Of all the meat we eat, lamb has the happiest image. It tastes good; it is easy to cook; it cuts into manageable portions (a rack of lamb is a nice roast for two). Some cuts are expensive, but other tasty cuts such as shanks are not. New Zealand chilled lamb is a bargain, and even their frozen lamb is good value, benefiting from modern fast-freezing techniques.
If there's any snag, it's the fat issue. Cooks and health educationalists don't see eye to eye about the trend for lean meat which has been imposed upon them.
Fat can seriously damage your health, is the official government line. And lamb fat is a hard fat, high in saturates, and mightily out of fashion - so much so that graders at abattoirs mark down carcases with high fat conformation, and pay farmers less for them.
But serious cooks like lamb with a bit of fat on it, because the meat underneath is tastier. The external and internal fat also helps baste the meat during cooking, making it more tender, moister and tastier. So the cooks' solution is to buy the fattier carcase, trim off some of the external fat, cook it, and then pour off excess fat.
Lamb is largely free from human intervention because it's not profitable enough to lend itself to intensive farming. Sheep are fairly cheap to feed (you may have to grow grass for them), and also graze high mountain land, surviving, in their warm coats, the harshest winter conditions.
From a welfare point of view lamb is squeaky clean, the only shadow being occasional cases of neglect. There used to be times when sheep were shunted around from market to market as farmers sought a better price. It's now understood, however, that stress reduces the value of a carcase. A frightened animal gives off adrenaline which stiffens and spoils the meat, making it tough and dark, lowering its price.
I visited a plant in Anglesey, North Wales in Gaerwen (which has the largest capacity in Europe and can handle 30,000 animals a week) where sheep are settled in 10 acres of pasture around the plant before being led quietly in small groups to internal stalls before slaughter. Sheep are usually treated with medicines for worms and parasites, but chemical traces should have long passed out of the animals by slaughter-time.
Lamb is the most seasonal of meats, in some respects like game. Grass being its natural feeding stuff, maturity coincides with regional peaks of grass growth. As grass surges into life in spring and early summer, winter-born animals in Sussex and,the West Country lowlands come on to the market, those in the Welsh lowlands maturing in July, moving to the Welsh hills and the Scottish lowlands.
The best-flavoured lamb is considered to come from grass ripened by a hot summer sun, which increases the sugars, producing sweeter, nuttier meat.
Late-season meat - from the Welsh mountains and, later on, the Scottish mountains - is darker and tougher.
RAYMOND BLANC'S BRAISED SHOULDER OF LAMB
This version of a traditional French dish was devised by Raymond Blanc for Waitrose, among other recipes - a "Taste of Waitrose" booklet is available free in-store until June 23. The lamb is marinated in red wine to tenderise it and also impart a wonderful flavour to the meat. It is worth remembering that you need a full bottle of wine for marination; a glass or two is simply not enough to produce the desired results.
1 x 75cl bottle full-bodied red wine, reduced by 12 and cooled
6 New Zealand lamb shoulder chops
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 sage leaf
salt and freshly ground black pepper
100ml/312fl oz grapeseed oil
1 carrot, peeled and diced 2.5cm/1in thick
2 turnips, peeled and cut into large dice
1 large courgette, diced 2.5cm/1in thick
10g/14oz cornflour or arrowroot, in a little water
Pour the wine over the lamb, add the garlic cloves, thyme, bay leaf and sage leaf. Cover, refrigerate and marinate for at least 24 hours.
Strain the lamb from the marinade and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve the marinade. Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan and brown the chops for 3-4 minutes each side. Drain the fat from the pan.
Pour the reserved marinade over the chops and add cold water to barely cover. Bring to the boil one minute and skim. Cover and place in a pre- heated oven 140C/275F/Gas 1, for one hour. Taste and correct the seasoning.
Add the carrot, turnip and potato and cook for a further 30 minutes. Add the courgette and then cook for a further 15 minutes .
Remove the lamb and arrange on a large warm serving dish. Bring the sauce to the boil and bind with the cornflour or arrowroot, adding a little at a time until the sauce lightly thickens. Pour the sauce and vegetables over the lamb.
If you have the time, it is well worth making this dish a few days in advance because the flavour will actually continue to improve the longer the meat is left to marinate.
MEDALLIONS OF LAMB WITH A TURMERIC CRUST
This is a tasty dish from A World of Flavours by Willi Elsener (Pavilion pounds 19.99). The crust can be used not only with lamb but with other meats and poultry. It can be made well in advance and even frozen if so desired.
