Batting for fat
Yes, it's no longer a dirty word - in the culinary dictionary
Some people will think it's a dirty word. But I love fat. Yes, fat in all its manifestations. Fat from animals, fat from vegetables, fat from nuts, fat from birds, and fat from wherever else you may find it.
As a society, we are now conditioned to think of fat as forbidden. When we go to buy meat, we ask for it to be lean. If the butcher gives us too much fat, we think he has cheated us.
But the point of meat is fat. Try eating a steak made entirely of lean meat. It won't taste very good. Some breeds of cow have less fat. For example, the Chianina of Tuscany, from which the famous beef steak of Florence is made, yields a very lean meat. Proud as they are of their cow, the Tuscans realise that the absence of fat is a problem. So, each time they serve a steak, they pour a generous glut of olive oil over it to increase the fat content.
When steaks are rated, the inspectors look for traces of fat. Large streaks of fat (common among American cows) mean that the cow was fattened too quickly. The best beef is marbled, which is to say that its surface has little white specks of fat. As you cook the steak, the fat melts and moistens the meat.
The most expensive steaks in the world come from Japanese cows: Matsuzaka and Kobe. The point of Japanese beef is the fat. In Japan, when you eat Wagyu, they don't bother with thick steaks. They slice the meat and lightly sear it. Often, the fat is cooked separately.
We don't often think of poultry fat, but we are wrong to ignore its importance. Goose fat is the most wonderful cooking medium. Cook potatoes in goose fat and you will never want to cook them in oil again. The most famous poultry fat, of course, is foie gras. This is the enlarged liver of the duck or goose. When these birds are ready to migrate, they feed themselves silly and store all the energy in their livers in the form of fat. That's why foie gras has none of the chicken liver taste you would expect. It only has the rich silkiness of pure poultry fat.
The most common animal fat, however, is one we don't usually think of as being animal fat. But make no mistake: milk fat is pure animal fat. When we lick thick, luscious cream, we are licking animal fat, created by the cow. It's the same when we eat ice-cream, a product where fat content is regarded as crucial to its quality. But the best-known milk fat of all is, of course, butter. I have yet to meet a single person who does not like butter. The great chef
Auguste Escoffier famously said that the three great secrets of French cuisine were butter, butter and butter. And it's true. Even the nouvelle cuisine chefs who lightened the heavy sauces of French cuisine could not do without butter. Many French chefs will add a knob of butter to a dish after it is ready just to balance out the flavours.
Few people are as obsessed with butter as the French. They like theirs unsalted with a touch of cream about it. And gourmets will be able to taste a tiny speck of butter and tell you which part of France it came from. I have known chefs who refuse to prepare a dish if they don't get a supply of Normandy butter. Butter from Brittany or the Loire Valley, they say, will ruin the taste.
Sadly, the rest of the world is not as discriminating as the French. Most of us are used to yellow, industrial butter, which comes salted and treated with chemicals so that it can survive long journeys. The taste of fresh butter, alas, has largely been forgotten.
And then, there's oil. These days, the world goes crazy over olive oil but it is essentially nothing more than a fat. It's different from other fats because it is one of the few to be extracted from a fruit. The oils we normally use come from seeds (mustard) or nuts (groundnut). That lends a special glamour to olive oil. And it leads us into making the basic mistake that most olive-oil lovers commit. Olive oil is like butter. It is at its best when it is fresh. Do not keep it for too long. Do not buy a bottle of olive oil that has lingered on the shelves of a shop for months. And once you've bought it, consume immediately or as soon as possible.
Once upon a time doctors used to tell us that fat was bad for us. New research has cast doubt on that view. For instance, the US government no longer asks its citizens to limit their consumption of fats on the grounds that this could lead to an increase in body cholesterol. And there is mounting evidence to suggest that without fat the body can't perform many of its most vital functions.
So, don't feel guilty when you put a little ghee on your rice or smear butter on your toast. Fat is one of the great joys of life.
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