Edible Traditions: Lard

Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely / Illustration by Julia Rothman

What first caught my eye at the stall in the Oxford Covered Market in England were the game birds hanging in braces, that is, pairs: not just pheasant and quail, but mallard, teal, grouse, partridge, pigeon and widgeon. I knew I was in another world. When I looked closer, I saw white balloons hanging heavily from the ceiling. The proprietor, whose ruddy face and round shape belonged in an 18th-century print, told me they were pigs’ bladders—pigs’ bladders, dried, inflated, and filled with lard. Imagine, pigs’ bladders filled with lard!

That was 25 years ago in England, but it was more than another country, it was another century, another age. Indeed, the market was medieval in origin, at a major crossroads in Oxford where farmers brought their produce from the country and set up stalls to sell to people in town. In 1774 it was cleaned up and put under a roof to become the Covered Market which many old towns in Europe still have. Our farmers markets today in and around Boston are a recreation of them. During that year in England I learned a great deal by following my curiosity, keeping my eyes sharp and my nose in the air.

In that shop, behind the game birds that changed with the season, were sausages, meat pies and puddings. I remembered that our word pudding comes from the French word boudin, meaning a meat sausage. Gradually over the centuries such a pudding contained less meat and more grain until eventually pastry replaced the intestinal casing. The word custard, meaning an egg-and-cream concoction, savory or sweet, comes from the word croûstade, for the outer pastry crust which contained the custard. The term pudding, from boudin, came into English a century or two earlier, in about 1275. Pudding is what the British still call dessert today.

That meat stall was a history lesson. Beneath the lard-filled bladders were brawn (what we call head cheese: pig’s head boiled, boned and jellied); haslet (loaf of pig’s heart, lungs, liver and sweetbreads); faggot (pork liver and other offal mixed with meal, covered with fat and baked); black pudding (a sausage of fresh pig’s blood and cubes of lard); and white pudding (lard and oatmeal). These meat pies, making my sense of geography keener, included Cornish pasties, Oxfordshire hog pudding, Melton Mowbray pie, Scotch haggis (chopped lamb’s liver and heart with oatmeal stuffed in lamb’s stomach; they also offered a vegetarian version which the proprietor and I chuckled over), in and out of casings and crusts.

People were hungry, so wasted nothing, and lard was an essential part of cooking. If these pies and puddings sound disgusting to our modern sensibility, perhaps we have something to learn in a world where people are hungry still. Removed as we Americans are today from where our food is made, we might think about what goes into the salami in our lunch—not to be squeamish but to be aware.

Many of these meat preparations have traditionally used lard to moisten and bathe the sausage or pie as it cooks. Sometimes lard was smeared over the surface to protect scarce food by sealing out the air, like French duck confit preserved in its own fat. French charcuterie uses lard to moisten lean cuts of meat, with long strips of fatback threaded through the tissue, or a thin sheet wrapped around a terrine. Browning lardons is step one for making boeuf Bourguignon, and lacy caul fat encloses a delicate pâté, melting away to nothing as it holds the food together. Italian lardo, recently trendy in American restaurants, is the Italian equivalent, although it has more stylish associations than the English word lard.

Bazaar International Gourmet, the Russian deli in my neighborhood, is another education for me, a way to travel vicariously. They carry salo, pork fatback, originally from the Ukraine, in three different styles: plain salted without any meat; smoked with some meat; and on the rind with lots of meaty streaks and seasoned liberally with chopped garlic. The salesgirl tells me that cooks from Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Ukraine may tuck a little salo into a dish of beans or meat stew for flavoring, like bacon.

Spanish cuisine uses lard often, many times seasoned with salt and paprika. New-World Latino cooking employs lard in a wide variety of dishes. Mexican tamales and tortillas can’t be authentic without lard. Chicharrones, cracklings from rendered fatback or another part of the pig, are as clear a marker of the cook’s origin in the way they are prepared as a spoken accent. Certain pastries use lard which, when made with butter instead, lack the genuine and subtle distinctions of the original, as in the polvorones among the recipes at the end of this article.

What exactly is lard? Lard is the fat in pigs from under the skin on the back, in a thick, hard layer, and also softer fat from around the organs and belly. The very best, called flare or leaf lard comes from inside the loin and around the kidneys, to protect them. It contains little but fat. This top-quality nearly pure white lard has traditionally been stored in pig’s bladder, as in the old Covered Market in Oxford, from a time before plastic and Tupperware and kept cool in, yes, the larder.

Processed lard, which Americans have bought at supermarkets since Crisco was introduced in 1911, stays solid at room temperature. It keeps a long time on the store shelf without turning rancid, which was useful in hot climates before refrigeration, has a creamy texture and is inexpensive. But this convenience and stability has another cost. It has been treated with deodorizers, antioxidants, emulsifiers, possibly also bleach. Processed lard has been hydrogenated and is a trans fat, which increases “bad” LDL cholesterol; this is why it has been banned from New York restaurants. As for unprocessed lard, it is 40% saturated fat which compares well to butter’s 54% (vegetable is under 10%). Lard’s level of monounsaturated fat (“heart-healthy” cholesterol) is 45%, which is twice that of butter’s.

Chemically, when lard is melted and cooled, it develops a grainy texture from its mixture of triglycerides. This makes for large crystals, compared to those of butter or vegetable oil. Thus lard is excellent for flaky pastry, as in pie crusts and biscuits, but less good for bread dough. Lard has a high smoke point (400˚); that is, you can heat it higher than many other fats before it burns. This trait makes it good for frying, as for potatoes, fritters, and fried chicken. Lard imparts little flavor in cooking, however you are using it.

The apple pie that Grandmother used to make is probably a lot better for you than Mom’s apple pie. I am not suggesting that we pig out on lard. I’m saying that we should look, taste and think again. Unprocessed lard deserves a better reputation and, in moderation, a place on our table.

Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. Her cookbook, A Feast of Fruits, was published by Macmillan in 1983. Her dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons, 3rd edition), has been in print since 1986. She was editor of The Culinary Times, published by the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, from 2000 to 2009. Beth can be reached at elizabethriely@gmail.com.

Local sources for unprocessed lard:

Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge Many Hands Organic Farm Certified Organic by Baystate Organic Certifiers 411 Sheldon Road, Barre 978.355.2853farm@mhof.net

Kate Stillman Stillman’s at the Turkey Farm 561 Thresher Road P.O. Box 373, Hardwick 413.477.0345Kstilly29@aol.comstillmansattheturkeyfarm.com

Jennifer Hashley Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds 159 Wheeler Road, Concord 978.835-5641/ 978.318.0063backyardbirds@comcast.net peteandjensbackyardbirds.com

John Dewar & Co. 277 Linden Street, Wellesley 781.235.8322 johndewarinc.com