Wednesday 30 January 2008

Cooking with Butter....

I know, even before I begin, that this is going to stimulate an 'enthusiastic' response in certain quarters. But the fact remains: I like Butter. I like eating it, I like cooking with it, I love the smell of things being fried in it.....and, frankly, I think it's had a rather a bum rap over the years....

Whenever it was that the demon Cholesterol first swam into view, I think it has much to answer for, in terms of the blight it generally casts - in many instances, perfectly unnecessarily - over the lives of the many. And despite the existence of the French, Cholesterol seems to have achieved a stranglehold over the minds of large swathes of the population.......not least the denizens of the medical profession (in certain parts of the western World, at any rate). And what, pray, have the French to do with Cholesterol, you ask? Well.....nothing. That's the point. Absolutely nothing. They don't have it. France is a cholesterol-free zone, despite the prevalence in french cooking of large quantities of Eggs, Cream and - yes - Butter. Zut, alors!

In a rather bad-tempered, mealy-mouthed way, 'experts' in the UK and the US have come to refer to this strange circumstance as 'The French Paradox', and over time have twisted themselves into the most bizarre contortions in their attempts to make sense of it. It's something to do with the French habit of drinking red wine, they maintain, or of eating Garlic......and my favourite of all was the assertion that it was all down to the consumption of Foie Gras, which clearly counteracts the development in the system of Cholesterol. Well, it's obvious, isn't it? In fact, I can feel the need to go in search of some, even as we speak, just to be on the safe side! (Why not cite accordion-playing, for good measure, or the fact that they wear berets, and those natty little blue-striped t-shirts? Seems about as logical.......)

When you throw into the mix the 'Transfat' corollary, then the picture becomes even more complicated. 'Transfat' is actually just another name for Margarine - that nasty, greasy substance that populated supermarket shelves in the seventies and eighties, which the manufacturers confidently presented as the 'healthy' alternative to Butter. Until it was discovered that Margarine is in fact rather bad for you, that is, and they all went very quiet about it. In many places, use of Transfats in cooking is now actually banned by law!

And why stop with 'The French Paradox'? What about the Greek, Spanish and Italian ones, while we're at it? The Butter-eating northern Italians are not less healthy then their Oil-eating neapolitan brothers; and the Oil-consuming Greeks and Spaniards, I contend, have no greater a health profile than you or me.....An hour's drive north of Pisa you suddenly break through the Butter-line, and everything which in Tuscany would be cooked in Oil is instead cooked in Butter (delicious!) - yet, miraculously, people aren't dropping like flies!

So........what's going on?

Shades of the WHO decree in the early nineties that it was a bad idea for a person to eat more than one egg per week - which they banged on about for ages, until they realised they'd actually misread the data and got the decimal point in the wrong place (whoops!.......) - could it be, could it possibly be, that the 'experts' have got it wrong? And that the supposed Cholesterol effect is the result of something else entirely (but that they're so convinced they're right, they aren't looking for it). And Butter, all along - like Dreyfus - has been an innocent victim?

I think it bears thinking about.

Tonight's Dinner:

Tuna Tartare.

Sea Bream, sautéed (in Butter!) with Mushrooms and White Wine.

Apple and Strawberry Strudel.


Joanna said...

You may be surprised - as my blog is all about how we avoid cholesterol - that I rather agree with you about butter. The problem is, if you've had a heart attack, it's hard not to follow doctors' advice, even when you think they may be wrong. Eggs, for sure ... dietary cholesterol (prawns, coffee kept heated on a hotplate, egg yolks) is FINE, so the only problem with eggs is the saturated fat, and there's not much of that anyway.

The latest research seems to think that the reason "bad" cholesterol is blamed is because although it's there at the scene of the crime, that's because it's fighting the good fight, not causing the problem. Can't be any more specific, because my understanding is not very much deeper than that primary school explanation.

But I find it harder and harder not to buy foie gras whenever I visit Machin's the wonderful butcher in Henley ...


Pomiane said...

Well, I certainly don't aspire to any level of scientific understanding of the subject - but I certainly mistrust the confidence with which the experts lay down hard-and-fast rules on a subject which significantly affects the quality of many people's lives. Interesting to note that on the BUPA website there is a very cautious statement to the effect that the relationship between cholesterol in the food we eat and the cholesterol in our systems remains largely undemonstrated.

Joanna said...

I completely agree with you about the hard and fast rules - and Michael Pollan goes even further, saying that these hard and fast rules are the cause of the problem, that the US obesity explosion came at the same time and as a result of the rise of the low fat dietary advice.

I've just been on the BUPA website, and found their statement about dietary cholesterol not contributing much to blood cholesterol. That's been received wisdom for a year or two, although it has yet to filter right through. But they haven't budged on the idea of saturated fat as bad.

I heard Pollan on R4 Food Programme earlier in the week, and he was talking about nutritionism (love that word) as a religion, with good and evil. Haven't come across this metaphor in the book, but I think it works.