Viewpoints on food: “Fat's made a heroic comeback…”

Now the French are larding it over the rest of Europe, says Ed Cumming.

Featured October 17 Words by Ed Cumino / Illustration By Dominic Mckenzie
Viewpoints on food: “Fat's made a heroic comeback…”

Fat's back. It's pleasing to those of us who have spent many years patiently waiting for this moment, not all of them sat in an easy chair. Half a century since American scientists first tried to wean us off our lipid lunches, the jig is up. Hardly a day passes without some fresh study showing how wrong the fat haters were. As every grandmother always knew, butter is better than margarine and the white part of the ham matters more than the pink.

The success of the scare was really a triumph of metaphor. The image of an artery growing clogged over time was evocative to anyone who'd plunged a sink, but it didn't bear much relation to biology, which is why the nutritionists are bending backwards to say that it was cobblers.

None of this is news to the French, who've always known how to use it properly. Butter rules Normandy and Brittany, Provence drenches everything in olive oil. In south-western France, however, one fat above all has a near mythical reputation: duck.

The canard mulard is venerated with the same deference the ancient Egyptians once showed to cats. In fact, the Egyptians are quite probably to blame for the fatty French habit in the first place.

It is said it was an Egyptian technique to keep web-footed beasties in pens. They were fed with figs and grain that the Romans brought over to Gaul, and the rest is centuries of rich, dark, oily history. From Bordeaux to Toulouse they use fat for everything: roasting, preserving, marinating, saucing, even in pastries.

Fat's heroic comeback has made some of the most old-fashioned dishes in Europe seem suddenly hip and forward thinking, which is surprising. Last month, in the southwestern town of Auch, I was presented with a whole duck on a stick - including heart, liver, breast - seared over charcoal and served with potatoes oozing duck oil.

They've been eating this for a thousand years, but it would have looked at home on the list of any trendy whole-beast joint in the middle of a European city. At L'Art de Vivre, a restaurant in Nérac, in the Lot-et-Garonne region, immaculate summer vegetables came served under perfect slices of breast with a duck reduction.

Not that everything harks back to deep French tradition. On a Saturday morning in Bordeaux, young French men and women in the know are queuing down the Rue des Ayres for The Breakfast Club. There they can sit down to the most ancient of fatty brunches: the full English. So, take heart - eventually everything becomes cool again, even the English in Gascony.

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