Sunday, November 7, 2010

Taste of Europe

I lived in Central Europe for several years. It is a large ethnically and linquisitically diverse area.

Before the end of WWII, the whole region consumed a lot of animal fat, particularly pork. A staple food was cured fatty cuts of pork, generally called things like "Speck", "slanina", "szalonna" and "са́ло" (salo). After WWII, the area was partitioned, and culinary habits diverged. In the "western" countries of Central Europe, people primarily switched to vegetable oils. In the "eastern" countries of Central Europe, people continued to eat animal fats.

The primary difficult of widespread consumption of fats (animal or plant) is rancidity. When fats oxidize, they produce compounds, some of which taste very bad. Some taste very good; e.g. the aroma of hams (or salami) is primarily oxidized fat.

People who raise pigs for high-quality fat can control various things (e.g. genetics, age and diet) to produce fat that resists rancidification. Similarly, agronomists have likewise bred plants that produce oils that resist rancidity.*

A major chemical discovery, hydrogenation, has allowed vegetable oils to displace animal fats. Just look at two ways to economically produce high-quality fats for human consumption:
  • Grow, harvest and process row crops into hydrogenated oils.
  • Breed, fatten, slaughter and process pigs into lard. Fatten the pigs by feeding them plants and waste food.
It is possible to raise lard-type pigs efficiently, but even then, pigs can't compete with specially-bred plants, because pigs need to eat anywhere from 3 to 5 pounds of feed (typically plants) to produce a pound of pork, while plants make fat directly from inputs like water and sun.

Despite the cost advantages, after WWII, the communist countries of Europe (Central and Eastern) didn't make the switch to plant oils. What little research I've conducted suggests that communist margarine tasted bad, so people stuck to animal fats (even black market animal fats).

With falling of the Iron Curtain, and increased immigration, we've got populations of people from the former Soviet Union in the USA. They even have stores where they sell the food that they like to eat. E.g. if you go to a Ukrainian store like Taste of Europe in Kent, WA, you'll see a lot of animal fat - in the form of salo, bacon, salami, etc. As one reviewer on Yelp noted about Taste of Europe:
It seems the "Europe" in question is almost entirely the Ukrainian part of Europe.
I don't think I saw any margarine in the place. I don't think I saw a single "fat-free" or diet item either.

I did find "са́ло" (salo), which is popular in Ukraine. I bought some to try. Further inspection revealed that what I bought was not cured backfat (like our own cured Mangalitsa backfat), but rather, cured belly. That makes sense - it is hard to come by thick enough backfat these days to make decent salo - so they use bellies.

I tried the salo. It was OK, but nowhere near as nice as my Mangalitsa lardo. The fat doesn't melt on the tongue. I'd guess it is more saturated. It wasn't not, however, rancid - and that's nice.

I also got some salami (made in America by Bende). It reminded me of Pick salami - but not as good. I understand - they don't source the same sort of pigs here. They also had an American version of Kolozsvári szalonna, which is like our Bauchspeck.

They had pickled tomatoes and cucumbers from Bulgaria and some quark from Canada. I'm hoping that one day, the American quark and pickles will taste as good as the foreign stuff.

I was at Taste of Europe because a distributor suggested I go there to see the sort of products that Ukrainians buy, and why Mangalitsa products might be a good fit for them. Having seen and tasted the stuff, I'm cautiously optimistic. Clearly these guys are fat friendly (not fat phobic). But they are also very price sensitive. It may be that they just don't want to pay what the stuff costs.

* One plant oil that I've used is Frymax ZT, produced from specially bred sunflowers. It is very similar to olive oil, but contains fewer triply polyunsatured fatty acids (the main culprits in rancidity). If you insist on using plant oils, instead of Mangalitsa fat, I recommend you try out Frymax ZT.

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