Lard may be staging a gastronomic comeback around the world but it never went out of fashion in Ukraine, where it is best served cold
At first glance it could be a hard sheep’s cheese or a smoky mozzarella. But the slabs are actually cold, white pork fat – Ukraine’s national dish, known as salo. It is best served covered with garlic, onion and pickles (or something picante), and almost always washed down with a shot of vodka.
The dish is not recommended for those watching their waistlines. The calorie counter on My Fitness Pal says that one serving of pig fat amounts to 900 calories, just under half of the recommended daily intake for women and slightly less for men.
Lard is making a come back in foodie circles around the world. In the UK bread and dripping got many families through the great depression, now it’s a served in trendy cafes, smeared on sourdough toast, added to pizza or used to crisp up triple-cooked-chips. Lardo di colonnata, commonly referred to as lardo, is considered a delicacy from the Tuscan region of Italy.
Katrina Kollegaeva from Russian Revels, a cooking duo who explore Slavic culture through food, has dedicated a lot of time to exploring the history of salo and what is means to Ukraine.
She says that “any post-Soviet person will be able to recite at least three anecdotes about Ukrainians and their love for salo”. Although Ukraine’s neighbours may have looked down on it for being peasant food or unsophisticated, there is also a quiet admiration for the relationship Ukrainians have with their “black soil” and the livestock it feeds, she says.
Russian Revels recently hosted a tasting night at Pushkin House, a Russian cultural centre in central London, in an attempt use “this tasty slab of fat as a lens to understand Ukraine”. Here is what we learned:
Salo is a national obsession
Salo is the ultimate Ukrainian food. The Kiev Post has described the dish as having a cult like status. The LA times spoke to connoisseurs who called it “a narcotic” not a food, and there are not one, but two annual festivals in its honour: the Salo Festival in Poltava which takes place every February and With Love To Salo, held in Lutsk in September.
The With Love To Salo festival claims that it has four entries in the Ukrainian book of records: for making the world biggest salo sandwich – 76m long; creating the world’s first “pig and salo monument”; overseeing the speediest salo consumption – 1kg in 10 minutes 55 seconds and crafting the world’s biggest salo football, which measured 6m in diameter and weighed 400kg.
How to spot good salo
There is a saying in Ukraine: “Salo is when nobody fucks with you and you’ve got a bit of money”. Having a good bit of salo, Kollegaeva says, is an indicator of the good life. How can you tell what is good salo? You should be aiming for a slab which is “six-fingers thick”. Salo is made when the rind of a pig is cured with salt or fermented in brine, sometimes it is smoked – the variety we tried resembled a mild applewood smoked cheddar.
It can then be stored in the fridge for months or in the freezer for even longer, Kollegaeva’s partner at Russian Revels, Karina Baldry, thinks it tastes best frozen and spread on bread. For Kollegaeva, it tastes best when you have a connection with the place where the pig’s are from, a local farm or a small holding: good salo comes from a friend or at the very least a friend of a friend.
Salo can be a dessert
Pig fat chocolate may sounds like a fast food expose but chocolate covered salo is food trend, sometimes referred to as “Ukrainian snickers”. A chef at Tsarske Selo, a restaurant in Kiev, became know for his dish of four salo rolls smothered in chocolate. After trying the delicacy – which looks like snails – Ukrainian student Dasha Khabarova told the BBC: “It’s salty on the inside and very sweet on the outside. It’s unusual, yes, but it’s completely disgusting”. The salt-sweet combination may appeal to fans of salted caramel, the ubiquitous food trend that refuses to die, but Kollegaeva calls it “a gimmick. Like deep fried mars bar in Scotland.”
Salo can be art
Salo also lends itself well to art, championed in particular by The Salo Modern Art Museum in Lyiv. Ex-pat travel guide LvivAlive.com describe the exhibition-cum-restaurant as specialists in serving pork fat “in surprising and provocative shapes.”
The museum has photoshopped a piece of meat into the famous image of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German Erich Honecker, and the restaurant has been known to serve the lard shaped into the heads of political and historical figures.
Another installation sees a heart of lard in a glass box, which could serve as national health warning poster but instead carries a sign that says: “Salo is a concentrated energy, a quintessence of national values”. When Kollegaeva visited she was served a penis made of pork fat, served with a side helping of dumplings.