FOOD & DRINK / Prince Charles's juiciest secret is out: Organic lamb from Highgrove has been on sale for years, but butchers never publicised the royal connection. Michael Bateman reveals all

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The Independent Culture
A SELECT group of butchers has been keeping mum about Prince Charles's little secret. But now he has told them he doesn't mind if they come clean about his lamb.

The Prince has been selling organic lamb from his Highgrove farm to members of the Q Guild of Butchers for years - on the understanding that they didn't publicise the royal connection. This month, however, the Duchy of Cornwall managers wrote to the Guild's Gordon Hepburn, who acts as agent for the meat, and said they need no longer keep the provenance hush-hush.

Mr Hepburn, who sells it in his shop in Mountnessing, Essex, has passed on this royal titbit to the Independent on Sunday. Are we being used? Could this be another case of media manipulation by the embattled Waleses, with the Prince's friends making sure he is seen on the high moral (and in this case, environmentally friendly) ground?

It's no secret, of course, that the heir to the throne is a mustard-keen organic farmer. Home Farm, Highgrove, with some 500 sheep, conforms to the strict standards of the Soil Association, ensuring chemical residues on the land stay below certain levels, and so on. The association admits the farm is a member, but for security reasons it doesn't reveal the fact in its literature.

Is it possible that Prince Charles is feeling his way towards a new and positive role, associating himself with the best of British produce? He put his toe in the water last year when he blasted the 'bacteriological police of Brussels' for trying to kill off Europe's unpasteurised cheeses. The speech was well-received; modern pasteurised cheese arouses no passionate support, not even among people who eat it regularly.

Perhaps encouraged by this warm reception, in November he went on to launch an organic oaten biscuit under his own label, Duchy Originals. It was described as 'a new marketing initiative' aimed at maximising the output of the 130,000 acres within the Duchy of Cornwall (which are not only in Cornwall, but include estates in 22 other counties).

The new biscuit is made from organic oats and wheat grown near Highgrove and baked in Scotland. It is slightly sweet - the taste of organic brown sugar - nutty and crunchy, and a steal at pounds 1.35 for a 300g pack. The profits go to his own charity, the Prince's Trust.

But now, as a champion of British lamb who puts his money where his mouth is, Prince Charles will be enthusiastically received by the meat industry as a sort of honorary ambassador. His friend Nicholas Soames, the food minister, well knows that British lamb is Britain's biggest food earner. French farmers have burnt British sheep alive - we saw it on television; but France is still our biggest customer. One in every four lambs raised in Britain is sold there, and in Paris restaurants it is recognised as an item of premium quality and priced accordingly.

The status of British lamb, always high, has been improving further under the auspices of the Q Guild of Butchers, which was formed five years ago to meet the challenge of lower-priced meat sold in supermarkets. In 1991 the Guild won an Egon Ronay award for doing most to raise food standards in the year. And it was in the same year that Gordon Hepburn entered Prince Charles's meat for the Smithfield Show and picked up two gold medals for it.

'It's lovely meat,' says Mr Hepburn. 'The flavour of lamb comes from the breed and the feed. At Highgrove they have a very good breed - Suffolk Mules, a Suffolk crossed with a Mule, a sturdy north country sheep. They feed on dense clover and rye grass, which makes them fat. And it's the fat that gives meat its flavour.'

Five Q Guild butchers have the honour of selling the Prince's meat - Mr Hepburn in Mountnessing; Newitts of Thame, Oxon; Eastwoods in Berkhamsted, Herts; Wincheaps of Canterbury, Kent; and in London, Lidgate's of Holland Park.

'It's very good flavour, slightly nutty, very consistent,' says David Lidgate. 'The lamb feeds on juicy rye leas, and at Highgrove they've got the ability and the money to go all the way.'

All the way? 'Well, the best-flavoured lamb in my opinion comes from seasoned grass. At one of our blind tastings there was one type that came from Pembroke in Wales. I rang the shepherd and asked him what the secret was. Nothing special, he said. It was a slow-growing breed and grazing was a bit of a problem on a hilly peninsula with a continual wind blowing off the sea, westerly, southerly, easterly.'

