The Curious Case of the Wine-soaked Italian Sausage in Nazareth

How the tradition of Nazareth salsiccia began no one can say for certain. But nearly every Nazarene is familiar with the culinary treat that is unusual in this region.

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Sausages being cured in the Damouni factory. Mystery and magic.
Sausages being cured in the Damouni factory. Mystery and magic.Credit: Dan Peretz
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The first time I ate the Nazareth salsiccia was at the Al-Reda, opened by Daher Zidani in 2003. Pretty much everything one can feast upon inside the thick stone walls of the restaurant’s impressive building – which was once part of the governor’s compound built by an ancestor of the owner – is the stuff of true romantic dreams. Kushta al-reda, a rosewater-scented pudding garnished with crushed pistachios, makes one wistful for the taste of the soft pudding served in the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The tanjiya, lamb shoulder grilled with lamb fat and clarified butter, was a sublime intersection of Marrakesh and Persia (alas, this intercontinental dish is no longer on the menu, for the time being anyway). Best of all – the Nazarene salsiccia, marvelous sausages with a tangy aroma of wine mixed with that of cloves and allspice, served in the skillet in which they were cooked with unpeeled lemon slices, white wine, sweet and hot peppers, garlic, pine nuts and parsley.

“Ninety-nine percent of people love the special taste of the Nazareth salsiccia,’ says Zidani. “Only one percent isn’t fond of the special flavor and the dominant seasoning of the wine and all the other spices. One time this guy walked into the restaurant – I never learned his name. I gave my usual speech about the special flavor of the sausages, he ate some and when he finished he called me over to the table and said sadly, ‘I always thought of myself as an individualist who doesn’t go with the tide, someone who usually holds the minority view. In the case of the Nazareth salsiccia, I am totally going with the tide.’”

Seasoned with wine

A skillet of salsiccia at the Al-Reda Restaurant in Nazareth. The tangy aroma of wine, cloves and allspice.Credit: Dan Peretz

If there’s one dish that embodies the magic and mystery of how food migrates from place to place, it’s the Nazareth salsiccia. It is very unusual to find a dish cooked with wine in the local cuisine, which is heavily influenced by the Muslim tradition. So when you taste the wine-soaked sausage, you might well imagine that the recipe is a remnant of an age when Crusader knights and lords roamed the land. As for the exact origins of this sausage and why even now the locals refer to it as salsiccia no one can say for certain. (It means “sausage” in Italian; in Spanish it’s “salchicha”; the Latin name refers to the technique of preserving meat in salt.) But pretty much everyone in Nazareth is familiar with this sausage that is so closely identified with local cuisine.

“Salsiccia!” Sureida Nasser, a Nazareth native and owner of the Fauzi Azar Inn, happily exclaims. “My father had a friend from the Mazawi family who used to make the sausages himself. They were made from beef and seasoned with wine, and he would bring them to us. We still buy them from the butcher, and every family here has its favorite butcher and its favorite sausages. They are so delicious, and you don’t need to add anything at all to them, not even oil, when you fry them. Just squeeze a lot of lemon juice on top.”

Salami in a smoking oven at the Damouni factory.Credit: Dan Peretz

The Nazareth sausages – made from beef or pork, soaked in wine and seasoned with a special Baharat spice mix – are part of the local Christian heritage in the city. They are rarely made in other Christian communities in Israel. Yaqub Hiat, who grew up in the village of Ikrit and now owns the Sharabik Restaurant in Rama, sometimes serves salsiccia made by one of the Nazareth butchers in his restaurant, but he wasn’t familiar with them growing up.

Throughout history, the Levant has never been known for its charcouterie. The climate is not so suitable for preserving meat, and the controversial attitude toward pork also had an effect. The most popular sausages in this geographical area are the sujuk, merguez or other simple sausages that are made from sheep organ meats and often soaked in vinegar.

“There was one family, in a village next to Rosh Hanikra, that used to make its own sausages,” Hiat recalls from his childhood. “Not soaked in wine, but simple sausages, which was unusual enough that it remained etched in my memory. I remember that we used to go to them to eat sausages and Yusuf Effendi tangerines – which have virtually disappeared now. I’ll never forget their fragrance and taste. If I’m lying on my deathbed and anyone wants to check if I’m still alive, all they have to do is spray a little juice from the peel of a Yusuf Effendi on me.”

Nader Damouni, one of the few Arab charcouterie experts in Israel.Credit: Dan Peretz

Soul of a kibbutznik

Nader Damouni, one of the few Arab charcouterie experts in Israel, believes the sausages came from the Christian Lebanese culinary tradition and were known here prior to 1948, when the modern borders were set. Although he is a native Nazarene, Damouni did not learn his trade from his parents and grandparents. During school vacation when he was 14, he got a job at the Kleinberg sausage plant in Haifa – one of a number of small sausage-making companies founded in that city by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He never returned to school.

“My family needed the money,” he explains. “The Damouni family traditionally worked in copper – making pots, skillets and trays – and when the demand for the traditional craft dwindled, it was hard for them to make a living.”

Salami at the Damouni factory.Credit: Dan Peretz

He worked at the Haifa sausage plant until 1976, and then he set out on his own, equipped with small machines for processing meat – and he made hamburger patties, kebabs and sausages for close to 30 kibbutzim (“I’m a kibbutznik at heart. There were years when I thought of moving to one of the kibbutzim. At Kibbutz Ein Gedi, they still refer to the sausages and kebabs by my name”). In the 1990s, he worked on Kibbutz Lahav, where he specialized in handling pork (“In Nazareth there is hardly any tradition like this, despite the city’s Christian past. In the 1950s, during the austerity period, almost every Nazareth family was raising a pig or two, but only because it was cheap to raise them”).

Fourteen years ago, Damouni opened a small sausage factory in his hometown. The spotless little plant, from which emanates an enticing aroma of smoked meat, is located in the basement of a five-story building in one of Nazareth’s northeastern neighborhoods. There is no sign on the door (“I don’t believe in advertising. Customers come here through word of mouth”). On the ground floor you will find a deli that sells the products made by the family (as well as cheeses, wines, sauces and other things to go with the sausage). The family lives on all the floors above. Two of Damouni’s sons, Wasim and Issam, have taken up their father’s trade. “Having never finished school myself, all I wanted was for them to study,” he says, “but they only wanted to work with me in the family business.”

The Damouni family makes a large selection of cold cuts and sausages, using different kinds of meat and different preservation techniques. I am especially fond of the liverwurst that’s flavored with celery, and of the thick sausages seasoned with parsley and cilantro seeds – initially made at the request of some Austrian nuns from a nearby convent. To me, the crowning glory is the Nazareth sausages, made from pork or beef, even if the family members think of them as just “simple sausages.” Nazareth sausages can be bought at various butcher shops around the city, mostly at Christian-owned businesses, but this small factory shop (perhaps the only one that has a proper manufacturing license for processed meat) is an excellent place to get acquainted with the wonders of Nazareth sausage.