The green, green grass of home

Emerald pasture nourished by frequent showers is what gives Welsh lamb its irresistible flavour. Michael Bateman follows the animal's progress from field to fork
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The Independent Culture
WHEN eating meat, it's safe to assume that most of us don't conjure up images of the abattoir. We sit back and hope the animal was dispatched humanely, but steer our thoughts away from its journey to our plates.

It was with some apprehension, therefore, that I accompanied a flock of Welsh lambs to the slaughter last month. Vegetarians understandably may not wish to read on, for nothing you ever read about this business suggests it can be a comfortable experience. Indeed, many years ago I visited a slaughterhouse in Tarragone, Spain, and saw the unedifying spectacle of a youth attempting to kill a young steer with no more success than a novice bullfighter.

So here we are this time in Anglesey, North Wales, where the Welsh lamb season is now coming to its climax. This is an area of great natural beauty, with the distant peaks of Snowdonia visible across the silver-streaked Menai Straits. Fluffy white flocks of sheep fleck every green field, right up to the 16-acre factory plant at Gaerwen.

Plant, these days, is what they euphemistically call a slaughterhouse or abattoir. But plant is what it is, and this one is potentially the largest in Europe, with a capacity for dispatching 30,000 lambs a week and 2,000 cattle. Not only that, but it goes on to process, butcher and deliver the meat to customers according to their needs - as whole carcasses, or in neat cuts, plastic-wrapped and vacuum-shrunk.

The plant at Gaerwen has the faintly bucolic name of Welsh Country Foods, summoning a vision of Welsh ladies in traditional costume wrapping wedges of Caerphilly cheese, and filling tubs with the indigestible Welsh seaweed which is called laver bread.

Nothing could be further from the truth, however, for this is the most modern operation of its kind in the UK. It was set up only last year by the Grampian Food Group, an Aberdeen-based meat and poultry company whose turnover has soared to pounds 320m in the space of only 15 years. It is hoping to do for Welsh lamb what it did for Scottish beef.

From the sheep's point of view, this is not so terrible. If you have to go, you might as well do so in style. For Grampian, in its own interests, endeavours to make the animal's transit from this world to the next as humane as possible. The plant's procurements manager, Mark Lee, explains that every measure is aimed to eliminate stress, a practical strategy which prevents meat spoilage. "Stress produces adrenaline and tough, dark unacceptable meat," he says.

Farmers can bring their sheep in at any time of the day or night, and park them on the 10 acres of grazing which surrounds the factory. Only when the animals are needed are they taken in small flocks to the roofed- in lairage, or indoor pens, then on to the factory, which they never actually set eyes on.

I joined one lamb on its last journey, along a short, narrow walkway from the pens to the factory. Its view of the factory was blocked by a door. The animal looked at me - suspiciously, it's true. Very suspiciously. But it certainly wasn't in any kind of panic. Then, just through the door, clonk. The electric stunner was applied behind its head, knocking it unconscious. The door swung back into place.

The factory is very clean. There is no marked smell, and there is no gore; it can be no more offensive to work here than, say, at Harrods meat counter. The sheep's throat is cut, and it is hauled on to the system of overhead rails which will take it around the factory to be divided into joints, offal and waste.

Lamb is the most seasonal of all meats, precisely attuned to local changes in topography and climate. The first spring lamb from sheltered valleys in the south-west of England appears at the end of March, from sheep which lambed the previous December. The last of the season's lamb will come from the highlands of Scotland this autumn, from sheep which have only just lambed.

However, it is now, at the beginning of July, that we can enjoy the height of the season for Welsh lamb. If it is often perceived as the best in these islands, that is because of the remarkable quality of the natural grazing. Welsh lamb has long enjoyed a reputation as a premium, higher- priced meat. Now, Grampian intends to bring the price down - and to this end it has teamed up with the ASDA supermarket chain to get premium lamb to its 203 stores at non-premium prices. The day I was there, a group of 16 butchery managers from Welsh ASDA stores was being given a tutored tour. The theme was "Welsh lamb is coming home to Wales". What, haven't they always eaten it?