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
900g/2lb loin of lamb, cut into 12 equal pieces (2 per person)
freshly ground black pepper
thyme and rosemary
For the turmeric crust:
125g/4oz butter, at room temperature
12 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
14 teaspoons French whole-grain mustard
1 egg yolk
14 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped
12 teaspoon fresh coriander, finely chopped
12 teaspoons chervil, finely chopped
50g/2oz brioche crumbs
14 lemon, juiced
Worcestershire sauce to taste
For the turmeric crust, beat the butter until it turns "white". Add the garlic, mustard, egg yolk and turmeric and mix thoroughly. Gently fold in the herbs and brioche crumbs. Add the lemon juice. Worcestershire sauce and seasoning and mix thoroughly. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Shape into a "sausage" about 15cm/6in long, with a diameter to match the size of the lamb medallions, and wrap in greaseproof paper. Keep in the refrigerator until required.
Heat the vegetable oil in a pan. Season the medallions of lamb with salt and freshly ground pepper, then brown the meat on both sides in the hot oil. Remove to a baking tray and roast in the pre-heated oven at 170C/325F/Gas 3 for about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and take off the tray. Leave to rest for 3-4 minutes.
Place the medallions of lamb on a baking tray, leaving at least 2.5cm/1 inch space between each piece of meat. Slice the turmeric butter into 5mm/1/4 inch slices and place one on top of each medallion. Place under a very hot grill until the crust is golden brown. Garnish with herbs and serve.
ROAST RACK OF LAMB WITH A HERB CRUST
There is no more perfect joint for two than a tender little rack of lamb, says Sophie Grigson's Meat Course (Network Books pounds 17.99). This is Sophie Grigson's favourite recipe for rack of lamb, with a crust of rich buttery crumbs, flavoured with lots of fresh herbs. She adds that you can doll up the tips of the cutlets with cutlet frills (often sold with the rack, in which case remember to take them off before the meat goes into the oven, replacing them just before serving). If you buy the meat ready-prepared and it has been over-zealously trimmed of fat, be more generous with the butter, to help protect the meat from the fierce heat.
1 rack of lamb
25g/1oz stale fine breadcrumbs
20g/a generous 12oz unsalted butter, melted
112-2 tablespoons chopped herbs - a mixture of parsley, chervil, chives, marjoram, thyme etc
1 garlic clove, crushed (optional)
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 230C/450F/Gas 8. If the rack hasn't already been prepared, carefully cut off the skin, leaving a thin layer of fat on the chops. Trim the tips of the cutlets, scraping away the scraps of meat and fat, exposing the top 4cm (112in).
Mix the breadcrumbs with the butter, herbs, garlic, salt and pepper in a bowl. Using your hands, turn the mixture over until the breadcrumbs have soaked up all the butter evenly. Lay the rack of lamb, fat side upward, in a lightly oiled small oven-proof dish or roasting tin. Pat the crumb mixture firmly and thickly onto the fat side.
Roast the rack for about 20-30 minutes, depending on how well cooked you like your lamb (Sophie Grigson opts for little more than 20 minutes "since it seems a shame to overcook such a choice morsel".) If necessary, cover the crumbs loosely with foil towards the end, to prevent burning.
Let the meat rest for five minutes, then to serve, simply cut down between the cutlets, dividing the rack in half. It's best to do this at the table, as some of the crumbs are bound to fall off in the process and your fellow diner gets to see how appetising it looks first.
PHIL VICKERY'S BRAISED SHOULDER OF LAMB
1 shoulder of English lamb, boned
1 whole head of garlic
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1.2 litres/2 pints lamb stock
4 carrots, chopped
2 celery sticks, chopped
4 onion, chopped
2 leeks, chopped
3 fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Open the shoulder and trim away any excess fat. Chop two cloves of the garlic (or more if you like a strong garlic flavour) and mix with the thyme. Rub the mixture into the meat and season well with salt and pepper. Tie the lamb into an even shape and place in a large pan. Cover the meat with with the stock and vegetables.
Cut the remaining garlic bulb in half horizontally and add to the stock. Season and bring to the boil. Cover with foil and braise in pre-heated oven at 190C/375F/Gas 5 for about 312 hours until the meat is tender.
When cooked, remove from the oven, cool, then chill well, preferably overnight. When well chilled, remove the string, and cut the lamb into 1.5cm (34 in) slices. De-fat the stock. Place the meat in a roasting tin and cover with a little of the cooking stock. Cover with foil and place in a pre-heated oven at 230C/450F/Gas 8 to warm through.
Bring the remaining lamb stock to the boil, add the diced tomatoes and the chopped fresh herbs.
Remove the lamb from the oven and arrange in the middle of four heated dinner plates. Top with the sauce and serve with as many different varieties of vegetable as possible (see photograph above), together with potatoes cooked with bacon, herbs and lamb stock.
Phil Vickery's recipes can be found in Great British Chefs, edited by Kit Chapman (Mitchell Beazley pounds 19.99).
