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05 Aug 2009

The gastronomic culture of Roussillon, a corner of Catalonia north of the Pyrenees, has one peculiar feature: it uses rancid lard to heighten the flavor of and add character to some of its traditional dishes. The lard, called sagí, is seasoned and oxidised, after which it can be preserved for a long time. It has a ‘decayed’ taste and an aroma similar to that of oil that has gone off. One would thus be excused for thinking it was inedible. Not true, the pleasures of taste are exquisitely subjective. The lard’s strong smell, yellowish color and slightly acrid taste are heaven for palates accustomed to the stuff.

In April 2003, I had an argument about this with some Italian friends of mine. We were eating an artichoke-based entrée in a restaurant in Tarragona. The dish drew criticism from some quarters. An expert claimed the oil used in the preparation had a fault: it was rancid. Concentrating on the flavor of the dish, I recognised the familiar taste of sagí. I informed my Italian friends that this taste was the result of a conscious decision by the chef, not of a mistake. They were doubtful … We continued to argue the toss about it. They contended that no way could Slow Food defend a food that was rank—not even in the name of biodiversity. I, for my part, tried to justify it as ‘traditional’. The chef came to say hello at the end of the meal.

“Fifteen years ago,” he explained, “I completed a one-year training course at Feuillants, a restaurant in Céret that had Michelin stars at the time (1). The artichoke you’ve just eaten is a reference, a sort of homage to the cuisine of Roussillon.” Yes, the chef had cooked his artichoke with sagí!

The discussion became heated. I claimed rancid lard had to be safeguarded to respect the diversity of different gastronomic cultures. I mentioned jabugo ham (2), pointing out that it gets its refined yet strong taste from the layer of orange-yellow rancid fat that covers it. And hadn’t Patrice de Beer, the long-standing Asia correspondent for Le Monde, recently reminded me of the Tibetan tradition of tea flavored with rancid yak butter, served with toasted barley and salt? And what about Roquefort, Stilton and Gorgonzola? Aren’t they too the result of the chemical break-down of the food itself? If mold can flaunt its aristocratic gastronomic roots, why deny rancidity the same honor?

I encouraged my friends to taste a good ollada, a type of pork-flavoured Catalan cabbage soup, typically served in many regions in Spain and France – variously named potée, garbure and so on (3). Sagí is an essential ingredient of ollada, and gives it an inimitable flavor. The delicious eel bullinada, a distant relative of the bouillabaisse of Marseilles and the bourride of Sète, also owes its distinctive taste to sagì. Carefully seasoned sagì, hanging from the walls of fishermen’s huts in the ponds of Saint-Nazaire, in the Barcarés district (4), is a sight worth seeing. Rancid lard is also used in recipes for garbure (in Gascony), estoficada (a brandade of stockfish typical Provence), fabada asturiana (northern Spain) (5), and toucinho rançoso (Alentejo, Portugal)(6), all pork-based dishes. Sensory curiosity and gustatory tolerance are, I would suggest, the values that safeguard us against the cloning and standardization of flavor. So let’s reserve a corner of the Slow Food Ark of gastronomic tradition to rancidity!

1. Céret is a tourist resort in the eastern Pyrénées, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France .
2.Typical Spanish ham, named after the small town of Jabugo, on the Sierra de Huelva, northern Sierra de Aracena, Andalusia.
3. Potée is a type of soup cum stew made with meat, vegetables and pork sausages. According to some, garbure is simply another variety of potée cooked with different vegetables (white beans, leeks, turnips, potatoes), lard, pork, pork or duck confit, typical of south-western France. Both these dishes have a very long and popular history and similar foods are found almost everywhere else in the world. It is almost superfluous to add that each region—each village even—has its own recipe .
4. Lake district north-east of Perpignan, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.
5. Typical Asturian dish, made with fabes (Spanish white beans) and various cured meats.
6. Literally, rancid lard.

Jean Lhéritier is president of Slow Food France

Article taken from Slow 46

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