In Praise of Fats

How lardo, ghee and bone marrow are breaking the last food taboo

by Peter Lyle; photos by Maxime Ballesteros
Mar 25 2018, 12:00am

“I got you fat for Christmas,” my friend said with a movie-baddie grin while we walked down the pavement a couple of weeks ago.

He went on to explain that the purchase he had made and intended to share was actually a slab of lardo, the prime pork back fat gently which is cured in garlic and rosemary, and costs more per kilo than prime cuts of beef. But his opening words stuck with me, and I doubt I’ll ever forget them.

“I got you fat.” He got fat. I’ll get fat soon. Got milk? Got fat! “Give fat”, just like “Give blood,” in its own perverted way. An injunction affirming the interconnectedness of all living things; a visceral reminder that in the midst of life we are in death. The difference is that “Give blood” is something we associate with the extension of life, whereas we’ve been raised from childhood to see saturated fats as one of the surest ways to bring on its early and awful end. Which, of course, is why it still gave my friend a naughty thrill to share as a treat.

The weird thing is, though, that lardo’s aura of decadence may dwindle for Christmases future; it’s already in danger of becoming something you make New Year’s resolutions to eat more of, rather than avoid. It’s already well-established as a menu pop-shot for beardy, reclaimed-wood restaurants, whipped and spread on toast or jizzed all over artisan pizza; one East London restaurant is even named after the stuff.

Elsewhere, bone marrow, which is around 70 percent saturated fat, is the hero, whether as rich spread or burger adulterant. ‘Cultured butter’, which is just butter made the pre-industrial way, is having a foodie revival in New York and beyond, and being flavoured with anything from sea-urchin to truffles. In the autumn, McDonald’s announced a new policy of using real butter instead of substitute spreads on muffins, pancakes and the rest. The years of promising less fat, or fat substitutes, are over; what we want now is better fat.

Thanks to their legacy as banned substances, the downtown taste for so-hot-right-now saturated fats may seem entirely understandable. But fat’s outlaw status, its ability to generate edge, does seem seriously endangered. In lectures and articles, the US journalist, biologist and sustainability expert Nina Teicholz is still spreading the message of the book the Wall Street Journal called the best of 2014. In The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat & Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet, Teicholz argued that standard public health advice about avoiding saturated fats was out of date with the evidence.

She’s not alone. Healthy eating blogs have gone mad for enzyme-and-omega-oil marrow – one even called the stuff that used to end up in dog food “paleo caviar.” Recent research into the effects of high heats on different fats has shown that old-fashioned, saturated fats retain their molecular structure in a way many ‘healthier’ modern polyunsaturated vegetable and nut oils do not, and so are actually less of a cancer risk to cook with.

Even the “clean food” trend which dominated UK cookbook sales in 2015 and beyond is actually a part of the saturated fat boom. Coconut oil—a substance whose excessive use was, not long ago, blithely blamed by expert outsiders for high rates of heart disease in some Polynesian communities—is the lardo of the wellbeing world, and some of the fancy brands are absolutely delicious. Fat is the place where clean vegans and carnivorous pigs meet.

Fat is the place where clean vegans and carnivorous pigs meet. Photo: Maxime Ballesteros

The thrill that fat retains even as it’s in danger of being rendered a health food. You look at that quivering morsel and you say, “I would let that give me heart disease, cancer, or whatever it is this week.” Insisting on the uncut, unmediated experience, with all the risks, is what makes fat-love a form of affirmation of our lives as mammals.

Right now, fat sits bobbing between these two extremes of food culture: proudly, authentically self-harming dirty food on the one hand but, on the other, a nutritional and developmental super-ingredient whose intricate powers science is just beginning to understand.

We don’t know how long fat will enjoy this special status, but we do know that time waits for no pretentious restaurant trend. Butter and lardo will slide off the dirty fat porno-throne as surely as goose fat did, as inevitably as death will come to us all. What we really want to know is, what is the next fat-based ingredient to pull out of a table without freaking people out? What will draw a gasp but not a retch? Be sexy-fat, without being plain squelchy? Unctuous, not greasy?

Here’s one idea: ghee. This clarified butter product resembles scrambled eggs, smells a tad goaty, and became a fat-shamed choice in households across India and beyond in the 80s and 90s, when veg oil was advocated instead. Revered as an irreplaceable unifying ingredient in Ayurvedic cuisine which remains in-date after months in your cupboard, it’s still got the funk.

Suggestion two: tallow. If you can’t cope with the stale breast milk tang of aged mutton or beef fat, tallow is your getout. Slowly rendered and strained of impurities, it’s a fat for tanning leather and making candles as well as a calorie-laden expedition staple,

And finally, because this is the time of year they indulge in it in Norway, and because it still has the power to freak people out: gjetost. Made from goats’ whey and then slowly cooked so it sweetens and thickens, gjetost is the world’s most celebrated hybrid of stinky cheese and dulce du leche. It should be a while yet before anybody dares rebrand it a superfood.

New York