NOT SO LITTLE LAMB
I always get excited about this time of year with spring lamb soon coming over the hill and the historical tradition it brings to the kitchen and menus, even if the Easter dates vary dramatically. I worked in Wicklow one time and this was a big deal in that lamb county. I recall how the spring lamb was almost the colour of pork when cooked; melt in the mouth juicy and so full of mountain herby flavours. It was a pleasure to cook with and eat. This is how spring lamb should be and of course less than six months old. Okay you do not get as much meat on the bone but the exquisite taste is worth every ounce.
Ireland is a natural lamb country with its hilly grassy terrain and my local lamb is not half bad either. I know the guy that manages the export of it to the French market which takes its lamb quality very seriously and listening to my French connections they go mad for it, be it in restaurants or buying it in the supermarket to cook at home. Every few days big trucks head for the ferry full of the stuff, all boned out and oven ready. The irony is we still only eat half as much of it as beef and that is a pity as for me it is just as good.
Part of the problem is we tend to have had bad first experiences with lamb, probably being forced to eat overcooked whiffy mutton stinking out the kitchen when we were young and not exactly whetting the appetite. Another issue is we look upon lambs as more cuddly than cows so people will tend to have emotional barriers for eating cute animals.
Some people will stay clear of them as kids with every right to do so and will carry this natural prejudice on with them into adult life. Price does not help either; it is not a cheap meat with serious rearing and production costs giving the shopper a financial barrier too.
Cooking wise less is more for any good quality meat. Braising the tough shoulder, roasting the leg and loins pink or as racks and of course grilling the cutlets is generally it. The mint sauce thing is merely an old digestion issue as is the apple with pork and beef with horseradish, back in the day meat was not as easy to get in and get out and people knew that these accompaniments helped the passage of it, literally. For me a good homemade gravy made from the bones and the deglazing of the cooking residues tops any of these sauces. Lamb does not work cooked as rare however unlike beef and doing it well done it is a sacrilege. So pink is the colour or medium.
We have our Irish stew as well from diced neck end or shoulder which can be very tasty when done right. Our colonial masters got all the choice bits so we had to do something with the leftovers back in our peasant days.
You do not want to be using the tender spring lamb for stew. As for mutton, it is perfectly good too. When sheep get older of course they will have a different flavour when eaten. The taste might be a bit gamey but it is also delicious in its own right. So overall we have got to be proud of our lamb. In Connemara and Kerry they have the good lamb too from their vast mountain pastures and if you drive around those parts you might end up with your very own road kill of their fearless sheep.
The liver and kidneys of lamb are particularly tasty too as part of a mixed grill or breakfast fry up. The hearts are a bit more of an acquired taste as are the brains and in other countries you will be offered let’s say the more unusual bits of the animal and I draw the line with these dishes. You can use your imagination or anatomical knowledge to figure those out. Whatever way you like your lamb though it is a superb meat and there is no better time than spring to give it a go.