Flock of the new

Love lamb at Easter? The survival of some threatened breeds will put a spring in your step.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Throughout Europe the feasts of Easter have always been linked with lamb. In England, lagging behind warmer Greece, Italy and France, the first lamb of spring traditionally came from the West Country, where the winters are shorter and milder. Lambs born at Christmas or before may be put out on grass to fatten for the Easter market. As the year progresses, sources of new season's lamb move further north, ending with Scotland in late summer. Even now, the south-west is still a good place to look for naturally-raised spring lamb.

Throughout Europe the feasts of Easter have always been linked with lamb. In England, lagging behind warmer Greece, Italy and France, the first lamb of spring traditionally came from the West Country, where the winters are shorter and milder. Lambs born at Christmas or before may be put out on grass to fatten for the Easter market. As the year progresses, sources of new season's lamb move further north, ending with Scotland in late summer. Even now, the south-west is still a good place to look for naturally-raised spring lamb.

But beware the cult of youth. Whilst the very youngest lamb is undoubtedly the most tender and delicate, some of the best meat comes from an animal around six months old. More important is that the lambs are reared out in the fresh air, on grass, and allowed to grow naturally at their own pace.

Ann Petch of Heal Farm in north Devon is offering a choice of tender, young, milk-fed lamb, raised on the herb-rich pastures of the Mendips, or more mature lamb, for those who prefer it. Peter Greig, who runs Piper's Farm, also in Devon, with his wife Henrietta, explains: "Our system is planned to produce full-flavoured, tender meat of consistent quality all year round, by spreading the lambing period from January to May and then allowing the animals to grow slowly to maturity, which happens at anything between seven and 14 months."

Both Ann Petch and the Greigs use slow-growing, old-fashioned breeds, but 25 years ago, when Ann Petch started Heal Farm, many of our traditional farm breeds were in serious danger of extinction. Thanks to the efforts of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust and some committed supporters, these old breeds have been saved and are once again being raised on small farms all over Britain.

Names like Norfolk Horn, Portland, Southdown, Hill Radnor and Southdown have a wonderful, regional ring to them, and the meat of each one varies in flavour and texture in much the same way as a Cox is different from an Egremont Russett, or Lancashire cheese from Stilton. By buying the meat you have the satisfaction of helping maintain the breed, as well as being able to enjoy a great diversity of flavours enjoyed by past generations, now all but forgotten.

Sheila Kidd, who cooks at The Ark in Norfolk, serves Portland lamb, or Norfolk Horn, whenever she can get it. Customers' remarks such as "this is the best lamb I've ever tasted" provide all the positive feedback she could ask for. The Portland breed is widely renowned for its sweet, succulent flavour, while Mrs Beeton wrote that "the most delicious sorts of lamb are those of the Southdown breed". Others favour Ryeland, the "sweet meat of Herefordshire", and so on. Each has a character, which is to be cherished in the face of increasing bland uniformity.

To make it easier to buy such meat, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust has launched its own marketing scheme through 42 independent butchers. One of these is Jan McCourt of Northfield Farm in Rutland, who rears only traditional breeds, which he sells in his own farm shop, as well as through the internet and at Borough Market in south-east London every Friday and Saturday. For Easter he's selling Poll Dorset spring lamb. "It's an obliging breed which lambs at any time of year, providing tender and succulent meat," he says.

Not only the breed but what the lambs eat affects their taste. Lambs have been grazing on the salt marshes of North Wales for years, but only recently has their meat been treated as a speciality. High salt levels in the herbage lead to increased moisture retention in the muscle-cell of the flesh, and the resulting meat, far from tasting salty, is deliciously tender and sweet with none of the greasiness sometimes found on ordinary lamb.

List of rare breed accredited butchers from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2BR. (024 7669 6551)

Mail order rare breed lamb from: Heal Farm, Kings Nympton, North Devon (01769 574341); Piper's Farm, Langford, Cullompton, Devon (01392 881380); Northfield Farm (01664 474271) email nthfield@aol.com; Welsh salt marsh lamb from Vin Sullivan (Tel:01873 856989) and Ieuan Edwards (Tel 01492 592443) www.edwardsofconwy.co.uk

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