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Issue 44 - Scottish Lamb

Scotland Magazine Issue 44
April 2009


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Scottish Lamb

In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, sheep can roam and graze where they please, producing beautifully succulent meat. Sue Lawrence provides some recipes.

I am fortunate enough to be a regular visitor to Scotland’s islands. But for those who visit for the first time, they might be surprised how freely the sheep roam. Over the hills and glens, the roads, footpaths and beaches, they stroll around looking so relaxed, it seems as if they are the tourists, not us.

On a recent visit to the Outer Hebrides, I chatted to brothers Charles and Iain Macleod, farmers and also butchers (of the fabulous Stornoway black pudding). The native breed on Lewis is the blackface sheep (“blackies”), a small beast – though hardy. All 200 ewes on the Macleod’s Crobeag Farm (which produces some 300 lambs) are North Country Cheviots which Iain the butcher believes is better for the customer as it gives a decent sized leg of lamb. The taste is superb, since the sheep graze not only on grass and heather but also on wild herbs and flowers, all of which lend to the resulting flavour.

Nearer to my home in Edinburgh, I went to visit the Dick farm in the Borders. Jim Dick took me on a tour of his 1,200 acre hill farm to see some of the 1,000 ewes and 1,600 lambs. Half of the flock are blackies which, according to Jim, always have spirit. In his words: “spirit equals durability,” which is essential for the high grazing; the Dick farmland is as high as 1500 feet.

On the opposite side of the (metaphorical!) fence to the spirited blackies, Jim places the Texal cross ewes.

These he believes are hardy physically but not in spirit. And so the cross-breeding of sheep is not only for their size and the ease of adapting to certain land or weather conditions, but also for their character.

So, although the blackies are ideal for this hilly terrain, the dressed weight of their carcass is around 16kg, and never more than 18kg. They are slow-growing too, which is why they are crossed with Bluefaced Leicester ram and the Scottish Mule breed is born. These can have carcasses of up to 22kg.

A trip to our most northerly isles, the Shetlands, proved to be another eye opener and I went to visit organic farmer Ronnie Eunson who rears native Shetland sheep (some 500 of them), on the fields that run from the hilltops right down to the sea. This ancient breed (neolithic sheep bones reveal its ancestry here) graze on heather grassland that contains wild flowers and herbs such as wild thyme, violets, orchids, primroses or bird’s foot trefoil.

Seaweed is also a part of many of the Shetland sheep’s diet. Ronnie Eunson explained to me how they somehow – innately – know when the tide is ebbing and that is when they come down to the shore to graze. The seaweed not only provides the animals with essential minerals (they only start going down to the shore at the end of the year when there is less grass), it gives an additional flavour to the meat, which has been proved to have unique health-giving properties. The native Shetland breed is smaller but, given its heritage, many Shetland farmers prefer to keep the breed pure.

In terms of taste, all Scottish lamb reared naturally like this is superb, but I decided to compare a leg of Lewis lamb and one of Shetland lamb, both roasted the same way, on a bed of root vegetables and onions and topped with nothing more than a splash of (admittedly totally un-Scottish) olive oil.

Both were delicious: the flavour of the Shetland lamb was more delicate and the Lewis meat more gamey, with a more pronounced flavour. This was an interesting experiment as it made me aware how fortunate we are in Scotland to have some of the best lamb in the world, each with its own identifiable character.

1 large leg of lamb
2 tbsp finely chopped mint
the juice of 2 lemons
1 heaped tbsp ground cumin
3 tbsp olive oil

1. Pat the meat dry with kitchen paper,
then prick all over with a sharp knife. Place
in a non-metallic container.
2. Mix together the remaining ingredients,
with plenty of ground pepper, then rub this
all over the meat. Place in the refrigerator
for at least six hours, preferably overnight.
3. Remove the meat about 30 minutes
before cooking and place in a large
roasting tin. Sprinkle with sea salt and
spoon over the marinade.
4. Place in a preheated oven (Gas 6 /
200°C / 400°F) for 20 minutes then reduce
to Gas 4 / 180°C / 350°F and continue to
cook for a further 20 minutes per 450g,
basting every hour.
5.Once done to your liking, allow to rest for
20 minutes before carving and serving
with pan juices and the potato and black
pudding gratin.

1 kg / 2 lb 4 oz large potatoes, peeled
350g / 12 oz Stornoway black pudding,
300 ml / 10 fl oz light chicken stock

1.Very thinly slice the potatoes and lay
about half in a gratin dish. Season well.
2. Thinly slice the black pudding and lay on
top, then top with the remaining potatoes.
3. Slowly pour over the stock and season
again. Bake at 160°C / 325°F / Gas 3 for
around 3 1/2 hours until tender and tinged
with golden brown.

Charles Macleod butchers of Stornoway sells
Lewis lamb in season (end June to November) so if
you are lucky enough to be visiting the Outer
Hebrides, make this shop your last stop before
you leave.
You can order Stornoway black pudding from the
Shetland lamb is available from in season (September
till January) so if you are fortunate enough to be in
the Shetland Islands, buy some to take home.

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