It's a pretty unimpressive sausage. It's short and thick and golden brown. And when you slit the ends, they burst nicely over the fire.
The cervalat, pronounced "servella," is at least as Swiss as raclette or fondue, even if its charms aren't apparent at first glance. But the Swiss grow up with it, grilling it sincce the time they are young -- with friends around the campfire, with dad in the yard, and, of course, always on the Swiss National Holiday, August 1. Swiss butchers produce 160 million cervalet sausages per year, which works out to about 21 links per person.
And now this! A sausage that has become a part of the Swiss national identity could soon become extinct, and the European Union is to blame. Despite the fact that Brazil has never recorded a single case of mad cow disease, the European Union banned imports of Brazilian beef intestines over concerns about Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis (BSE) on April 1, 2006. Switzerland isn't an EU member state, but it does observe food directives from Brussels to ensure it can continue to trade freely with its neighbors. But there's little joy as the Swiss are forced to stand by and watch as Brazilian cattle growers destroy their precious intestines.
The EU imposed the ban almost two years ago -- but because they had stockpiles, the Swiss are only now starting to run out of intestines. No one really knows how much longer the remaining supply will last. At the latest, perhaps the end of the year; but supplies could run dry before the European Championship soccer tournament to be held there in June. A cervelat-less European Championship would create a wound not even a win over neighboring Germany could heal.
The People's Sausage
"Darm-Alarm" is the call being heard across the land ("Darm" is German for bowels), wrote the Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten. Cervelat will "never be what it was again," one editorialist wrote, before adding, "Switzerland has surrendered itself in the case of our national sausage to technocrats in Brussels, of all people."
"I simply cannot imagine Switzerland without the original cervelat," Rolf Büttiker, a member of the Swiss parliament, told the daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung. "There is a socio-political dimension, and I want to bring the sausage issue before the voters." As part of his day job as president of the Swiss Meat Association, Büttiker is appealing to his fellow politicians to take action.
He's already submitted an appeal in Bern, calling on the Swiss government to exert pressure on Brussels to lift part of the import ban or to at least make an exception for Switzerland. "Cervelat is the people's sausage par excellence," he said. "They want the sausage the way it's always been -- in form and taste -- and for grilling or eating uncooked."
'We Cannot Stand for This'
Butchers have had little success in their search for a satisfying alternative to the Brazilian beef intestines used as cervelat casing. "Everything we've tried just doesn't match up," Büttiker said, before rattling off a list of complaints about subsitutes. Their taste, the color, the curve, the grilling durability, the peelability, or the size. The Swiss national sausage has very clear requirements. "Swiss beef intestines, for example, are too big," Büttiker said. The ideal cervelat should be an average of 32 to 34 millimeters thick (1.3 inches). Argentinian intestines are too fatty, which doesn't taste good. Other intestines are "just not peelable." And artificial intestine made of collagen is unpalatable.
Cervelat is made with beef, pork, bacon, ice water, salt, fresh onions and spices, but without casing made from the bowels of Zebu cows, the Swiss argue it can't be made at all. Büttiker's colleague at the Swiss Meat Association, Balz Horber summed up the problem: The Brazilian cow intestines are the only ones that are as "polyvalent as the Swiss Air Force" -- an apparent reference to its versatility.
Swiss star chef Jacky Donatz concurred. He recently sampled sausages with makeshift intestines and reviewed them for the Swiss tabloid Blick. He offered up a scathing review, too: "Tastes too much like bratwurst ... too fatty and too tough."
He's calling on fellow Swiss to fight the EU. "We cannot stand for this," he said. "We have to fight for our sausage!"
But who would have thought that the most Swiss of sausages would be so dependent on a foreign product? It's a bitter relevation that cervelat, too, is somehow connected with globalization. The first mention of the sausage appears to go back as far as 1891, in connection with the Swiss national holiday on Aug. 1 -- which puts it on a level in the hearts of Swiss almost as high as the Rütlischwur, the legendary oath of the Old Swiss Confederacy. It's even become a part of the Swiss vernacular, used to describe B- and C-list celebrities.
So what's next? Politicians are doing all they can -- and perhaps they will succeed in making the bureaucrats in Brussels understand the importance of their concerns. Meanwhile, experts are still scouring the planet for alternatives to Brazilian beef intestines -- they're looking at intestines from Uruguay, China and even at seaweed. Who knows what they might find?
For his part, Rolf Büttiker does have one reassuring message: "If we scrape together all the Zebu intestines we can find, it may just be enough for the European Championships."