From the archives | How - and when - to buy good lamb

From the archives

How - and when - to buy good lamb

Given that it's St David's Day here's a piece I wrote a few years ago on Welsh salt-marsh lamb - and why spring lamb isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Unlike the French who have long recognised the virtue of their 'pré salé' salt marsh lamb over the channel in Normandy and Brittany it’s only comparatively recently that we in Britain have realised the potential of this unique grazing land. And one of the prime regions for producing it is the marshy pastures of the Gower peninsula in Wales.

“The farmers in the area used to put their flocks out to graze on the marshes because it was free” says Colin Williams, a local farmer who just over three years ago set up a co-operative called Gower Salt Marsh Lamb with his neighbour Rowland Pritchard of Weobley Castle Farm. Pritchard has some 1000 sheep and the Williams have 300. They envisaged it being a much bigger enterprise but their neighbours were sceptical. “They didn’t think we’d be able to charge a premium for the product.”

From the time the lambs are born in March until they are killed (from June to November) they graze out on pastures which contain salt-tolerant plants such as sparta grass, samphire, sorrel, sea lavender and thrift. “The vegetation on marshes differs depending on how often they are covered by the tide” explains Colin’s wife, Vicky. “It’s every other week here.”

Their flocks include a variety of breeds including Welsh Speckleface, Suffolks and Bluefaced Leicester. “The breed isn’t critical they just need to be nimble” says Rowland. “They need to know where the gutters are - the marshes can be quite treacherous.” All the lambs are born on the two farms and are guided through the marshes at an early age by their mothers. “If you buy animals in and leave them on the marsh they’ll wander off anywhere.”

It’s a common misconception that the best lamb comes on the market in the spring, Pritchard points out. “That’s the time when most sheep are lambing. Ewes are encouraged to breed out of season to meet the Easter market in late March and April but the animals will have been largely reared inside and fed on concentrated feed so you pay a premium for a product that has less taste.”

Grass fed lamb doesn’t start to become available until June in south Wales and later still in the case of hill lamb reared in the north of England and Scotland. It’s actually autumn lamb that has the most flavour.

I was surprised to find that the Gower producers only hung their lamb for three days - many producers advocate more, especially for older lambs but was swiftly converted once I had tasted it. It tasted neither of salt or wild herbs but, deliciously, of the best kind of lamb I could ever remember eating. Some authorities argue that the high salt level of the pastures encourages moisture retention in the animal which would figure: the meat was certainly unusually sweet and succulent.

Better still, this biodiverse pasture has significant health benefits, according to Professor Jeff Wood of the School of Veterinary Science at Bristol University who has been researching the effect of different grazing land for several years. “What we found was that both hill and saltmarsh grazed lambs produce meat that is higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids as well as having higher vitamin E content – which prevents the meat from oxidising and protects its taste and colour.”

Wood and his team were unable to pick out any superior qualities belonging to saltmarsh lamb that distinguished it from other lamb bred on wild pastures such as moorland or uplands-bred lamb but observed that these habitats had a rich variety of vegetation with between 30 and 60 species of plant compared to around 10 in conventional pastures.

It obviously benefits both the taste and vitamin content of the meat that the sheep should be on the pastures for as long as possible, particularly during the early part of the growing season when plants are at their most nutritious. However there isn’t yet a minimum requirement in this country of the number of days a sheep must spend on a particular type of grazing. In France pr sal lamb must be spend 100 days on the salt marshes. “One large retailer contacted us to see if we could do salt marsh lamb for them and said they thought that the lambs only needed to be out on the marshes for six weeks” says Vicky Williams wryly. “But they need much longer than that to make a difference to the taste.”

The two farmers have already seen a benefit in marketing their sheep as ‘salt marsh’. “In the first year we sold 100 lambs. Last year it was 300 and interest is growing. They also won a National Trust Fine Farm Produce award for their lamb cutlets with judges praising its “great length of flavour and buttery taste.” Time for the French to sit up and take notice.

When is a lamb a lamb?
Milk fed lamb - very young, unweaned lambs of between 4-6 weeks, much prized in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Greece and south-west France where they’re described as as elev sous la mre
Spring lamb - young lambs born around Christmas to hit the Easter market. Generally reared indoors and on concentrated feed so tend to have little flavour
New season’s grass-fed lamb - available from end of May to August, depending in which part of the part of the UK they’re born
Yearling/hoggett - young sheep of between one and two years old
Mutton - Generally used of meat from a sheep that is over two years old though some producers describe their 18 month old sheep as mutton. Traditionally from a wether (a castrated male) nowadays may well be from breeding ewe that has reached the end of its productive life. For more information about mutton visit www.muttonrenaissance.org.uk

This article first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Decanter

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