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In praise of fat…

Our ancestors were afraid of many things they didn’t understand, conducting many a witch hunt and seeking out scapegoats. We like to think we’re different with our knowledge and scientific skills, but we do the same today. But instead of women with cats, we’ve gone after fat with a flaming pitchfork for the last forty years, pushing it off our plates and yet seeing it on our bodies more and more.

We’ve all heard the theories from Ancel Keys to the French Paradox to Paleo eating or Atkins around whether we should eating fat or not and its enough to make your head spin. We’ve certainly been sold the idea that low fat is better and products modified to fit that category are now abundant on our shelves to the point where it’s almost impossible to buy yoghurt that doesn’t say 0% on the label.

Some of that demonisation of fat has rubbed off on me, compounded by developing gallstones at the age of 18. Fatty food became my nemesis and a slice of cheese or side portion of chips could leave me in so much pain I ended up in A&E. Things didn’t improve much after I had my gallbladder removed and I was put on a low fat diet by my doctors to try to ease the discomfort. Fat was forbidden and I was encouraged to learn the fat content of all the things I ate. I dreamed of butter and triple cooked chips and I’d have sold my soul for whipped cream.

My gallbladder issues resolved slowly and I was allowed to re-introduce fat back into my diet gradually, but I remained suspicious of it as if it might strike back at any time. Learning to cook allowed me to experiment and see that fat wouldn’t attack me over the plate and I began to shake over that guilt from the food industry a bit. But the turning point came when my food budget shrank and I had to re-embrace the thrift that my grandmothers might have employed in their kitchens.

The cuts of meat I was eating were fattier and as well as being flavoursome, they left a legacy of bones and grease that could be used to add interest to soups and stews without adding actual meat. I discovered that preciously hoarded bacon fat could lift simple lentils into a feast or that lard rendered pastry perfect with little effort and that beef dripping makes Yorkshire Puddings the star of the show.

Soon my fridge became a shrine to solid animal fats. Along with blocks of butter, salted, unsalted and homemade to infuse with anchovies and herbs, there was creamy white lard, a jar of duck fat pinched from a friend, a kilner of goose fat treasured from the Christmas roast, schmaltz rendered down from each chicken I’ve cooked, bacon fat from the homemade rashers from Porcus and my own cure, beef and pork dripping bought from Morrisons, pork fat from those belly slices over the months and the cupboard always contains proper suet for dumplings. (I’m also envious of Mister North having used caul fat earlier this year.) Because these fats have to be melted down to use them and are packed with the taste of the place they came from, I find I use less than I did of vegetable oils and yet enjoy them more.

I also find they sate me and my hunger is less rampant. I’ve started buying full fat versions of dressings, mayonnaise and yoghurts where I can (don’t even start me on the slimification of the humble yoghurt) and without commiting to anything as rigid or faddy as Atkins, my appetite has stablised and by desire of to snack has eased. My body has changed shape for the better and I feel contented with my food. I’ve also saved money and waste, making my small shopping budget stretch much further and having to empty the bin less.

Fat has become my friend and few things thrill me more than seeing all those jars and blocks in my fridge and deciding what to use today (although the day I finally get to render my own lard according to Shu Han’s amazing instructions will knock it into a cocked hat). I feel that everytime I use a proper solid fat, a margarine fairy loses its wings…

The Three Fishes, Mitton

Last week was Mister North’s birthday and an excellent excuse for both of us to eat and drink in style all weekend. After an excellent, but late Saturday night out enjoying Korean food at Baekdu and sampling just a few of the excellent beers on offer at Port Street Beer House in Manchester, we were just ready for a good pub lunch preferably in a location gorgeous enough to do this fabulous weather justice. We didn’t take long to decide on The Three Fishes.

Tucked away in Mitton the Ribble Valley not far from Clitheroe and Whalley, this pub prides itself on serving good Lancashire food and drink in a beautiful location and sounded just right for an afternoon out. We decided to err on the side of caution and book a table even though it was a Monday lunchtime and were glad we had when we got stuck behind every driver in the valley out going at 30 miles a hour to drink in the sunny scenery. It also made for the most genuine welcome when we arrived at the pub 10 minutes than planned. Our waitress greeted us like service had been waiting for us and showed us to our table with enthusiasm. Combined with the pint of local Thwaites Wainwright we chose, it was a good start.

The menu is extensive and tempting and we both struggled to narrow our choices down, staring at other tables to see what they were ordering. The platters looked sensational and Mister North was very tempted by the seafood platter until we discovered they were out of the oh-so alluring sounding treacle cured salmon. This almost pleased me as it removed my dilemma and allowed me to go for the Morecambe Bay shrimp as a starter without too much dithering. The fact Mister North chose my other temptation with the baked whitebait, smoked pig’s jowl and a soft hen’s egg was fortituous too.

We didn’t have to wait long before our cheery waitress arrived with the starters, but they were good enough that I’d have waited a while for them. I was served what felt like a pint of shrimp, all glossy and glorious after being kissed by a wave of mace scented butter in their dish. I loved that the waitress brought me a spoon so even after devouring the English muffin, I wouldn’t miss a drop of that beautiful shrimpy butter. I barely noticed Mister North’s reactions as I supped my shrimp, but the morsel I sampled made me briefly envious. Soft sparkling fresh whitebait, unencumbered by batter, married beautifully with the smoky salty chewy pig’s jowl and reminded me again that pork and seafood together can barely be bettered and this was a particularly good example of it.

Excited for the mains after the great starters, I was glad there was a little bit of a pause while I recovered from my buttering up, but I was still thrilled to see my Pie Top with caramelised onions, braised ox cheek and kidneys arrive, especially when I realised it was accompanied by the same dripping cooked chips that made Mister North’s fancy scampi and squid in a basket sound so alluring, preventing us from reverting to childhood squabbling in public…

In fact there was silence at the table as we got stuck in. My ox cheek was properly unctuous, melting in the mouth after the merest prod of the fork. The disc of gleaming puff pastry soaked up some serious good gravy and the onions really added a sweet base note that made the dish. The kidneys though, weren’t as good as the ones I cooked recently, and were a tad powdery for my still offal sensitive tendencies. I’m not sure if it was the texture of the kidneys lingering, but I also found the chips a little bit claggy as if the dripping hadn’t quite been hot enough, but considering how light and lovely the batter on Mister North’s squid and scampi was, I think the issue might have been with me.

He dispatched his fritto misto and chips in record time, commenting several times on how fresh the seafood was and how light it seemed considering that it was all deep fried. I found my dish much heavier and struggled to finish the chips, but refused to waste even a drop of that gravy! We both wanted to sample the famed length of Lancashire Cheese, but were simply too full to even remotely do it justice. I’d have been tempted to go for a long walk so I could come back for it afterwards, but instead we decided to finish up rather than linger and be tempted to drink more at lunchtime. If we’d had more time, I’d have enjoyed sampling the rather good gin list, including the Chase Gin I’m keen to try, especially since it was sunny enough to sit out with a G&T.

We settled the bill and despite the fact Mister North was paying for his own birthday treat, he seemed to find it reasonable at under £50 for the two of us with a drink. Service was genuinely friendly and very easy. We neither felt rushed for coming almost as lunch ended or forced to sit on waiting around for things because they were clearing up. The whole dining room was pleasantly busy with a few other birthday lunches, kids and people enjoying themselves over a drink and I liked the atmosphere immensely. In a valley crammed with pubs and places to eat, there’s a reason that the Three Fishes is so popular. They’ve cracked gastropub food while keeping the pub vibe and welcoming everyone. It’s a local gem. I only wish it were more local to me…