Lard has had a tough old time of it. It's such a slippery word and one that's become part of any weight-related pejorative; just ask the bullying likes of Berlusconi. Even when's it not consigned to the book of insults on more than one occasion, it's certainly been condemned to the inauspicious role of last-ditch lube. Hardly whispers healthy din-dins, does it?
But like a greased up, brow-beaten heavyweight spilling sweat on to the canvas and painting a Jackson Pollock with his blood, lard is back. The white stuff is up and out of its corner, throwing punches and knocking out the naysayers once and for all. But it's not just lard—beef dripping is making a comeback, too.
Earlier this month, a beef dripping was selected as a 2014 Top 50 Food at the Great Taste Awards. Plucked from 10,000 entries from the UK and Ireland, James Whelan Butchers' Beef Dripping was called "an absolute showstopper" by the 400-strong judging panel, made up of food critics, chefs, cooks, and producers.
Dripping and lard have a rich history in the UK. In the 50s and 60s, dripping would be kept in a jar by the stove, much like olive oil is today. It was commonly used by fish-and-chip shops, and was a key ingredient in household cooking for deep-frying, sautéing, and baking. As the rat race descended upon us all, the need for quick, convenient shopping coupled with the drop-off of local butchers paved the way for the growth of commercial oils—particularly vegetable—in dripping's and lard's place.
For our generation, lard is exactly that—something confined to the annals of time. Dripping sandwiches are just another groan-inducing wives' tale alongside walking 18 miles to work with one shoe on and visits to the headmaster's office for a close encounter with a birch. It's not our heritage, it's not our food. When beef dripping butcher Whelan says, "It's the taste of my childhood", it's exactly that—his, not ours.
That could all be about to change. Lardo has not only become de rigueur at modern restaurants these days; at Restaurant Story in London, head chef Tom Sellers makes English history and tradition the star of the show, taking the bread and dripping dish of his father's days and re-imagining it as an edible dripping candle, which is served alongside bread as an appetiser. Unforgiving food critic Marina O'Loughlin said in her review of the place that she was "enchanted" by the arrival of the candle and described it as, "That rarest of experiences: something genuinely new... A candle made from beef dripping pools into the holder; dense, dark sourdough for dipping." It's reason enough to book a table there alone.
Good bread and fine fat together is pure alchemy. Another prodigious young chef, Lee Westcott at The Typing Room in Bethnal Green Town Hall, serves whipped chicken skin butter—a delicate-yet-rich testament to animal fat's ability to inject flavour—with his bread, and, of course, the holy grail is the rendered pork fat topped with crispy crackling that noma serve with their very-much-alive sourdough.
Chefs will tell you that they want to use ingredients which impart good flavour—certainly, Rene Redzepi has been quite vocal about his pursuit of deliciousness. That's all it comes down to. Dripping and lard, rendered fat from beef and pig meat respectively, will make anything cooked in it delicious, carrying an essence of meat that gives a depth of flavour and savouriness that standard cooking oils don't have.
Dripping, as the name suggests, is fat which drips from meat as it is cooked. Cooking a roast and catching the drips in a tray for the gravy? That's essentially dripping. If you want to store that dripping you have to go through another more polished stage in the process, leaving it to cool until it forms two distinct layers—a jelly, which can be discarded or used right away, and a white layer that is pared off and clarified, strained and set. When you compare this to olive oil extraction, there's a clear argument to be made for the reintroduction of animal fat into our kitchens. It's a natural by-product of cooking.
Away from the oven, there are other reasons, too. The fat-is-no-longer-the-enemy news that had all butter fiends jumping out of their seats this summer should allay fears of exploding hearts. If not, take a look across the channel at the French. They've had a steady flow of fat in their dishes for centuries, yet their cardiac arrest "scores" are low. This phenomenon is called The French Paradox. How can these heathens chow down so much saturated fat and never get hit with heart attacks? Uh, because saturated fat isn't actually bad for you in and of itself. It's what you eat with it that counts.
Even those who still can't shake off the that-hard-animal-fat-is-the-same-stuff-that-collects-around-my-gut thing can't argue against using animal fat when frying, say, chips. Animal fat—dripping, specifically, when it comes to chips—reaches higher temperatures than other oils, sealing the chips and preventing them from absorbing excess fat. Sure, frying chips in oils might expose them to less saturated fats, but they'll soak up much more of that fat than they would when fried in dripping. Also, if you haven't tried a chip (invariably triple) fried in dripping, head down to your nearest Hawksmoor, order some of their triple-cooked beef dripping chips, and come back to me.
Nutrition wise, both lard and dripping contain monounsaturated fats which are said to lower LDL cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol that can clog up your arteries), palmitic and stearic fatty acids, (beneficial to metabolism and overall growth), linoleic acids (which, ironically, help reduce body fat) and omega-3 acids—a deficiency of which has been linked to depression.
Need more convincing? There are, of course, the glaring ethical arguments for utilising every single piece of cow or pig we slaughter for our consumption. Not using the fat rendered from the carcass is a complete and utter waste. Lard is pretty damn cheap too, as long as you can find a reasonable butcher.
Lastly, you'll be able to bore the shit out of your grandkids—who will, with any luck, be ignorant to a time when fat was still shaking off its bad reputation and—about how much of a stir those ker-azy chefs making candles from beef dripping caused.