In fact, the farmer had stumbled on the secret of exquisitely flavoured lamb without knowing it. 'The shepherd thought the sea winds kept the grass down and were a bloody nuisance, actually. But it had the flavour of the pres-sales sheep bred on the salt marshes around Mont St Michel in Normandy, which are the most highly prized - and the most highly priced - sheep in France.'

Mr Lidgate takes an amused and philosophical view of this. 'History indicates that indigenous peoples are the worst guardians of a national heritage. French peasants put water in their wine. The Scots have never prized their own smoked salmon.'

This time of year isn't, in fact, particularly good for British lamb. We are some way from the first of the spring lamb at the end of March, a season which runs to the end of October. Most of the British lamb in the shops will be yearlings, or hoggets. The least attractive British meat on sale at the moment is known in the trade as house lamb, born and bred indoors to meet the increasing demands of supermarkets. It is rather pale and slightly tough.

The Soil Association fears that the lamb is heavily dosed with chemicals. Kept indoors, sheep are inclined to pass on infections and need intensive veterinary controls. 'Animals aren't designed to be pumped full of chemicals,' says the association's spokesman. But far worse, he says, is the practice of dipping sheep in Organophosphorus.

'It was developed by the Germans as a nerve gas in the war and we hear stories of farmers who handle it being made ill. When they've finished dipping the sheep, they pull out the plug and the stuff drains away into the rivers or water table and eventually into human supplies.'

Chemicals apart, butchers find it difficult in winter to get consistently good-quality British lamb. For this reason Marks & Spencer switched to chilled - not frozen - New Zealand lamb. New Zealand, with a sheep population of 60 million against Britain's 20 million, suddenly found its frozen meat was being frozen out in Europe. Meat which is blast-frozen suffers a shortening of the muscle tissue; this creates tough meat, really only suitable for a Lancashire hotpot or Irish stew.

So New Zealand plunged into new technology and now uses a process called Captech, in which carcass pieces are vacuum-packed in aluminium foil with a small amount of carbon dioxide to inhibit bacteria. The meat is packed at two degrees centigrade in temperature-controlled containers for the 40-day sea journey. This is approximately the time meat should be hung to mature, so it emerges at the end of the voyage in ideal condition.

So, at last, the acceptable face of new technology? 'There has been a steady change for the better,' says Mr Hepburn. 'All this talk about how well people used to eat is rubbish. When my family came here from Scotland, the meat most people got to eat was rabbit. We had a cook, Polly May, who remembered her brothers killing birds with a catapult; they cooked sparrow and blackbird pie, served with the legs sticking out of the crust. I never believed things were better in the Good Old Days.'

ALBERT ROUX'S BRAISED KNUCKLE OF LAMB

In an enlightened piece of sponsorship, Marks & Spencer commissioned one of Britain's top chefs, Albert Roux, to create this dish using the present season's New Zealand lamb. It is richly scented, moist and succulent. You will need some lamb bones from a cheap cut to make the stock, simmered for about 2 hours with some chopped carrot, onion and herbs, strained, skimmed of fat.

Serves 4

1 knuckle end of leg of lamb (about 2 1/2 -3lb)

1 3/4 pt lamb stock

seasonings: bouquet garni, 12 white peppercorns,

3 star anise, 2 cloves, salt to taste

4fl oz Madeira

2oz onion

2oz carrot

2oz celery

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 tablespoon honey

Place lamb in shallow pan on the hob. Add stock (lightly salted), bouquet garni, spices and half the Madeira (this should cover knuckle). Gently bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer very gently for about 2 hours (or braise in oven at 325F/170C/Gas 5 for 2 hours). Remove lamb from pan. Skim fat from stock and cook for 5 to 10 minutes until reduced by three-quarters.

Gently cook finely chopped vegetables and garlic in a pan with olive oil until golden brown. Add honey and cook until mixture begins to caramelise. Add reduced stock and cook for about 5 minutes until reduced again by half. Pass through a sieve, discarding vegetables. Stir in rest of Madeira, adjust seasoning and serve with lamb knuckle.

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