Sassermaet is the meat dish that ex-pat Shetlanders crave. The smell and sizzle of sassermaet frying in a pan at teatime is sheer nostalgia. Sassermaet was eaten with fried eggs and floury bannocks by generations of youngsters keen to get back outside to play on long summer nights.
Sassermaet is a beef product made with meat from Shetland kye (kye means “cows”), the traditional cattle breed from the Shetland Islands. Land-based food production on the Shetlands was built around local breeds and varieties that developed over centuries to fit the islands’ environment. Shetland cattle are small, sturdy animals whose meat has a fabulous flavor, both because of the breed’s genetics and because the cattle graze on natural pastures. Shetland cattle were traditionally kept for their meat and milk, and as draught animals. They were slaughtered during the winter months to ensure that the fresh meat could be kept as long as possible. In the old days, the only methods for preserving meat were air-drying in skeos (huts in which meat and fish were hung), salting in barrels, and lightly salting the trimmings. Sassermaet was important as a way to make use of the trimmings, which would otherwise have gone to waste.
Only meat from Shetland cattle at least 3 years old is used in sassermaet. The beef is matured for at least 3 weeks before being cut. The trimmings are minced and mixed with crumbs and spices (usually just salt and pepper). The raw mixture can be shaped into a patty and fried in a pan, in its own fat. As the meat cooks, the fat melts out, such that the finished patty is moist but very lean. Locals often eat it this way in a roll, at any time of day. Sassermaet can also be made into meatballs for use in other dishes. The key is not to overseason the meat, as this disguises its delicious beefy flavor.
The distinctive features of traditional Shetland kye sassermaet are that it is made exclusively with beef from Shetland cattle, and from the trimmings of only one animal at a time. Mass-produced alternatives to traditional sassermaet are made from crossbred animals and may also contain pork. Lorne sausage, which is commonly found on Scottish breakfast tables, is often confused with sassermaet, but is an entirely different product. Shetland kye sassermaet is at risk both because Shetland cattle are rare, and because only a few families and butchers continue to produce and sell it. The recipe, which varies from family to family, is passed orally from one generation to the next.