Joanna Blythman: In praise of bones and fat
Lean cuts lack flavour, so why did we turn against fatty, sinewy, tastier meat options?
Duck confit. Slow roast shoulder of lamb. Osso bucco. Short ribs. Chicken wings. These are my top five meat dishes. Can you spot the common factor? They all have bones and a fair amount of fat.
Now I know that my personal preference runs contrary to the modern obsession with lean, unboned meat. So when someone is carving a chicken they generally love having me at the table, because while most people ask for breast – which is pretty boring to eat, if you ask me – I’m only too happy to eat the wings, the thighs, the legs, and positively delighted to devour the crisp roast skin that others are studiously avoiding.
I feel the same way about bacon: it has to be streaky. This, by the way, is a position that has earned me brownie points with my local butcher, who shares my preference, even though he sells more lean than fatty bacon. In a restaurant, my appetite isn’t whetted by pork loin. The belly interests me much more. I’ll never choose lamb loin either, but chops grilled over charcoal is a favourite. Steak? You can keep the fillet or sirloin. I’ll go for the un-boned rib every time. Chicken ‘supremes’? Dull as ditchwater, almost invariably dry and characterless animal protein at its most tedious. They just don’t activate the pleasure centres of my brain or woo my palate.
The way I see it, bone and fat are flavour’s best friends. They hang around in a little gang together, and add up to something that’s rewarding to eat. And let’s not forget the minor members of the tasty meat gang: gelatine,connective tissue, collagen, the jelly in your pork pie, the viscosity of patiently reduced beef gravy; these secondary players all have a hand in creating winning consistencies and deliciousness.
In the UK, I think we’re losing our grasp of the elements that make great meat. Supermarkets focus intently on selling us mince and lean cuts. Their beef stew cuts, in my experience, are a penance: the more you cook them, the drier they become. Happily, an independent butcher can still sell you overlooked cuts such as shin, chuck, and blade, that become so rich, so moistly tender with time.
Why did we turn against such marvellous cuts? I blame relentless government advice to avoid saturated fat for diminishing our understanding of meat. It doesn’t make sense when no meat is composed purely of saturated fat. Beef, for instance, consists of, on average, 50% saturated, 45% monounsaturated, and 5% polyunsaturated fat.
The postwar anti-sat fat crusade, in my view, was predicated on the weakest type of science: epidemiological studies. These analyses were often based on notoriously unreliable diet questionnaires. But the latest, much more robust systematic reviews and meta-analyses of randomised trials, published in the British Medical Journal*, have found no statistically significant results to implicate saturated fat as a major cause of coronary heart disease.
Of course, it’s up to you. If you believe the ordinances about saturated fat, you must sacrifice taste for what you believe to be better health. I pay more heed to the words of a towering figure in British nutrition, surgeon captain Thomas Latimer Cleave: ‘For a modern disease to be related to an old-fashioned food is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard in my life.’
I can’t help but think of my grandmother, whose stews melted on the plate, whose marvellously restorative broths – learned from her female forbearers – always started with boiling bones and fatty meat. Perhaps I was brainwashed as a child, but I’ll trust her culinary wisdom over contemporary orthodoxy any day.
Read more articles by Joanna Blythman
For health’s sake, please eat when you drink
The humble potato deserves more respect
Why ‘grass-fed’ isn’t as virtuous as it seems
Why I won't use vegetable oil
Stop the vegan fake ‘meat’ copycats
There's a lot of artisan fakery about
Which cut of meat do you prefer? Leave a comment below...
Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.