What is a Billy Roll?

Now We Know: If we told you we’d have to kill you – the process of incorporating the smiling face into the meat slice is a closely-guarded secret

It appears we have the Feldhues family to thank for meat slices with faces in them, in particular the Billy Roll, a sandwich filler beloved of a generation of Irish children. The Feldhues owned a traditional butcher shop in the town of Metelen in Westphalia, Germany. As far back as the 1960s, the family were producing sausages laced with designs, and in 1978 they built their first production plant in their hometown.

In 1984, Feldhues opened a second production plant in Clones, Co Monaghan, and two years later the two plants began producing the now iconic Billy Bear and Billy Roll, sometimes known as the smiling sausage, with a clown face incorporated into the meat slice.

The ingredients listed on the Billy Bear packaging are pork (66 per cent), water, pea starch, salt, pea protein, dextrose, salt replacers, spices, ascorbic acid, diphosphates, yeast extract, and sodium nitrite.

“We are the original and only food company making the Billy Roll and Billy Bear,” says Mike Hamill, managing director of the company in Ireland. “No one else in the world has been able to prepare meat products like we do, and our process is a secret.

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“In Germany, we have a food factory and an engineering firm called Feldhues Tech. They design and build the production lines that we use to manufacture the Billy Bear and Roll. Only two of these productions lines have ever been built – one is in Germany and the other is in Clones.”

‘Repeat the success’

The factory in Clones supplies Ireland, the UK and Denmark, and through the parent company in Germany, it sells cooked meats to Italy, Belgium, Holland and Germany. “Per capita we sell more Billy Roll in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe,” says Hamill. “I would love to know why, so we could repeat the success across Europe.”

So beloved is the Billy Roll that it has even inspired artwork. Vivienne Quinn, an Irish set designer and prop maker, built a heavy-weight 100cm Billy Roll from wood for an installation at Design POP, a pop-up food and design trail in Cork city that took place in May.

“Some of the work that I do uses the most basic and familiar elements of art and design as a foundation – lots of shapes and simple representation of food. When I build these things, they can be quite abstract, so I like to use a reference point that directs people to what it is, something iconic, like the Billy Roll.”

It's the nostalgia associated with the Billy Roll that made it such a good hook for Quinn's installation at Design POP. "I remember going to meat counters as a kid and really wanting Billy Roll. Now that I'm older, I'm thinking 'How did they design that?' and 'Who is Billy?'" You can see Quinn's work on her website, including her piece inspired by the Billy Roll, at omgvivlolz.bigcartel.com.