Fat facts

22 Apr

My first real post! As a brief intro/explanation – I wanted a place to write about food, restaurants, recipes, cooking, different cuisines and history, and anything food related really! So … ta da!

This is one foodstuff I’ve heard about a little bit, and my parents can definitely vouch, both being of European backgrounds… Lard!

Virtually unheard of (and unthinkable!) by the younger generation in Australia, my Dad reminisces about his love of spreading a big old smear of cured lard onto his sandwiches (14 of which he took to work each day in his younger days, and 8 of which were for morning tea alone!). He remembers his mother slow-cooking pork fat all day in preparation for having a big slab of it ready for consumption – here I picture a big smoky blackened coal-fired stove rumbling away in the corner all afternoon, warming the kitchen as my Dutch grandmother chops kale, mashes potatoes, boils soups and stews topped with rookworst (smoked sausage), cooks sauerkraut and bakes my Dad’s favourite apple pastries in preparation for their one hot meal of the day – dinner. Lekker (delicious)!

My mother describes crunchy, crispy bits of bacon stuck to the bottom of huge bricks of lard, which, if melted properly and for long enough, made their way up into the liquid-form fat and suspended themselves inside when the fat solidified. She maintains that people from those colder countries needed to eat fat to keep warm!

I find it super interesting to explore the reasons behind countries traditional cuisines. Particularly countries that have been exposed to war or hardship or to a lesser point media attention – these types of influences have contributed to regional differences. This was most recently brought to light to myself recently when I went to see the fascinating Anthony Bourdain talk – he mentioned that for example, during the war access to food was limited, trade paths may have been blocked or unsustainable, and a lot of foods were inaccessible or simply too expensive. I love the nose to tail concept, not only in a sustainable world kind of way and being the simplest way to not waste a life, but also in a throwback to and preservation of the harder times that I never had to, and probably won’t ever experience. When you have one pig to last the winter, you can bet you’re going to use every last piece of him! I realise I’m getting off of the lard subject, but during World War II the Ministry of Food recommended scrubbing potatoes rather than peeling them. If you’re ancestors did this every day for years, there’s a fair chance you or your parents have some memory or habit of scrubbing potatoes to preserve every last scrap.

Lard has been used for thousands of years in Europe and is steeped in the traditions in many rustic regional cuisines. In any culture where pigs were raised, the fat of the animal was usually considered as valuable a product as its meaty counterparts, and was a staple for cooking and baking. Interestingly, the market for lard was strong during World War II (my grandmother’s years), however not for home kitchens – it was used in the manufacture of explosives. During the war, most people had to switch to vegetable oils for cooking as most of the lard produced was diverted to the military. When the war ended, lard prices dropped dramatically (presumably due to an oversupply), and oils were marketed successfully as healthier to cook with, and lard never regained its staple place in the diet.

Lard had already succumbed to public disdain in the US way before this time. In the 19th century, lard production meant big bucks in the US, and in every pantry lard could be found. It was used, similar to the European way mentioned by my parents, in baking, cooking and spread on bread, holding the same level of popularity as butter. It was also used as a substitute for butter during World War II. Then everyone read Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle around 1906, which, whist completely fictional, notoriously featured the workers in the lard factory falling into the vats and never being fished out. That’s right; Americans were spreading lard-men on their sandwiches.

Procter & Gamble, among others, also contributed their bit to demise of lard by introducing Crisco (vegetable shortening) and did a ripper job of publicising how great it was in comparison to lard (healthier, more pure) and alongside some great branding strategies, dominated the market. In the 50’s, a touch after our European lard story, scientists decided that the saturated fats in lard caused heart disease. This created an industry-wide rejection of poor lard.

Recently, since those great years that were the 90’s, chefs and bakers have started to re-recognise the unique properties and benefits of lard, resulting in a bit of a foodie revolution in the use of lard. They are championing its superiority in cooking, due to its range of applications and taste. Pure lard is useful for cooking since it produces little smoke when heated, has a relatively high smoke point to begin with, and has a distinctive flavour. And as always, the PR machine has come to the party, telling us all about the artery-clogging trans-fats you’ll now find in vegetable shortening.

Back to Europe and in particular the UK, where traditional British cuisine enthusiasts have contributed to a rise in lard popularity, there was even a lard crisis, God forbid, in 2006, when Poland and Hungary were such gluttons for fatty cuts of pork that the UK lard demands were not met. I also read an article some time ago about Ukraine, who serve Ukrainian Snickers – pork fat covered in chocolate!

So it seems that despite lards rough trot, it has come nearly full circle. Though it was obviously never forgotten and remained a favourite of some of the older generation and was passed down, demonstrated through my father’s love of a great big slab of white fat.