HOW TO GET THE BEST FROM LAMB
Lambs to the slaughter end up as (left to right) boned and rolled shoulders, noisettes, leg steaks and neck fillet
SHOULDER: Tender but quite fatty. Roast it, or use the meat in kebabs or mince.
LEG: Excellent quality meat. Roast, or cube meat for kebabs.
SADDLE: The two loins, attached to the back bone, with ribs, sometimes served with the kidneys intact. Roast.
BEST END OF NECK: Five or six ribs at the front of the animal, trimmed to expose bones. Roast.
CROWN ROAST: As above, framed in a circle, usually filled with stuffing. Roast.
GUARD OF HONOUR: Two best ends, facing each other, the bones intertwined. For roasting.
LOIN FILLET: The loin removed from back bone, lean and expensive. Fry to brown, finish in a very hot oven.
CHUMP FILLET: A very modern cut, cushion of fatless meat, from end of loin where it joins leg. Use like loin.
SCRAG END AND MIDDLE NECK CHOPS: Use in casseroles.
SHANKS: From the lower leg. For slow braising.
BREAST: The cheapest, fattest, boniest cut.
MINCE: Use in kofta meat balls, moussaka (with layers of aubergine and tomato).
SWEETBREADS: A chef's favourite. Poach for 15 minutes in salted water so the outer skin can be removed.
LAMB'S KIDNEYS: May be devilled (spiced and grilled) or cooked with sauteed onion, mushroom and sherry for Rognons a la Jerez.
LAMB'S LIVER: Dust with flour and quickly sautee or fry. Don't let it cook till hard. Rich in iron.
WAYS TO COOK LAMB
ROASTING: The larger cuts are perfect for roasting - leg (the French gigot stuck with garlic and rosemary and cooked over potatoes is a classic), shoulder, saddle, rack of lamb. Also chump and loin fillets. After roasting, all meat needs to be rested for 15 minutes to allow meat to firm up; the juices, which have been driven to the centre, seep back into place. Either cover or leave in oven, heat turned off with door ajar.
GRILLING, FRYING: Smaller cuts, chops taken from the neck or loin are ideal for grilling.
BARBECUING: Good for the fattier cuts. Also marinated chunks of skewered meat (kebabed) or spiced minced lamb balls (kofta), or butterflied boned leg or shoulder (cut open and flattened out).
CASSEROLING, STEWING: Navarin of lamb, with sweet spring vegetables is made with delicate spring lamb. Boiled mutton with caper sauce with hogget or an older animal is an English classic. The famous Irish stew and Lancashire hotpot are made with cheap cuts from the scrag end, cooked on the bone to add flavour.
BRAISING: Slow oven cooking in a pan of hot stock. A fashionable new restaurant dish is one made with inexpensive lamb shanks, often served with rich, sticky pureed potatoes.
ACCOMPANIMENTS: To match lamb's sweetness, but also cut into it, traditionally garlic, rosemary, mint, redcurrant jelly are favoured. Sweet spring vegetables. Or North African sweet spices, such as ground coriander, cumin, cinnamon.
WHY BREEDING MATTERS
Quality of grazing may be more important than breed. In any case butchers (and supermarkets) do not declare the breed in the shop window or on packaging. The predominant UK breed is the Suffolk, a cross between the traditional, slow-growing Southdown and a Norfolk Horn. But there has been an increase of imported continental breeds on account of their leaner conformation, the French Charollais (not be confused with the Charolais cattle, with one R) and the Dutch Texel.
Traditionalists hark back to the very old breeds such as the Soay, Hebridean, Scottish Blackface and Welsh Mountain Sheep, and in the lowlands, Leicester, Lincoln Longwools and Teeswater. But these latter were mostly slaughtered as mutton (adult sheep) having lived a few seasons to provide wool.
The Romney breed is still farmed on Kent fields close to the sea, developing a salty flavour. Romneys comprise over 50 per cent of New Zealand's massive sheep population, 50 million at the last count, for they also provide good wool. The Charringtons of Marney Meats, near Colchester (01206 330784) farm rare breeds including Jacob's Sheep, which is small and very bushy, with big horns and very sweet meat, Norfolk Horns, and the quite fatty Portland, reputed to be the favourite of George IV.
In Devon, at King's Farm, near King's Nympton (01769 574341), Anne Petch keeps rare breeds including Soay, Southdown, Portland and Manx Loughton.
Most lamb is killed at around six months, but a year-old animal, called a hogget, is sometimes encountered and it's very good eating. Mutton is available, often from halal butchers. It's cheap. Though it has a pronounced flavour of fat, it lends itself to full-flavoured stews and soups (cook in large pieces with vegetables in plenty of liquid, and when cool pull the meat apart with your fingers, removing fat and gristle. Chill the cooking liquid in the freezer and lift off fat when cold).