Saturday, 24 November 2012

Fat by Jennifer McLagan: The Fat of the Land

Fat: An Apprecation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan is a love letter to lard, a ballad to butter and a tribute to tallow. McLagan, originally an Aussie but now based in Toronto is a woman on a mission. And that mission is to make you eat fat.

By fat she means animal fat - as opposed to vegetable oils. Butter, schmaltz, foie gras, suet. It's all good.

Published in 2008 by 10 Speed Press, the guys who also brought you the Alinea Cookbook and Charlie Trotters multi-volume gastro-porn odyssey (hmmm, is this a Chicago thing?), this is really three books in one.

Sacred Cow Abattoir

The first book is a manifesto in favour of fat. Animal fats, she argued, have been wrongly demonised over the last fifty years. Now is the time to reclaim their deliciousness.

Let's be clear this isn't a joyless preachy book - if you want that read anything by Joanna Blythman (the worst kind of food writer - someone who cares more about being right than about things being delicious). McLagan makes her point - both in the introduction and throughout the text. But she doesn't harp on about it.

The point she makes is a good one. Fat has simply had a very bad press since the 1950s. As people have lived increasingly sedentary lives their waistlines have expanded. As their waistlines have expanded they've looked for somebody to blame. And that crock of lard on the buttery shelf has been a convenient target.

She argues that doctors have been too quick to draw a straight line between heart disease, cholesterol and animal fat. This lead to them exile of lard and butter from the kitchen in favour of cheap, vegetal trans-fats (margarine is a dirty word for this woman) which do more to harm than heal. As Roberta Pollack Seid puts it: We have essentially transferred our fear of the diseases we believe fat will cause into the fat itself.

At the same time fat has been assailed by the rise of the modern idol that thin is beautiful (You can never be too rich or too thin, the Duchess of Windsor opined) has made the consumption of a nice slab of lardo as socially acceptable as chucking a dog on a barbecue (for more on that check out Schwabe's Unspeakable Cuisine).

The reality is that really fats are good for you, French people who gorge themselves on foie gras live longer and putting bacon fat in your mayonnaise is the best thing that could happen to you.

She also includes an excellent demolition of the anti-foie gras lobby (in a nutshell, ducks aren't people, gorging isn't unnatural and foie gras isn't diseased. Pass the Sauternes dear...).

Right I'm sold. What next?

The Fat's in the Fire

If the first book is a manifesto, the second book is a volume of recipes which practices what she preaches. The main body is broken out into four chapters - Butter, Pork fat, Poultry Fat (duck and chicken mainly) and Beef & lamp; lamb. In each she gives a short intro detailing the lipid in question, before presenting a clutch of related recipes.

Now let's be clear, those of your expecting Nitro-Infused Lard Gel, with Cryo-Shattered Duck Scratchings and Suet Foam will be disappointed. The recipes on the whole feature well prepared classics, rather than cutting-edge gastronomy (maybe an opportunity missed here? I'm sure there's room for a short skit of maltodextrin and how it can turn oils into soils...). Yes there are occasional off-the-wall concoctions (the bacon baklava on p119 jumps out). But on the whole the recipes aren't going to be anything new. So we have cassoulet, duck confit (mais non!), butter palmiers and shortbread. Steak and kidney puddings with a suet-laced pastry. Even a recipe for spaghetti carbonara.

Crackling Brittle. Quantities: "Makes more than enough"
But don't get me wrong. This isn't a boring book. Lots have neat twists without being revolutionary. She whips up a mayonnaise using bacon fat rather than oil (p101); perfect for streaking through the ultimate BLT. Cornish pasties are encased in pastry made with beef dripping (p201). A praline is made with spiced pork crackling rather than almonds (p121); I don't know if its salt, sweet or snack but I know this is what I want when the big game is on! And best of all her Chicken Kiev is not only stuffed with sweet herby butter, but fried golden brown in an inch of lard.

