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  1. di red portrait

    This time I am moved to write about lard, which in common with other animal and vegetable fats, and more than most, seems to cop the healthy eating prejudices and snobbery of people interested in food. As it happens, lard is very versatile and there are one or two things where I would use it in place of any other fat available. The obvious one is greasing cake tins, where it performs much better than oil or butter, but lard, despite its old-fashioned, unhealthy image and its association with hard times, can outperform its more prized competitors when it comes to cooking.

    These days, there are three kinds of fat in the house – butter, lard and olive oil. When I was a child, we had a very small bottle of olive oil, but it was never used for cooking – it was used for things like getting wax out of ears. When I grew up and started cooking for myself, it took a while to shed the idea that olive oil was principally medicinal and not something to put with food.

    I grew up in the sixties, the other side of the Flora revolution, when my mother, who cooked for us every day, always used lard to roast the potatoes for Sunday lunch. In those days before the frozen chip, she had a chip pan which was never used for anything other than deep frying. I can remember standing over the pan, a raw chip held between my thumb and forefinger, and dipping it cautiously into the heating lard to see if it was hot enough yet to start frying. The moment the tip of the chip went in and the fat sizzled and foamed enthusiastically around it, the game was on.

    At the end of the frying session, she let the fat cool, then strained it into a glass bowl – never used for any other purpose – and kept the congealed fat in the fridge until the next time we had chips – once a week at most.

    At some point in the sixties or seventies, chip shops began to move from lard to vegetable oil for their frying, something to do with lard boiling at higher temperatures and therefore being more of a fire hazard. But it is this very ability of lard to reach a higher temperature that makes it such a successful frying medium – the food is crisper and more flavoursome and seems to drain excess fat better as well.

    Butter came in for a hammering in the seventies, the butt of an aggressive campaign by manufacturers of margarines claiming lower fat content and higher polyunsaturates that were better for your heart. This proved to be nothing more than powerful food producers taking on a natural product and pushing it out of the way in favour of profits. I was always fascinated by the piece of information stating that animal fats are the only foods that help the brain produce endorphins – the feel-good chemicals. Clarissa Dickson-Wright drew an interesting link between the rise of depression in our society and the dramatic drop in our consumption of butter and cream.

    Another thing I’ve realised about frying with lard is that you need very little of it. I always use it for pancakes, like my mother did, although it took me a long time to discover the other trick of pancakes not sticking to the pan – especially the first one – which is heating the pan through first, until it’s smoking hot. I still use a lot of olive oil for frying, especially for pasta sauces, but lard is a very good companion when it comes to roasting root vegetables.

    When my mother made pastry, she always used a mixture of lard and Stork. Now I do have a prejudice about Stork – I’ve never got on with processed vegetable fats, and I remember vividly the advertising campaign that ran in the sixties, challenging people on the street to see if they could tell the difference between Stork and butter. It appeared that nine out of ten people were blissfully unaware there even was a difference, something that even as a child I found impossible to understand. Stork tasted of chemicals and its flavour swamped everything you put on it, lurking powerfully beneath jam, treacle, cheese or ham and ruining them all. I’ve never trusted any mass produced, chemically enhanced and generally doctored fat product since.

    Anyway, back to pastry. When I started cooking for myself, I became a butter snob, and always used it for pastry. I am not much of a pastry maker to begin with, and always found my finished product heavy and clunky, whereas my mother’s pastry was much lighter. One day, I tried it with lard and nothing else – and the difference was amazing! There was the crispness I’d been missing, and there was a pleasing, lightness of flavour as well. I was immediately converted. I even make scones with lard now – and it works beautifully for them, too.

    And finally, if you buy a leg of pork joint, and you aren’t planning on roasting it, you can strip off the top layer of fat and skin, put it on a roasting pan and cook it at about 200 for a couple of hours to render the fat. Drain it off after about an hour, then put the half-cooked fat back in the oven to harvest the second batch. The result should be a ramekin dish or two of dripping, which keeps for ages in the fridge and can be used for frying and roasting.

  2. I have never been much of a housewife. There are far more interesting things to do than dust and scrub. However, now and again I am moved to get out the Dyson and blitz. My desk tends to be a bit of a mad place, covered in paper, rocks, painting gear, books and other clutter. Occasionally, I carefully move the computer screen and vacuum behind it with the duster brush.

    In the course of this rare housewifely gesture, I ever so slightly touched the cable to the screen, which promptly suffered a fatal arrest. The fact that we had been talking about replacing the computer for ages did not comfort us, as March is not a good month for extra expenses. Replacing just the screen seemed a waste of time, so we went the whole hog and invested in a new system. We reckoned we could still just about eat, even allowing for the looming car tax.

    But then we failed to anticipate that practically the minute it was taxed, the car suddenly started pouring power steering fluid all over the place, necessitating the purchase of a switch and a hasty trip to the garage.

    Neither did we see coming the day that we opened the fridge door to pull out the morning milk, only to discover that it had passed away during the night. That meant a knackered fridge and the attached freezer. Cue frenziedly eating up the frozen peas, chips and fish fingers that were in there at the time, and the designation of a shelf in the kitchen to replace what used to be the fridge until our shattered finances could rebuild sufficiently to cope with a white goods purchase.

    The shelf on which the fridge goods now reside is placed high on account of having two cats and two dogs. All four are perpetually engaged in food surveillance, waiting for the inevitable slip – the cheese that doesn’t get put away, the shepherd’s pie left to cool on top of the cooker, the slice of cake that was left on the table because the phone rang just before it was to be carried away ….

    All four animals have a wonderful health record, so the last thing we expected was the dog to go wrong. Our lovely, dippy Labrador fell ill just after the fridge died  - we knew it was serious because he didn’t eat for two days. After a thorough examination, the vet detected the problem – a cut in an extremely private place that is normally protected by a fur sheath. While we have spent several entertaining hours trying to work out how on earth he managed to injure himself in this way in that particular place, the vet bill was less entertaining. Never mind –  the seventy quid willy is now in tip-top condition along with its owner, and it was worth every penny to have him bouncing around at full strength after a worrying week.

    Our last disappointment of the month did not involve a large bill. It involved The Hobbit. Having waited weeks for its release on DVD, we all sat down to watch it in the evening. Suffice to say that within half an hour of it finishing, it was up on ebay. It was not the first to be listed – ours was number 164, which suggests we were not the only family in the grip of major let-down. Oh dear – nearly three hours of poor characters, wrong tone, overdone special effects, bad screenplay and very little actually happening, has conspired to finish us off. We won’t be buying episodes two and three. Although we did like the eagles at the end.