With more and more UK food stores, from hypermarket barns to our neighbourhood late night shops, most times now stocking Duck or Goose Fat and some delicatessens even selling Italian Lardo, a third option is missing. It’s where we should go next.
Recent medical research has shown that lard has 2/3 lower cholesterol than butter and higher oleic acid than both sunflower and corn oil. Apart from heightening the taste sensation, well made pure lard can actually ward off heart problems. This I’ve heard preached across gastronomic Europe for at least three decades – only in England, where the lard on sale is mostly an unpleasant cheap fat, has the mesage yet to get through. I write about the Lard that is an entirely natural food made from slow rendering of fresh back fat from well reared pigs.
Sunday morning pre-lunch drinks in Austria and Germany has the purest lard – called schmaltz – being offered along with the beer and wine. It’s probably the same on other days, but it’s the Sundays I so fondly remember in Hamburg, Cologne and elsewhere.
Spread most times on rye bread, this schmaltz is often flavoured with onion, apple, plum, cracklings and more exotic tastes like tomato & basil, pumpkin & paprika and, my favourite, seasonal wild woodland garlic. It is cut in small, bite-sized pieces and enjoyed by all, especially this writer.
Such food and presentation defines Blue Collar Gastronomy and has a history that goes back centuries when pigs were slaughtered each autumn and nothing would be wasted bar the squeak. Where else did Fergus Henderson’s ‘Nose to Tail’ dining originate in his St John eating houses? Read the interview with him in the first edition of ‘In Search of TASTE’ – seen here talking his stuff with editor-in-chief, Keith Reeves.
Schmaltz is quite simply the rendered back fat from the pig – nothing more, nothing less. One Austrian company I’ve met source their fresh back fat from around Parma and Modena – Italy’s famed pig rearing and salumi producing areas – where the locals tell you “quando il sapore e un’arte” (“when flavour becomes an art form”).
Erase from your mind please any reference to ‘schmaltzy’ – the Broadway Americanism for over sentimentality or corniness. The schmaltz would be chicken fat -given its root, it could hardly be lard from the pig.
Two Austrian lard makers I’ve met are Otto Schachinger of Enzersdorf and the other, a smaller, more artisan Lukashof of Grafendorf. Both enthuse about their schmaltz and are trying to bring their products to England. Let us schmaltz lovers pray for their early success. May I convert you?
This is a simple food, with the taste and nutrition being the benefit of the immaculate attention to detail in the making. A by-product is the equally delicious knusper grammeln – directly and amusingly translating as ‘crunchy cracklings’ – coming from the gentle and slow rendering process.
Most Austrians agree that schmaltz is best enjoyed spread onto thin sliced Roggen Brot (their traditional sourdough ryebread). Sourdough is of course free of added yeast – so thumbs up once more. Along with the Finns, Austrians are very aware of our over consumption of wheat, prefering rye for its health properties and with good taste balancing the equation.
Talking also with two Austrian master bakers – Franz Pfleger and Alex Pucher of Rye King – both enthused about their own recipes for roggen brot – some recipes 100% rye, others with 20% wheat. Rye with pumpkin seed was a revelation to the palate.
We can have this quality of bread in England tomorrow – we just need to import the flour and expertise. There are even pre-mixes for the cautious.
Let’s make an Easter wish for an enterprising retailer to step forward. For the recent International Food Exhibition (IFE 13), they had their bread made from the pre-mixes by a specialist baker near Heathrow Airport. The quality spoke for itself as I watched visitors often breaking into smiles as they sampled the various recipes – likewise with schmaltz spread on this bread. It’s a fashion waiting to happen (much like the Venetian-style tramezzini of my recent post).
Spreading on bread, like the pre-war bread & dripping of the poor, schmaltz is also for the kitche – just like the graisse d’oie ou canard of the French Sud-Ouest, schmaltz adds depth your cooking.
First you must erase from your mind those 250g blocks of cheap white lard with its added nasty ingredients and instead seek out natural, pure pork schmaltz.
Just as potatoes roasted in goose or duck fat are specially tasty, those same potatoes roasted in schmaltz are special again. Maybe a few London chefs might sometime soon start to champion the wonder that is schmaltz. Some, like Jeremy Lee, already rave about Italian Lardo and the most special of all, the DOP Lardo di Colonata enjoyed since Roman times and said to have been savoured by Michaelangelo when he visited the immense quariies at Carrara, above tiny hill clinging Colonata, to select marble for his studio.
At the No 19 table last weekend our boys fought for the last potato – one even cheekily said “better than goose fat”. I wouldn’t go that far, but last Sunday’s Charlotte potatoes roasted off in schmaltz certainly were crisper on the outside, without any cheffie scoring or dusting with flour .
One executive chef friend, Neil Nugent, who’s no stranger to www.garethjonesfood.com, wrote in a text to me this week about lardo: “……it’s just not used enough – I remember Italians laughing at the British specification for Parma Ham – cut most of the fat off the ham it said. They (the Italians) think we are bonkers – lardo being the bit that helps the flavour and mouth feel………”. Wise words from a man at the sharp end of food retailing.
The last word goes to Günther Leitner of Schachinger: “The Viennese Schnitzel should never be fried in anything other than schmaltz.” With the meatless days of Lent nearly at a close, I take these words to heart. I wonder how The Wolseley fry off their signature schnitzels.
More to come in the weeks ahead from Lukashof’s Ina Högler – their photographer daughter. She tells me how the family grow most of the produce used in their jams, sauces, mustards and chutneys on their own farm – and the farm has been in that family since the 16th century. Imagine my excitement when conversation turned to kren, a speciality of Styria in South East Austria.
Kren is the Austrian word for horseradish – also known in the German as meerettich. Why are the English so sparing in their use of horseradish, serving it only with roast beef – or mixed with mustard for the old Tewksbury* blend? Smoked fish – like eel, salmon, trout or sturgeon – hard cheeses, schinken, speck and ‘Wild’ (that most expressive German word for game) are all lifted on high when eaten with sharp horseradish sauce on your bread – sourdough rye of course.
I am on a mission to learn more of Austria’s grandmothers – the Oma’s – and a cookery writer called Anna Plóchl. I have put myself in Austria’s arms.
Shop on-line from Lukashof for schmaltz, horseradish, preserves, pumkinseed oil, honey and more: www.lukashof.com
* Tewksbury Mustard sold by Fortnum & Mason
POSTSCRIPT: Various readers have compared Schmaltz with Bread with the traditional French Rillettes du Porc – the best rooted in and around Le Mans. I’d say similar, delicious, but not quite the same as Schmaltz. Truth be told I am a desciple of both.