Chefs prize it. The French love it. The Poles are hogging it. And now Britain's running out of it

Just because we use the word 'lard' as a term of abuse doesn't mean we take kindly to foreigners making off with our fat.

The great British Christmas is under threat. Not from the usual suspects, such as television and commercialism, but lard - or, rather, the lack of it. There have been warnings that this year's mince pies, Christmas puds and roast spuds will not be up to scratch because the country is low on lard. Excluding periods of war and famine, it is the first time in perhaps 2,000 years that a shortage of rendered pig fat has threatened British cookery.

The great British Christmas is under threat. Not from the usual suspects, such as television and commercialism, but lard - or, rather, the lack of it. There have been warnings that this year's mince pies, Christmas puds and roast spuds will not be up to scratch because the country is low on lard. Excluding periods of war and famine, it is the first time in perhaps 2,000 years that a shortage of rendered pig fat has threatened British cookery.

Tesco and Morrisons say their supplies of block lard have been cut by 50 per cent. Somerfield is rationing lard consignments. A 20 per cent rise in the price has been predicted. Portions of this unlikely luxury have even been selling for £6.50, six times the normal price, on the internet auction site eBay. The sudden dearth of lard is apparently due to the 10 eastern European states who joined the EU in June taking advantage of cheaper cuts of pork in the community. Previously, producers in Hungary, Poland and other pork-loving countries obtained the raw materials for their renowned salamis and sausages from outside the EU.

It is still too early to say whether the UK is really suffering from a lard drought or if this is just another of the food rumours that send the British anxiously scuttling to the supermarket. Certainly, my local Sainsbury's had no shortage of own-brand lard yesterday morning. The shelf stacker working in the store's fats and spreads section expressed surprise when I mentioned an impending shortfall. "We're still getting plenty," she said. I snapped up a 500gm block for the modest outlay of 30p. Going by my customary rate of lard consumption, 99 per cent of the block will still be intact when it reaches the best-before date of August 2005, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Even if UK lard stocks dwindle to a few stratospherically-priced nuggets, few would regard this as being a big loss. It is hard to imagine a mass uprising of British fat aficionados. The young are more familiar with the term "lardarse" than lard as a culinary product. For many years, lard has not enjoyed a good press.

In the public eye, lard is the Capstan Full Strength of foodstuffs. Yet it has its supporters. "I think it's hysterical that people have been avoiding it when you consider what they shovel into their baskets at the supermarket," says Jeremy Lee, chef at London's Blueprint Café. "At least it's pure and you only use a tiny bit. I'd much rather have lard than bacon so pumped full of liquid you can hardly fry it. I'm a devoted fan of lard."

As you might expect, the chef commonly viewed as the patron saint of carnivores is another devotee of lard. "Lard is good. I'm a great fan of potatoes and bread cooked in fat from Middle White pigs," declared Fergus Henderson of St John restaurant in Smithfield. "I've recently eaten some pastry made with lard that was really fantastic, but the roast potato is my favourite. I'm not quaking in my shoes about the shortage of lard. I'm sure there will be plenty around."

Since the pig population of the expanded EU runs to 150 million (Poland, Germany and Spain each has over 17 million pigs, while Britain has around 500,000) and one-third of each pig is fat, it appears that Mr Henderson's optimism may be justified.

Lard is the rendered, purified fat of pigs, as opposed to tallow, dripping and suet, which come from beef cattle. In the days when pigs were kept by country-dwellers and townsfolk alike (pigs outnumbered people by 3:1 in 19th-century North Kensington), lard was the ubiquitous, everyday fat. As Alan Davidson notes in his Oxford Companion to Food: "The fat of the pig was an article of almost as much value as the meat." The finest quality, known as leaf lard, comes from the flare, a fatty deposit around the kidneys. Back fat, a hard layer between the flesh and the skin, is also highly regarded. For centuries, lard functioned as a spread and preservative. Because lard can reach a high temperature before smoking, it was also useful for frying.

Perhaps the most significant culinary application of lard was as shortening in pastry. Many chefs still swear by lard to ensure good shortening (a tasty crumbliness) in their shortcrust pastry. In his Cook's Encyclopaedia, Tom Stobart extols the texture of pastry with lard as "wonderful". A half-and-half mixture with butter (added for flavour) is traditional for flaky pastry.

Chef Jean-Christophe Novelli bewails the prospect of mince pies without lard. "This lard shortage is terrible. You can use something like vegetable suet at a pinch, but they stop becoming mince pies if you use a substitute."

The lard, of course, goes into the pastry. You don't need a great deal. In a 50:50 mix with butter, my 500 grams of lard will make 120 mince pies. Beef fat in the form of suet goes into the mincemeat, the last, lingering remnant from the days when mincemeat actually contained meat.

