Sunday 20 February 2011

Living off the fat of the land.

By richard Morley

It not often that my actions lead to cries of, “That's disgusting”, but I managed it last week. In fact, twice in about thirty seconds, which has to be some sort of record. The first was when I told a student that I loved eating liver. Luckily, being Spanish she was not able to make the English pun, “Oh, but that's offal”, but she did say it was awful and added, horrible.

The second register of disgust came when I told her how I cooked it, but that's for later.

I have never understood why some people don't like liver. It full of iron, absolutely zero fat, and delicious. What is there not to like? Furthermore, there's liver and liver; from all sorts of animals and prepared in different ways. At the start of the English Villages that I attend the organisers usually arrange an activity that makes sure that we all meet each other. One of these is a series of questions about our fellow villagers' likes and dislike, their favourite activities, or whether they have met someone famous and so on. One of the questions is, “Do you like liver”, because they believe that it will not be easy to find anyone who does. And lots of people say they don't …....only to admit they do quite like paté. Well, that's liver folks, just processed.

I am no biologist, but I think most of the higher order of animals have livers and I have eaten a few in my time. There are all the usual suspects like cow, sheep and pig's liver, even kudu while isolated in a flooded African plain for a week with no food supply from our base able to get through, and my favourite, which is goat's. That comes from a long time of goat's liver and onions for breakfast while working in Africa. Here in Europe it seems goats are for milking and not for eating, so I have missed that particular delicacy for a while now. However, that is compensated by the wonderful goats' cheeses that Spain provides its consumers.

Back to livers and we have to work through the birds like duck, goose and chicken livers which while delicious when turned into paté, are superb in their natural state. My ex had a recipe from our time in Egypt of chickens' liver and rice that was outstanding. However, I think we should obtain our offal as a natural by-product of the animals' slaughter. The forced feeding of French geese just to produce foie gras, despite it producing a superbly delicious paté, is something I find as hard to stomach as much as the poor bird, so I won't eat it any more. But the French produce some Duck patés that are out of this world, so I won't complain.

It's probably too late to warn vegetarians that they probably won't like this post, but they should stop now, because if they are fuming at what I have written so far, they are going to hate what comes next.

You see, not only do I consume meat, I also like melting animals down and using then to cook with. What I mean, of course, is cooking with animal fat, which is how I disgusted my student a second time. Two or three times a week I will have a bacon sandwich for lunch. I throw a few rashers of smoked bacon into a non-stick frying pan and when cooked put the bacon between two doorstops of bread.

Smoked bacon seems to be difficult to obtain in Spain. They have so many delicious ways of curing hams and bacon and because the country is generally warmer, have no need of the northern European fires from which the bacon gets its delicious smoky taste. I used to have a problem buying it here in my little barrio, but since Carrefour opened a “Market” (and I do wonder why it is not a Mercado!) not half a stone’s throw from my apartment and which I treat as a walk-in larder, that problem has been resolved. So chalk one up for Carrefour, which is saying something as, smoked bacon aside, their “Markets” fail on so many levels. A vegetable section that does not sell carrots, no salted butter in the dairy section, no HP sauce in the condiments. Thank heavens for Eroski, a complete stone’s throw in the other direction that does sell all these things.

But back to my bacon sandwiches.

What remains in the pan after the cooking is all the melted fat from the bacon, which I store in a refrigerated container, and it's in that which I cook the liver. My student was disgusted.
“Don't you cook in olive oil”, she railed at me, as if by not using the oil of the olive I was committing some sort of sacrilegious or unpatriotic act.

And the answer is no, I don't.

I do like olive oil on my bread and on salads. Crusty bread dipped in rosemary flavoured olive oil is fantastic, but I don't like the taste when it is heated – and I can't stand the smell it produces when hot. So I will either use a corn or sunflower oil, or peanut oil in the wok, or use melted down animal.

By why do I resort to leeching the fat out of my bacon? Well, here in Spain its almost the only resource. The Spanish like their meat, with the exception of jamón, it seems, devoid of fat. Meat for sale in supermarkets has had all the fat trimmed away. A pork chop, or chuleta de cerdo, looks withered and naked lying on its polystyrene supermarket tray. It all lean meat. Steaks are trimmed, sausages, salchichas, are all meat, and nothing but the meat, and lamb, cordero, is the same. It's not a cry of, “Where's the beef?” that is raised when meat shopping, but, “Where's the fat?”

And don’t get me started on the unavailability of suet!

A friend who cooks a traditional English roast beef meal each Three Kings watched with dismay when buying the joint for the first of such annual treats when, after weighing the joint with its fat attached, the butcher proceeded to trim the fat away to be discarded before passing it over the counter. My friend protested, I am sure to the confusion of the carnicero, and got the fat back. And now each year the beef comes with it fat still firmly attached.

Now I am well aware that we should not consume quantities of fat. It clogs our arteries and piles on the weight. But meat should be cooked with its fat, or in it's own grease for the flavour.

