Lamb...on a plate

It's Easter, and British spring lambs are reappearing both in our pastures and in the shops. Sybil Kapoor discovers where our finest home breeds are to be found, and advises on the best way to serve up a delicious roast this Sunday
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Indy Lifestyle Online

As spring lambs frolic in lush green fields, it is hard to believe that this time last year, foot-and-mouth disease cast a shadow over the countryside. British lamb is back, and tomorrow's roast – the Paschal symbol of rebirth – should be as delicious as it ever was.

As spring lambs frolic in lush green fields, it is hard to believe that this time last year, foot-and-mouth disease cast a shadow over the countryside. British lamb is back, and tomorrow's roast – the Paschal symbol of rebirth – should be as delicious as it ever was.

It is still too early, though, to know what the long-term effect of the foot-and-mouth outbreak will be on British sheep farming. Getting answers out of the National Farmers' Union, for example, is nigh impossible, while farmers themselves are currently too caught up with lambing to comment.

However, a growing number of farmers have seen the advantages of direct marketing and establishing a loyal customer base. David Wood is an Exmoor sheep farmer who runs Somerset Farm Direct with his family and sells to some 3,000 customers.

He and his neighbours avoided foot-and-mouth and were able to continue selling lambs by mail order last year. Even better, while customers paid less than they would in a supermarket, everyone involved in Somerset Farm Direct earned more per carcass than if they had sold to supermarkets.

Similar schemes are appearing all over the country. Snowdonia Mountain Lamb in Llandbedr has just begun to offer its highly prized, slow-growing, small (only 13kg as opposed to a typical 18kg carcass weight) Welsh Mountain lambs for sale by mail order. It hopes cooks will once more appreciate the fine taste of these small joints.

Welsh Mountain sheep (different from generic Welsh sheep) were once considered a delicacy. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust has noticed increased interest from commercial sheep farmers who are re-evaluating breeds before replacing flocks after foot-and-mouth.

Just as well, as some breeds, like the Hill Radnor and Whitefaced Woodland, lost a fifth of their pedigree breeding stock. But meat-eaters are increasingly prepared to pay a premium for the luxury of choosing lamb by breed, location and hanging times.

 

Taste the difference

There was a time when Britons dined almost exclusively on mutton. Not just any old meat, but sheep selected according to breed and taste, like the sweet, succulent Southdown or the large, fine-flavoured Greyface Dartmoor.

Undoubtedly, the national taste was based on economics as, 150 years ago, the wool of a slow-growing sheep was as valuable as the final, stout carcass of a three- or five-year-old sheep.

Technically, lamb is called a hogget after it is a year old and mutton when it reaches the ripe old age of two, although some chefs call their meat mutton after 18 months. The gamey flavour is said to taste like a cross between lamb and venison and it needs proper hanging, gentle cooking and sharp tasting accompaniments, such as caper sauce.

Chefs, who often lead the way, are becoming more interested in the breed and the age of their lamb. Most prefer year-old hogget because of its fuller flavour. "Spring lamb is very exciting and giddy to eat, but hogget has far more flavour," says Fergus Henderson, chef and owner of St John restaurant in London. He buys his hogget from the rare breed-accredited Chesterton Farm Shop in Cirencester.

"I like getting people to tuck into the same dish, so I often buy Oxford Down shoulders on the bone and simmer them slowly with fennel, before adding a handful of broad beans or peas to the broth near the end." He pauses, then adds: "Or some nice, juicy Shropshire lamb chops, served with something green and anchovyish."

Gary Wells, manager of Chesterton Farm Shop explains that rare sheep breeds fall into two groups: the Downland breeds, such as the succulent Portland, Hill Radnor, Oxford Down and Shropshire, and the Primitive breeds, such as Soay, Shetland and Hebridean.

The former mature more quickly and can be sold as both early season lamb and hogget, while the latter take so long to reach maturity they are invariably hogget. They also have leaner, denser and uniquely rich-tasting meat that should be cooked more gently, like wild venison.

