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The Caterer

Book review – Fat by Jennifer McLagan

11 May 2012
Book review – Fat by Jennifer McLagan

Fat
By Jennifer McLagan
Jacqui Small, £16.99 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-1906417468

There is a refreshing straightforwardness about Jennifer McLagan's choice of book titles. Fat ranks up there with four-letter words as conversational taboo in polite society. One of the greatest comedy films, The Producers, saw neurotic accountant, Leo Bloom, in a fit of hysteria searching for the worst insult to his partner, the portly Max Byalistock. Inspirationally, he shouts "fat, fat, fat" and that says it all really.

But fat includes butter, schmaltz, pork fat in all its guises and glory, bone marrow and dripping. How could you live or cook without it? When I was researching Europe's most ancient cookbook, written by a Sicilian Greek in the 5th century BC, fat was highly prized and, just as the old wives' tale about Eskimos and snow, there were loads of words to describe qualities and types of fat. Fat as a word has little charisma, but as a reality covers a great deal of the joy, and nourishment, in eating.

Think of biscuits, like shortbread, which are mostly butter, or duck confit, which is slow cooked in its own fat and the realisation will dawn that it is the fat content which delivers the texture - mouth feel as the food scientists would have it - the flavour and much of the satisfaction in any dish.

As with McLagan's other books, it is the research and knowledge that make this a star purchase. The chapter on butter has a great quote from American food writer Shirley Corriher: "Leave the butter in the pie crust but take a smaller piece of pie". When I did a screen test as a possible telly star 30 years ago, I said the self same thing in my piece to camera. As you will have realised from my non-appearance on your screens, it didn't go down a storm at the BBC. Don't be downhearted - the message is still correct.

The book contains lots of serviceable recipes for stuff that varies between lentil soup and foie gras, a version of which clinched the job for Michael Caines as my replacement at Gidleigh Park, and brown butter ice-cream. I should mention that Caines's soup may have owed something to the man's exceptional talent as much as any recipe.

My favourite recipe in the book is duck fat biscuits with cracklings. I used to make a Hungarian scone that was very similar at the Gay Hussar in London's Soho about 40 years ago, called pogacsa, and still dream about the fabulous savoury taste. Now I must make some again.
By Shaun Hill, chef-proprietor, the Walnut Tree, Llanddewi Skirrid, Monmouthshire

If you like this, you'll love these:
Shirley Corriher
â- It Must've Been Something I Ate Jeffrey Steingarten
â- Goose Fat and Garlic Jeanne Strang

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