Erbswurst (pronounced erps·wurst) is a German sausage prepared with pea flour, pork or beef fat, onions, salt, and spices. It’s an unassuming, inexpensive, and filling food with an almost unlimited shelf life.
The recipe for Erbswurst dates back to the Prussian empire—the historical German state on the territories of modern-day Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and Switzerland—in the 19th century.
Erbswurst was invented in 1867 by Prussian cook and food canner Johann Heinrich Grüneberg. Soon after, Grüneberg sold the recipe for his sausage to the Prussian army for 35,000 vereinstaler, the standard currency at the time, which was still in the form of silver coins.
Essentially, Erbswurst is dry pea soup mixed with beef tallow or pork lard to give it a less-crumbly texture enriched with sweated onions, bits and pieces of browned bacon, spices, and salt for flavor.
Looking through the lens of time, that’s what you’d call a well-timed invention:
In 1870, war broke out between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia—and Erbswurst became the food of choice, often called the “iron meal,” of the latter side’s army.
Initially, a factory of thousand workers produced tens of thousands of pounds of the sausage a day to feed the Prussian army’s hungry soldiers. At its peak, the factory employed 5,000 workers who churned out 130,000 pounds (65 tons) of Erbswurst a day.
Prussia won the Franco-Prussian war on the day of May 10, 1871, when the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed to formally proclaim its end. Perhaps it was the wunderschön-ishness of Erbswurst. Or it could have been the strategy and tactics that the Prussian army employed.
In 1889, Knorr (yes, the same company that makes the bouillon cubes that Marco Pierre White famously cooks with) purchased the license for Erbswurst. The German food company kept this product in production for 129 years.
Cheap to buy, easy to eat, light to carry, and long-lasting, Knorr Erbswurst became a staple survival food for hikers and mountaineers, who’d stock up on it in their backpacks before going away on expeditions.
At first, Knorr made the sausage mainly from pea flour, beef tallow, defatted bacon, onions, spices, and table salt.
Later on, the ingredients list got extended to include palm oil, smoke aromas, yeast extracts, and several flavoring agents, including, but not limited to, monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate.
Knorr Erbswurst came in two variants:
- Yellow-colored sausage containing turmeric;
- Green-colored sausage with pea concentrate and spinach powder.
If you opened its plastic casing wrapped in an aluminum-coated paper roll, you’d find six pre-cut, disc-shaped portions of Erbswurst in a sausage-shaped roll, each weighing 0.7 ounces (22.5 grams).
In total, the sausage weighed 4.2 ounces (135 grams).
Crumbly and kind of hard to chew, the rolls were less practical as sausage spread, so many Germans ended up dissolving them in hot water to make creamy and savory pea soup.
In December 2018, Knorr announced its plans to discontinue the Erbswurst due to a lack of consumer demand. Over time, a food that was consumed by the thousands of pounds daily by soldiers, then enjoyed by mountain-goers, had turned into a relic of the Prussian kingdom’s past.
Since getting discontinued, Knorr Erbswurst is no longer available in stores. Today, the best way to savor this German food’s down-to-earth practicality and culinary groundedness is to make it yourself at home.
When you consider its low price and long shelf life, there are generally two substitutes for Erbswurst: dehydrated pea soup and emergency ration foods with pea flour or pea protein.
Some would argue that modern-day vegan sausages that contain peas could also be on that list. However, most of them don’t come cheap and last for significantly shorter periods of time, so they fall short of the Prussian pea sausage’s practicality.
Take it or leave it, the Erbswurst was a first in many ways:
Apart from serving as survival food, many consider it to be history’s first instant soup because of how most consumers preferred to consume it.
It’s also one of the oldest commercially made foods on an industrial scale. Just picture the amount of labor and logistics it took to produce and ship out 130,000 pounds of it daily in the late 19th century!