And not just meat, but vegetables too. My friend, the chef of the Three Kings dinner, was delighted this year to find a jar of Grasse d'Oie, French goose fat, for sale in the El Corte Inglés specialist food section. (I think it was there. He'll correct me if I am wrong, but he found it for sale in Madrid never-the-less!) This was used for roasting the potatoes and parsnips that came with the beef. And they were delicious.

Which leads us to a study carried out in the south west of France where the consumption of goose fat and duck fat is probably higher than anywhere in the world and yet the population have one of the lowest rates of heart disease anywhere. Known as the “Paradoxe Français”, not only does the consumption of this type of fat not cause coronary disease, it actually seems to protect against it. I have spent some time in the French “département” of Gers where everything seems to come packed in containers of fat, even plums. When I first saw this I remember remarking, “My god, a heart attack in a jar”, but it seems I was very wrong.

And yes, I suppose that the fat from birds could probably have a different consistency to that from four legged farm animals, and that we should choose our edible fats with care. But food is more than just for nutrition; its taste is just as important.

And here, if you will pardon the bad joke, is my “beef” with Spanish food.

But before the deportation squad comes to manhandle me to the Pyrenean border I have to say I find most Spanish food fantastically delicious, with the exception of paella, but that's just me and my relationship with rice. Spanish food, and here I mean standard main courses, not desserts, has some wonderful flavours, but it has no spicy peaks or bitter lows.

A Mexican friend claims not to have eaten a decent meal, outside of his own kitchen, since he has lived in Madrid. Recently I have tried to entice Spanish friends to eat Indian or Thai, both of which are readily available in the capital, but to no avail. This is a land where HP sauce is considered “hot”. At the recent Three Kings roast dinner I persuaded a Spanish guest to follow my example and thinly smear English mustard on a slice of Jamon Iberico. I swear he then drank a whole can of Mahou Classic in five seconds flat just to put the fire out. So-called “sabor de curry” flavoured noodles on sale at my local Carrefour are bland.

Of course, I generalise!

Of course, Spain has a special relationship with olive oil. It claims to produce forty-four percent of the world’s supply. I have seen the serried ranks of olive groves while travelling south. There are dark tales of Italian produces buying Spanish oil in tanker loads and selling it as Italian oil, but that might be un mito urbano, but I know a lady whose sole job is to verify the quality of Spanish olive oil before it can be imported to middle-eastern countries, where it is prized apparently.

On bread, on salads, with fish, olive oil is wonderful. But nothing will crisp roast potato like goose fat or enrich the taste of liver like pig fat. My friends tell me that after nearly six years of living in Spain I am beginning to lose my “guiri” status, but old habits – and tastes – die hard.

I am having a large dinner this evening, so Sunday lunch was a simple bacon sandwich, which you can see at the head of this post. I do hope I haven’t disgusted anyone else!


  1. I've trained my butcher not to trim the fat from around the sheep's kidneys I buy from him. This is in fact suet, and it renders down into a creamy block of tasty fat. You might be interest in this article, especially what it says about trans fats and olive oil!

  2. Liver and onions with mashed potatoes, delicious!

  3. Liver & Onions! Great stuff!

  4. All correct Richard, the Ribera did not dent your memory.
    Properly constituted Colemans on a slither of Jamón is a delight. And that far from overpowering the delicacy and sweetness of the meat, it enhances it.

  5. I totally agree with you Darryl. Liver fried in bacon grease is one of the top world dishes.

  6. You'll be pleased to know that this 20-year veteran of the vegetarian lifestyle did in fact make it to the end of your post! I don't find reading, hearing or even listening to things about meat disgusting - just the idea of it!
    I should point out though, that even when I ate meat, I couldn't stand liver - I think it was the smell. I lived very close to my school and could actually smell what was going to be for lunch from my house when I woke up. Once that smell of "liver and bacon" wafted in, I would immediately clutch my stomach and earn an entirely required day off sick from my mum! And when I ate bacon, it was streaky, with the fat trimmed off and grilled until you could actually snap it in half - never fried.

    And entirely in reverse to you, I love cooking anything and everything in olive oil. I'll use it instead of butter when making white sauces, for stir-frys, drizzle it over pasta - whatever!

    As for the perceived heat of certain foods, I admit to being a bit of a wimp (korma for curry, and only lightly spicy for chilli etc) but even I found the lack of spiciness in the Spanish versions of everything rather disappointing!

    Hope the large dinner was yummy anyway!

  7. What about liverwurst? It makes for nice sandwiches. And bacon (and bacon grease) always makes for great flavor, even when making paella for us rice lovers.

  8. How any Spaniard can call any English dish disgusting is beyond me. I think the words that come to mind are "Pot", "Kettle" and "Black".

  9. A very interesing review - loved the intermingling of history and culture. I'm planning to visit Spain this Summer and I'm fascinated with Spanish history and culture. Thanks for sharing.


  10. It's possible to get fat or "sebo" ("llard" if you were living in catalonia) from your butcher, is used in certain dishes like "cocidos".