Bread was traditionally made with a small amount of lard (it worked very well when I tried it) to keep it moist, but many baked items contain far more. The eyes of many people perceptibly moisten at the thought of Wiltshire lardy cake. From a county long associated with pig rearing, the lardy cake is a moist confection crammed with dried fruit.

One recipe calls for a mixture of a half pound of strong flour with half an ounce of lard, with an extra four ounces of pure lard drizzled on to the partly cooked cakes. After further cooking, it is cooled upside down, apparently to let the lard trickle back through the cake. A lard-based delicacy in Aberdeen are the yeasted, savoury rolls known as rowies or butteries. Curiously, culinary authorities hold varying views about the qualities of lard. The Larousse Gastronomique maintains "It has a fairly pronounced flavour." However, Tom Stobart's description is more familiar: "The commercial product is white, with only the slightest porky taste."

Lard played a significant part in American history. In his book Hog Heaven, the naturalist Lyall Watson comments on the "indispensable" role of lard in opening up the American West. "It illuminated log cabins, softened leathers and lubricated appliances. Mixed with petroleum it produced grease and combined with lye it made soap. It protected meat from spoilage, preserved a whole range of foods by sealing them from the air - and catered to everyone's health and pleasure until 20th-century dieticians spoiled the fun."

Until the development of the wet-suit, Channel swimmers smeared themselves with lard to retain their body heat. The radical German artist Joseph Beuys used lard in many of his sculptures. "The materiality of Beuys' lard sculptures," insists one art critic, "engenders a paradoxical freedom to transform." It has to be admitted that lard has not been regarded as a fashionable foodstuff for some time.

Arguably, the solitary exception to lard's deficiency in chic is the Italian version known as lardo. This is not like our lard since it is unrendered back fat. Cured in salt and flavoured with rosemary, lardo is a subcutaneous joint about two inches deep, fringed on one side by skin and on the other by a narrow ribbon of ham.

Earlier this year, in the svelte, luxurious bar of the Peck delicatessen in Milan, I was offered paper-thin, translucent slices of lardo on bread as an accompaniment to my aperativo. It was a succulently delicious curl of heavenly wickedness. For an example of this "white prosciutto" (as it is sold to cholesterol-obsessed Americans) at its best, you should go to Colonnata in Tuscany's Apuane mountains, where lardo is salted for eight months in vats made of the same Carrara marble that Michelangelo used for his sculptures.

The town's annual lard festival takes place on 24 August when treats such as bean salad with lard, rabbit stuffed with lard, and fettuccine in lard sauce are served. Unsurprisingly, this centuries-old delicacy is under threat from the EU hygiene police. Italy's public health service even tried to have the marble basins replaced with green plastic containers. At present, only six legal producers of Colonnata lardo remain, but illicit lard-making thrives.

It is a commonly held view that lard is not at all good for you, however it is produced and whatever form it takes. Certainly, the nutritional panel on my Sainsbury's lard makes daunting reading. Every 100g delivers 891 calories. Saturated fats, the dangerous stuff associated with clogging of the arteries, constitute 44.5 per cent of the lard. Monounsaturated fats, described by one authority as "relatively neutral", constitute 43 per cent, while the generally benign polyunsaturates make up a mere 10.5 per cent. So lard has been banished to the bin.

But wait a minute. This abandonment of lard has not taken place in the gastronomic heaven of south-west France, where the grand regional speciality of cassoulet often contains confit de porc. This is pork slowly braised in fat until tender and allowed to cool under a preserving layer of lard. Sealed from the air, the meat keeps for months under its white shroud. In her fine book on the cuisine of south-west France, Goose Fat and Garlic, Jeanne Strang notes that "pork constitutes the basic meat intake: the belly in the soup, the fat with the vegetables, sausage as a snack...".

The consumers of this high calorie diet should be dropping like flies, yet the lowest rate of heart disease in France, where heart disease is considerably lower than in Britain and far lower than the US, is found in the south-west. There may be any number of reasons underlying the "French Paradox". Jeanne Strang notes that "the local cuisine [is] based on poultry and pork fat...They give cooking a quite distinct flavour and are healthier than either butter or beef fat".

The American food critic Jeffrey Steingarten notes: "One possibility is that the plentiful calcium in French cheese binds with the fat and prevents its absorption into the bloodstream, allowing it to be excreted." Red wine is thought by many to be a major factor. Recent research suggests that people who drink up to four glasses of red wine daily have "higher levels of HDL (high density lipoproteins) - 'good' cholesterol that escorts 'bad' cholesterol away from artery walls."

The fact that this study emerged from the Université de Bourgogne and is reported in this year's Good Wine Guide in no respect diminishes its authority.

So it may just be possible to consume lard and live. Anyone determined to enjoy a succulent, flakey casing around their Christmas mince pies can take consolation in the fact that mankind has been keeping pigs and, therefore, eating lard for about 20,000 years. Somehow our lard-eating forebears managed to survive without the four glasses of red wine a day, but it's probably best to have them just to be on the safe side.

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