Lamb lovers, rejoice, for spring is here and Nova Scotia lamb is close at hand.
Sure, that frozen New Zealand stuff is available year round, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But to really enjoy lamb, you need to get some of the homegrown stuff. My first experience with local lamb came years ago: I bought a leg at the market from a farmer who said his animals ate from fields fertilized with lobster shells. The meat was sweet, delicate and nothing since has come close to that recollection.
Sheep are the oldest known domestic farm animals, dating back 9,000 years; the first sheep in Nova Scotia (in fact, the first recorded sheep in Canada) came ashore in May, 1604, near Port Mouton (fittingly enough, Mouton is French for mutton), and quickly became a staple stock. Most sheep raised today are for meat, with only a small percentage grown for wool.
More upscale restaurants and the better bistros in Metro, the ones that change their menu seasonally, are featuring lamb of all cuts prepared many different ways, but now’s the time to try cooking your lamb at home. “Lamb” refers to sheep less than one year old; “spring lamb” just means the sheep was born in, well, the spring.
Cuts are available at all supermarkets, typically in legs, shanks and racks of chops (or single chops). The meat cutter at my favourite grocery store tells me that “lamb comes in on Monday, is gone by Tuesday,” it’s going so fast—so shop early in the week.
If you prefer organically raised lamb, check out the Halifax Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning—a couple of vendors have it. For lamb to be certified organic, it has to meet a long list of criteria, including being raised with certified organic feed, being slaughtered under certain more “humane” conditions and having access to fresh air and the outdoors (as opposed to being strictly barn-raised). Because of the higher standards, lamb designated “organic,” like everything else, will cost more.
When buying lamb, smell it. It should smell like fresh meat with no hint of sour or overly strong odour. Check that the flesh is firm, neither too soft nor too hard. If it’s packaged, follow the “packaged on” dates and use within three to five days. Once you get it home, refrigerate it, and if for some reason you don’t get to eat it right away, it should go into the freezer where it will keep for six to nine months.
Now for the cooking part. Other than the shanks, which are from the lower leg and can therefore be tough, the key to spring lamb is keeping it simple. Shanks should be braised (cooked for a long period over low heat), but other cuts lend themselves well to dry heat cooking methods like roasting and grilling. Brush chops with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper, and barbecue. Slather a leg with oil and Dijon mustard, dust with chopped rosemary, oregano or thyme and toss it in your oven; add some new potatoes and carrots, and pull it out when all is browned. Mint jelly is the usual accompaniment, but compotes of cranberries, pears and apples also work well.
Enjoy your lamb with a sip of a well-chosen Nova Scotian wine, and there’s no better way to celebrate our spring.'
Find more of Liz Fetham’s reviews on the wild and woolly web: www.foodcritic.ca