This may sound odd, but the Welsh eat less prime lamb than you might expect. Food writer Bobby Freeman explains why in her book of Welsh food history, First Catch Your Peacock. "The Welsh shepherd of long ago, eking out a bare living by tending flocks in rugged conditions, would not be familiar with the delights of tender Welsh lamb. Unless it dies on you, one does not eat the source of one's income. Mutton now and again, maybe, but not very often lamb. Hence there are very few recipes in the Welsh tradition for dealing with succulent little joints and tiny tender chops."

The French, Italians and Spanish recognise Welsh lamb for what it is, and are prepared to pay more for it than we do. In fact, 53 per cent of all Welsh lamb is exported to the continent.

Welsh lamb is one of the glories of the British table, says David Lidgate, a former president of the Q Guild of Butchers, committed to promoting the best of British meat. "Unfortunately," he says, "great treasures aren't always recognised by the indigenous people."

Why should Welsh lamb be so very good? We must thank the green, green grass of Wales, nourished by the frequent showers that give Welsh holiday resorts such a bad name. "Grass is my main crop," says sheep farmer Wyn Jones. "Cattle and sheep are the by-products." The ASDA butchers have been taken to see Farmer Jones's 650-acre farm, a sea of emerald in the summer sunshine. An ominous pile of storm-cloud, blue and black, seems to be drifting this way. Good. This super-abundance of sun and rain is just what he needs.

Britain is one of the few countries where sheep can feed so well. Afforded a luxury diet, they are the aristocrats of the ovine world. This hasn't always been so, for the hardy sheep of the Welsh mountains were long underprivileged like those of many poor countries where sheep graze land which sustains no other farming.

Reared in the valleys and the flatlands, where the grass is better, sheep grow well. It's a natural diet, too, says Farmer Jones - but you can't leave it all to nature. He plants his swards, as he calls them, as carefully as any arable crop, and reseeds every six years. The grass is a judicious mixture of clover and two grass types, the light-leafed Timothy and a robust, dark-leafed rye grass. The clover puts nitrogen into the soil, aided and abetted by the sheep manure (and cattle manure from some 400 beef steers).

Wyn Jones proudly waves his hand across the greensward. "Do you see any dock or thistles?" he asks. No. Some lovely buttercups, though. Hrrrmphh. "I don't want buttercups. But you can't spray them without killing the clover."

As every gardener knows, the more you cut the grass, the more densely it grows. "You must never let the grass come to a head (to produce seed) because it will stop producing leaf," he says. The sheep keep it effectively trimmed, but after they have gone to market he turns out his cattle on to the fields, or cuts the grass for silage, to be stored in black plastic bales for winter food supplements.

Grass management is only one of many new initiatives in modern British sheep farming. Over the centuries, Welsh mountain sheep, being a hardy breed, have been largely left to fend for themselves - and losses to snow or frost have been accepted stoically. "You could lose 40 in a night," says Farmer Jones.

Surprising though it may seem, providing huge sheds for shelter, as he does, is a comparatively new idea. But a good one; he nurses his lambs and counts the profit. "We still get foxes. A few months ago a fox got seven twins in a night. The mothers were in a terrible state."

Modern lamb is less fatty these days. This is a response to customer preference, say the Welsh lamb people, and they encourage the trend by paying farmers more for lean meat than they do for fat. "A mistake," says master butcher David Lidgate. "You need the fat in cooking to produce flavour and tenderness. You can discard or cut away the fat afterwards. I'm not complaining, because it means I can buy the good meat that they don't want at a good price."

ROAST LEG OF LAMB

There are two schools of thought on roasting lamb. The traditional British method is to cook it gently for a long time, which achieves a melting, soft meat. The modern way, though, is to eat it pink, juicy and slightly underdone, to make the most of the flavour of young lamb. This is sometimes referred to as "the London restaurant method" and is based on the French tradition. The recipe below, which is taken from Caroline Conran's book Delicious Home Cooking (Conran Octopus pounds 9.99), is adaptable to either of these two methods.

