Part of my time in food has been in the red meat trade – helping take across to France and Belgium the best beef and lamb that British farmers reared. Our clients were importers, butchers and chefs in France, Belgium and Germany – some further afield. We were working with the best selected carcases, as is always the way with export. Breeds were important, so was provenance. Imagine a time when, taking a cue from the Icelandic ‘Cod Wars’, the so-called Lamb Wars (and definitely not the French board game known as ‘Geurre des Moutons’) were raging on front pages of the French press and this writer inviting 40 of France’s main meat importers to a meeting in central Paris.
My brief was to turn minds. With help I organised the venue and took charge of the food; a group of farmers crossed the Channel to talk meat with the biggest meat men from Rungis. Beef was never threatened; only lamb collided with those big tough men from the Massif who wore sheepskin waistcoats, sang loud songs and spoke their mind.
We succeeded in getting a near full house. The chosen venue was on the über chic Faubourg St Honoré, No 33 being the next house along from the British Consulate. The meal was to be a buffet campagnard in the salon overlooking the gardens. The weather was kind. The chef was kinder.
Ribs of beef, selected, slaughtered and hung on the hook for 40+ days and legs of salt marsh lambs from Romney and South Wales took centre stage. Most of my colleagues were sniffy about serving cold lamb in November. I stood my ground and chef was my support. The legs became gigots and were tunnel-boned to be roasted to rosé pink; when cool they were sliced through and set in aspic. The beef stayed on the bone as the very symbol of an England then rich with pure beef breeds. Ours were Hereford and Black Angus – large and small carcases as if to make a point on choice. It’s worth mentioning the wine – magnums of an unfiltered Morgon sourced from Les Caves de la Madeleine’s original shop in the mews off Rue Royale. We had budgets to do things properly back then.
37 of the 40 invitees showed in the courtyard on the dot of 12 noon. If I’m honest my mentor at the Consulate had pulled the master stroke. We were to meet and feast at the exclusive Cercle de l’Union Interalliée – a club established in 1917 where the allied commanders and senior politicians could meet and talk world affairs. This was late 1970s and the club’s premises were still closed doors to all but those who had connections. The Cercle’s house and gardens made the British Consulate and Embassy look like a poor relation and I write that without prejudice and knowing both. That the sky was bright blue and the garden still much in flower only made the day better still.
The farmers took their brief well. They were united on the party line of ‘our lambs rank well against the best that France produces’. We knew the French wanted to buy, but politics had rather dirtied the page. Already they were importing quantities of ‘Belgian lamb’ with both sides knowing these were carcases from England and Wales coming in through Ostende. Always we were against the vile, cruel and unnecessary trade in live exports. Thanks be, that never appealed to the French who knew their meat and preferred it not be stressed, unlike customers further south who don’t deem lamb as fresh unless it’s slaughtered in to order.
All our lambs were from the salt marshes and we’d tasted them against those from the Cotentin peninsula. In the UK our carcases were graded as no more than ‘lamb’; in France we could make a 10-20% premium for pré-salé (salt marsh) lambs. French pré-salé has strict rules under the AOC – the lambs must be reared ‘sous la mère‘ and allowed to graze on the salt marsh grasses for a minimum of 75 days. Some ‘sous la mère‘ is raised for the Easter Sunday feast as ‘agneau du lait‘, milk fed lamb – the sweetest, smallest lamb you will eat where a leg or shoulder just about feeds two diners with modest appetites, but where flavour over-rules volume thanks be. Again, one pays a high premium for such luxury and there are ever fewer abattoirs prepared to handle the trade as slaughtering baby lambs can make grown men cry.
In Genoa’s Mercato Orientale there’s a man who comes across from Sardinia every week to sell nothing else but milk lamb and kid in season. In Boulogne we can buy salt marsh lambs off the AOC Baie de Somme. Many of the lambs reared on the British salt marshes go for export where they mercifully make higher prices for the farmers, so only by sourcing from a good butcher can you be sure of the real thing.
This was the spring and summer lamb of my Welsh childhood, when the smaller Welsh mountain lambs made way for those from the coast. Edwards’ the Butcher – and father to my school friend Tudor – taught me meat without realising he was teaching or I was learning. My Grandma finished off my schooling in good Welsh lamb as it came from the Aga in her kitchen.
Premium pricing can bring with it trickery and dastardly acts. With the essential minimum requirement for a lamb to be labelled ‘salt marsh’ it must be finished on the marshes. This means that unscrupulous traders will bring lowland lambs to the marshes for their last few weeks. I was tipped off on this in Normandy with several butchers and a cook telling me that unless I knew the farms and the lambs came with guarantees of provenance, then just possibly I was being tricked into paying a premium for an also-ran – not until one tastes does one know which way the dice has tumbled.
We can buy meat on conformation and I will ask to taste a sliver when in doubt, but not until the joint is cooked does the full story emerge. Engage with the butcher and ask questions; if he’s indifferent or reticent to talk, then best find another butcher – just don’t do this on a busy Friday or Saturday. We have a new breed of butcher and farmer in the UK who want to share their stories – witness Jan McCourt at Northfield Farm as one such a man (http://www.northfieldfarm.com/).
A shoulder of pale pink salt marsh lamb came our way this week – from a butcher tucked away across from Jackson’s Fields in Rochester, Kent. There I found a butcher who wants to talk about his meat sourcing. £15 is the going rate for a new season shoulder; the salt marsh shoulder comes to me at £18 – a deserving price premium. It’s cut from the carcase as we talk sheep.
The best ingredients call for the simplest preparations. The slight bitterness of baby artichokes will offset the sweetness of the meat; Jersey Royal potatoes finished with salty Breton butter will be there too.
This year has seen the joyful return of real Jersey Royals after 4-5 years of indifferent taste and texture. Ours are creamy, kidney shaped and undoubtedly grown under seaweed in sloping coastal fields. We have twice feasted on nothing more than Jersey potatoes dressed with the Breton butter – the trick being to melt the butter first and serve at table over potatoes that have been allowed to cool, and not put the solid butter into the dish with potatoes straight from the stove. It took many visits to Germany to learn the art of a good boiled potato – Hamburg’s historic potato week helped plenty.
I trimmed off what little excess fat there was – barely a handful that lessened the weight only a few grams. Note the pure white colour and no whiff of ‘sheep’ that sometimes comes with and older lowland lamb. I removed the blade bone (scapula) to use as a trivet and make for smarter carving. Fresh lightly chopped garlic went into where the scapula once was – then just the lightest coating of olive oil and a squeeze from a fresh cut lemon massaged on by hand – then finally a little coarse sea salt – from Cervia as it happens, as if to celebrate the Festa Artusiana.
We cook in a well aged cazuela. Potatoes are baked whole from raw in its larger brother. A little olive oil and some coarse salt – then half way through cooking, over goes fresh cut rosemary, twigs and all. Give the pan a shake and expect the potatoes cooked in an hour or thereabouts.
The shoulder roasts on at 170-180°C and is alternatively basted and doused every 15-20′ – this is important to build up the patina and texture of the skin. I baste with pan juices; I douse with my finger over a bottle of Soave. This is no exact science.
The meat is ready in around two hours. Then a 20′ rest before bring to table to share in the No 19 way – each diner cuts their own choice pieces from the joint following no carving etiquette, just instinct.
Lamb off the salt marshes only gets better as the summer rolls on. The grazing is thin and so these lambs tend not to go to fat. September has them at their peak condition – fully grown and still lean. A good time to talk to your butcher.