother and grandmother had gathered around the table. Three ladies, with blood-coated hands and blood-splattered aprons, mixing some unknown concoction in a small tub. Kitchen utensils, gleaming on one end and dripping gore from another, lay scattered like a surgeon’s tools in an operating room. The witches of wurst carefully added ingredients and stirred their mysterious stock.
My first reaction – there had been a murder. No, an accident. No, definitely a murder. How else to explain all the blood everywhere coupled with the blatant lack of concern. Why wasn’t anyone calling an ambulance?
Stifling a scream, I watched. One lady would stretch a flat hog casing over the small end of a funnel. Another would hold the funnel steady against the slip of a bloody hand. The third accomplice would pack the other end of the funnel with the sausage filling, slowly stuffing the intestinal wrapper. An assembly line most macabre, like some sort of low-budget Henry Ford inspired horror movie.
For many years, I was ruined. No verivorstid on my Christmas Eve plate. I would pass over the serving platter with a suspicious eye. Potatoes, yes. Sliced pork, sure. Pirukad (pies), bring them on. Bovine hemoglobinwurst, no thank you. And so it went – me with a conspicuously empty spot on my plate, and my parents assuredly wondering if their Estonian child had been switched at birth with some southern European.
But years later, after much soul searching and a convenient mental block of that dreadful December day in my childhood kitchen, I came around. It probably started with a nibble. Maybe a small forkful followed by a long drink from my glass, later progressing to timid helpings. Enthusiastic mouthfuls and requests for seconds followed later still.
Today, I look forward to verivorstid. I typically get at least two helpings, one at our local Estonian clubhouse Christmas party and another on a cold and dark Christmas Eve. I feel a connection to the old country when the oven opens and the sausages appear, bursting and charred, under a layer of crispy bacon.
In an instant I can imagine peasants of yore, culinarily efficient and creative, not wanting to waste any part of the animal. I am transported back in time, to a farmhouse in Elva, and I embrace the scene, grab my fork, and acknowledge both my appetite and my ancestry.
It’s always fun to explain this tradition to my friends with roots in other parts of the world. They typically ask a few questions about taste and texture. Some ask about the source of the blood. Others ask for more information about the sausages’ history. None ever ask to be invited over for a sample.
And then there are my vegetarian and vegan friends. When exchanging stories of Christmas traditions the reaction to verivorstid is not quite revulsion, but something pretty close. What’s one to do though? I suppose a vegetarian recipe for blood sausages could be concocted. But as I’m sure true verivorstid enthusiasts would agree, soy sausages infused with a beet juice reduction and served under a layer of tofu bacon just wouldn’t cut it.
So this Christmas Eve, sing the “Ode to Verivorstid” before enjoying a plate full of Estonian blood sausage links. They are as much a part of the holiday as Christmas Eve mass, jolly fat guys in fuzzy red suits and decorated felled trees.
But be forewarned – as the old saying goes, sausages are like laws, you should never watch either being made.
Häid jõule kõigile! (Merry Christmas to all!)
Cover: A dish with an Estonian blood sausage. Picture by VisitPärnu. * Please note that this article was originally published on 23 December 2013.