 

Lamb seasons

Although lamb is considered a traditional Easter dish, coinciding with spring grass and milder weather, this is when they're born not ready to eat. However, it depends how farmers want to market their stock. These days, the first British lamb, from early breeding flocks like Finn Dorset Cross or Dorsets in the South, Midlands and East Anglia, is ready to eat now.

The lambs are born under cover in December or early January, then fattened up over the next three to four months with grain and soy beans, until they reach about 18kg carcass weight. Like the first asparagus or strawberries, their delicate flesh commands a high price. Come September, you may get lamb reared in northern Britain.

The next lambing phase begins in March and April, in the lush meadows of the South and Southwest. The tiny lambs are left to suckle and to nibble the new grass until July or August when they are sold. This is the peak season and the price rapidly falls, especially when the Northern lambs appear in the shops a few weeks later.

Finally, usually in May, the hardy, slow-growing hill flocks, like Swaledales, Scottish Black Faces and Welsh Mountain, give birth. These lambs spend the summer in the hills, before the farmer judges whether they are fat enough to sell as late lamb in September or pass them to a lowland farmer to fatten up. Many are exported as their small size is prized by the Spanish, Italians and Greeks.

Traditional accompaniments

According to the rural historian Dorothy Hartley, in her 1954 cookery book Food in England: "it was considered very important to flavour the joint of meat with the flavour of the food the animal ate." She suggests sweet-fleshed Welsh mountain sheep was cooked with the peppery wild thyme it grazed upon, while the iodine-rich salt marsh mutton was accompanied by laverbread.

Flavoursome moorland sheep were served with tart rowanberry jellies, just as early plump lambs that grazed in lush Southern watermeadows were accompanied by aromatic mint sauce. Fat Midland sheep were served with fruit sauces like redcurrant jelly – but this is stretching a point: no right-minded farmer would let a sheep near their fruit cage.

In reality, all these trucklements taste delicious with lamb, as do succulent stems of Norfolk samphire (which appears in June) crab-apple jelly, whitecurrant jelly and a fine gravy made from a home-made stock of roasted lamb bones. Some cooks flavour their redcurrant jelly with port and orange, others with orange and mint. My favourite is a good lamb stock, reduced and flavoured with thyme and garlic, and a peppery salad of rocket and potato crisps, dressed with shallot and sherry-vinegar vinaigrette.

 

Cooking cuts

By selling a half or whole butchered lamb, many mail-order meat boxes offer far more cuts than are found in supermarkets. They may even sell just a couple of chops or a whole lamb ready for spit-roasting. We should be prepared to do a little more than follow the Meat & Livestock Commission's advertising slogan of "slam in the lamb".

A boned lamb breast benefits from an olive, parsley and breadcrumb stuffing and gentle cooking on the roasting rack, so its fat bastes and flavours the tender meat. Diced shoulder, with its marbled, sweet flesh, makes a superb lemony tagine, Kashmiri curry or wine-rich daube. The fat melts as the meat cooks and, if the finished dish is chilled overnight, you can lift off the fat and serve it guilt-free.

The various chops can be marinated and barbecued or served with the same accompaniments as a roast. Minced lamb makes delicious burgers, koftas and moussakas. Kidneys can be sauteed and tossed in a creamy mustard sauce, and try liver, briefly fried and seasoned with rosemary and balsamic vinegar. Offal lovers can even buy lamb hearts.

Somerset Farm Direct, Bittescombe Manor, Upton, Wiveliscombe, Taunton, Somerset TA4 2DA (01398 371387 or www.somersetfarmdirect.co.uk) offers prime Exmoor lamb and mutton.

Snowdonia Mountain Lamb, Rhiw, Llandbedr LL45 2NT (01341 241469 or www.snowdonialamb.19.co.uk).

List of 42 rare breed-accredited butchers from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, National Agricultural Centre, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire CV8 2LG. (024 7669 6551 or www.rbst.org.uk) including: Rare breed-accredited Chesterton Farm Shop, Chesterton Lane, Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 6JP (01285 642160).

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