Anyone who fries a Chicken Kiev in an inch of lard is right in my book. (Any vegetarians feel free to leave the room now...)

She also devotes a notable amount of space to the neglected art of making desserts and sweets with animal fat; not only butter but also lard, suet and even bone marrow. In my mind its lard that makes the flakiest of pastries (pop down to Chinatown and snaffle an egg tart if you disagree). And good hard suet is essential for the honour and glory of the English table - its steamed puddings. Indeed, Suet puddings get full-spectrum treatment here, and I was pleased to see a recipe for the fabulous polvorones of Spain, a lard-based cookie so flaky it powderises on the lips (p114). There is also a fascinating confection of rice pudding made infused with vanilla and rum, and enriched with a slick of bone marrow. And of course that bacon baklava.

Impeccable sauces sources
McLagan is also unafraid to steal from the best. As I said little of what she presents is original cooking, and she frequently credits impeccable sources for her recipes. Her method to Hollandaise sauce (add all ingredients together rather than scrambling the egg first) is taken from Harold McGee's The Curious Cook. Her potato puree (or should I say butter puree with potato) uses a recipe from Joel Robuchon. Her rillettes (both duck and pork) are adapted from the The Moro Cookbook (interestingly she adds the juices back to the shredded meat, but not the rendered fat). One slightly random point - she draws on UK and French sources much more than American ones (unusual for a Toronto-based Australian, although to be fair she has spent a lot of time in France).

Chewing the Fat

So this is both a manifesto and a recipe book. But thirdly it is also a book of Fat Lore. As well as recipes the chapters are larded (pun intended) with boxed-up capsules which provide a kaleidoscope of little fat-related anecdotes.

So on page 35 we hear about bog butter, long-forgotten caches of butter or tallow buried to preserve them in acidic bogs and unearthed hundreds of years later ("sometimes edible, it not particularly palatable"). On page 103 there is the story of German artist Joseph Beuys who created sculptures such as Unschlitt/Tallow (1977) which required 20 tons of mutton fat. There is an explosive capsule on nicro-glycerin (p165) which is prepared - you guessed it - from animal fat (2.2kg of fat per 450g of dynamite apparently).

Other interesting ones are a digression Salo, an alleged Ukrainian "delicacy" (I've tried it. It isn't), a paean to schmaltz (the rendered chicken product, not the style of music) and the story of the author's hopeless pursuit of the fat-tailed sheep.

Just occasionally these anecdotes verge towards irrelevance (digressions into the Fat Man atom bomb and Fats Waller have little to do with food apart from the word "fat" in their name), but in the main these provide fascinating little snippets into the wide world of fat.

She also throws amusing fat-related quotes into the margin. e.g.
  • My idea of heaven is eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets - Sydney Smith (hear, hear!). 
  • A Russian is still a Russian even if you fry him in butter (Finnish) (you need to understand about a century of Russo-Finnish warfare to get this one). 
  • If you are afraid of butter, as many people are nowadays, just put in cream - Julia Child (Julia - my kind of gal!)

Bringing Home the Bacon

As the French diplomat and gastronome Talleyrand put it:
Can you inform me of any other pleasure that can be enjoyed three times a day, and equally in old age as youth?
Let's be clear. This isn't a book which will change your life. McLagan hasn't discovered a revolutionary new philosophy of food or a stack of new cooking techniques. But what she has produced is an excellent volume that exposes society's fallacies about fat, teaches us how to enjoy it and keeps us amused as it does does so. In the words of the old BBC motto it educates, informs and entertains.

More than enough for me! Pass the rillettes...

PS Also note that she's just got a new book out on offal , which I spotted in my recent Foyles bookshop-run. Worth checking out. Before Fat she wrote another book called Bones pretty self explanatory). If I recall not quite as gripping as this one (I think I passed on it at the time anyhow), but again if that's your thing...

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, thanks. Keep it up. Followed your link from your egullet sig.