For the more traditional, well-done style of lamb, allow 25 minutes per 500g/1lb plus 25 minutes for a leg weighing 3kg/6lb. For a more fashionable, succulent, deep rose-pink finish when the lamb is carved, allow just 15 minutes per 500g/1lb, plus 15 minutes. After cooking, it is important to rest the meat in a warm place (the oven turned off), preferably covered with foil, for 20-30 minutes before serving. This allows the meat to relax, making it easier to carve, and gives a more even colour to the slices.

Shoulder of lamb (pictured above) has a lot of internal fat which makes it a succulent roast, effectively self-basting. It should be cooked by the slow method to allow the fat to run off, preferably on a grid over an oven tray for catching it.

Serves at least 8

1 leg of lamb weighing 3kg/6lb, including the knuckle bone

60g/2oz butter, softened

90g/3oz fresh white breadcrumbs

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons dried marjoram

1 teaspoon dried thyme

12 teaspoon salt

For the gravy: 3 tablespoons red wine

300ml/12 pint chicken or other stock, preferably home-made

Preheat the oven to 425F/220C/Gas 7. Spread the lamb all over with butter. Mix together the breadcrumbs, the herbs and the salt, and press them into the butter all over the leg of lamb.(In the past, the breadcrumbs and melted butter flavoured with herbs would have been strewn over the meat as it turned on a spit in front of the fire; this not only protected the meat from scorching, but also helped to keep it juicy. This coating serves the same function in the oven.)

Cook the prepared leg of lamb on a rack over a roasting tin in the oven for about 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 350F/180C/Gas 4, and cook the meat for a further 112 hours. Make sure you allow the lamb to rest in a warm place for 20-30 minutes before carving.

To make the gravy: While the lamb is resting, take the roasting tin which has caught all the juices and falling crumbs. Spoon off most of the fat and add the red wine. Bring the liquid to the boil, let it reduce by half and then add the chicken stock or other good, well-flavoured stock. Reduce again, stirring the bottom of the tin to release all the syrupy, caramelised juices that will have collected there.

When reduced to about half, strain the gravy into a heated gravy boat and serve it very, very hot with the roast lamb. The meat should be sliced fairly thickly if it is very pink, or rather more thinly if it is well done.

POT-ROASTED LEG OF LAMB WITH BLACK OLIVES

GIGOT EN COCOTTE AUX OLIVES NOIRES

This excellent recipe is taken from A Provencal Table (Pavilion pounds l6. 99), the new book written

by the American ex-patriate Richard Olney.You may need slightly more or less white wine than is suggested here. The important thing is to add it, a little at a time, throughout the whole cooking process. There should never be an abundance of liquid nor, once the liquid has been added, should it be permitted to completely evaporate.

Serves 8

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 leg of lamb weighing 6lb/3kg, with superficial fat removed

salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 large, sweet onion, coarsely chopped

2 heads garlic, peeled and crushed

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and quartered

large branch of fresh thyme, or several sprigs tied together

250ml/8fl oz dry white wine

150g/5oz black olives, Provencal or Greek-style

2 salted anchovies, rinsed, filleted and cut up, or 4 fillets

In a large, heavy oval pot, warm the olive oil over a medium-low heat. Season the leg of lamb with salt and pepper and colour it lightly on all sides, turning it regularly over a period of about 30 minutes. Add the chopped onion and stir it regularly with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot and turning the leg a couple of times, until the onion begins to turn golden.

Add the garlic, the tomatoes, the thyme, and 2-3 tablespoons of white wine, cover the pot, and cook over low to very low heat for about two hours. Survey the cooking carefully, adding small quantities of white wine every 15 minutes or so, and turning the leg from time to time. After an hour's cooking, add the black olives. A few minutes before removing the pot from the heat, add the anchovies so that they melt into the sauce. Discard the thyme.

Carve the leg in the kitchen, arrange the slices on a heated serving platter, scatter over some of the garnish, and pour the remaining garnish and sauce into a heated sauceboat. !

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