Food & Drink: Cleanse, baste and taste

More than just a way of keeping your outsides in, skin is delicious too
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PEOPLE who surgically remove the crisp skin from their seared salmon are the same as people who don't drink. They're not people you want to have in your life. Heaven knows how they approach other basic and fundamental skin-related activities such as you-know-what (no doubt they use euphemisms like you-know-what all the time).

Clearly, those who like skin - Hannibal Lecter apart - are decent, intelligent people in touch with their feelings. And happily, this accounts for 90 per cent of the human race.

Why else would roast suckling pig be guest of honour at every Chinese banquet? It's not because everyone wants to eat a lot of pork. It's the skin thing; that divinely toasty crunch, like crispbread that's bad for you.

It's why the Sunday roast pork is such a favourite. The meat is just something you must sludge through in order to reward yourself with a mouthful of crisp, bubbled crackling. The skin is the diva of the performance, sizzling in the spotlight, as the apple sauce plays sweet soprano and gravy the murky baritone.

The Chinese can also take credit for skin's finest hour; Peking duck. Here we have the very pinnacle of human ingenuity. How long did it take to work out that one had to baste the skin in a mixture of maltose and hot water, then pierce a hole under the wing so that the whole thing could be blown up like a balloon to separate the skin from the flesh? The result, after roasting, is edible lacquer - a beautifully brittle, aristocratically shiny skin that begs to be snuggled up with spring onion and cucumber in a baby blanket of pancake. The rest of the duck is okay, but it's hardly the point of the exercise.

The French, long acknowledged as the skin-care specialists of the world, have ways of making chicken skin as glamorous as Beatrice Dalle, underlaid with a moisturising layer of forest-green tarragon farce, or with dark coins of black truffle, showing through like fresh bruises.

The skins of duck and goose necks become things of beauty when stuffed and formed into plump sausages by the master charcutiers of Paris and Lyons. In Gascony and the south-west, little crunchy scrolls of crisply rendered duck skin (graisserons) are tossed through green salads, providing a richly textural counterpoint.

In Bologna, the skin of the pig's trotter takes on greatness as the casing for zampone, one of the few boiling sausages in the world that comes with toes. In Japan, there is a subtle, disciplined way of salt-grilling sea bream so that the skin becomes something other than skin.

The skin of lemons and oranges is just as addictive, especially when it is squeezed to release a fine spray of essential oils, the freshest, sexiest smell in the world. In the Seven- ties, the late French chef Michel Guerard turned the world on to orange peel with his crystallised Eugenies, enrobed in bitter chocolate.

Mandarin or tangerine skin is also revered by the Chinese, when dried to a crisp and then reconstituted to release its flavour in long, slow braises of pork, beef and duck. Grated lemon skin (zest) is a wake-up call for the tastebuds in a gremolata for osso buco, in vinaigrettes, and in delicate madeleines.

Most people are in denial about skin. They peel it off and chuck it in the bin as if it were mere packaging. Skin is full of goodness, so why get rid of it? Clean, unpeeled fruit and vegetables not only retain more goodness, they retain more dignity. Pumpkins and potatoes roasted in their skins have more flavour, tomatoes are fruitier, and apples are crunchier. As for peeling grapes to serve them with game, there should be a law against it.

Skin is more than just "the thing that keeps your insides in", as American comic singer Allan Sherman sang in the Seventies. It's the skin that's the beautiful thing. Beauty is, after all, only skin deep.