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Food & Drink: Me and Mrs Sprat

Body fascists are turning fat into the next big enemy of the people; WITHOUT FAT WE WOULDN'T HAVE POTATO CHIPS, CREME BRULEE OR DAWN FRENCH
FOR ME, MS RIGHT is, in fact, Mrs Sprat. If only we had met earlier, we could now be sizzling our marbled steaks, and tossing our peas in butter till the cows came home. Then we could milk them and churn cream together to have with our morning pancakes. Sadly, she's already taken, by a moron called Jack who could eat no fat. I know the type well: the sort who orders his Caesar salad with the dressing on the side, who cuts those cute, juicy little tails off his lamb chops, and who also insists on having the skin taken off his chicken, when all sensible people would prefer to have their chicken taken off the skin.

But we need fat. We run on fat. Fat is an essential part of a balanced diet, providing essential acids and important fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E and K. Some fatty acids convert into molecules known as phospholipids (the basic material of cell membranes), essential for the proper functioning of our brain cells. Blah, blah. Forget all that. What's important is that without fat, we wouldn't have potato chips. Or cashew nuts, creme brulee, rillettes, terrines, fried chicken, Yorkshire pud, or Dawn French.

Intent on making fat the next enemy, the fat-ophobics are fast turning it into the next drug of choice. When fat is no longer legally available, it goes underground. It turns up in bread, toasted muesli and chocolate biscuits. It mutates into seemingly innocuous additives that may not be as innocent as they seem. I prefer fat I can see. That way, I can cut it off if there is too much, or leave it to protect the meat as it cooks. I can choose the quality of my fat, in the same way that I choose the quality of my fruit, vegetables and wine. I can also judge my fat intake, so that every now and then I can indulge in Fat's Finest Moments, without ending up in the cholesterol corner of casualty.

Confit, for instance. Originally a sensible, house-wifely way of preserving duck or goose over the lean (sorry) winter months, confit has a miraculous by-product - flavour. After salting the meat and gently simmering it in its own rendered fat, it tastes juicy, bright and strong. Without confit, cassoulet is merely a bean stew.

In much the same way, the Italians use fat to preserve and prolong their enjoyment of pork. They squeeze it into the spicy salame of the south, the elegant cotechino sausages of the north, and those delicate logs of mortadella from Bologna. The height of fat chic is to eat cubes of polenta at Verona's Antica Bottega del Vino, each draped with a butterfly-thin layer of cured fat that clings like damp gossamer to the golden sides as it melts over the charcoal grill. So much of great cooking is merely the transformation of fat. What Pierre Koffman and then Marco Pierre White have done with the pig's foot goes way beyond the bar-room expectations of George Melley. Stuffed with sweetbreads, chicken farce and morels, each delicate trotter wallows in a lipsticky sauce that is three-star fat on a plate.

There is even time in China, between eating healthy dishes of lightly cooked vegetables and steamed fish, to create ways of cooking fat that amaze and delight. Dong Po Pork from the mystical West Lake city of Hangzhou, named after the Sung dynasty reformer and poet Su Dong Po, is simply fatty belly pork cooked for four hours with the local shao hsing rice wine, ginger, sugar and soy sauce until it is shimmeringly translucent. Eating it, you can't help but feel that you are merely restoring to your body what life, the universe, the traffic and doing your tax return have taken out. It is truly restorative.

Dung Po's "In Praise of Pork" is the most poetic recipe ever written about fat: " ... Firewood smouldering, the fire dimly gleams/Hurry it not, let it slowly simmer/ When cooked long enough it will be beautiful."

There is only one poem more moving, but if you don't mind, it is one I would rather not discuss. It still hurts too much.