Man has been eating lamb for over 10,000 years and sheep were probably the first animals domesticated by humans as we soon discovered that they were not only a good source of food but could also provide wool for our clothing, skins for parchment and milk for butter and cheese.
The Spanish have a well-known saying that states: “Enero y febrero preparan el buen cordero”. It’s difficult to translate, but it basically states that the lambs born in January and February will provide the tastiest meat of the year. Springtime is without doubt the best time to enjoy it. The taste is sweeter and more refined at this time of year, especially here in the Balearics, before the really hot weather arrives and the lambs start to suffer, like the rest of us, and sweat in the heat. With its delicate flavour and tender flesh, spring lamb is so versatile it marries with so many other ingredients. Look for firm; slightly pink meat with a velvety texture. As the meat ages it becomes darker in colour.
At my restaurant we often use salt marsh lamb on our menus as it is without doubt one of my all time favourite ingredients. We serve the loin in a saffron crust with fresh pea puree, Jabugo ham and a wonderful Mediterranean herb called hyssop. In France this lamb is known as “Agneau de pré-salé” and in the Normandy region sheep have been reared in the Mont-St-Michel Bay since the 11th Century, for carnivores like me…this meat is a true delicacy too good to be missed.
So what makes salt marsh lamb so outstanding and special?
It’s the distinctive flavour and meltingly tender texture, which make it significantly different from mountain lamb. The juicy meat is also darker than mountain-reared lamb and it has less fat. Lambs that graze on salt marshes produce a quality meat that has a flavour, colour and texture that is like no other. These unique characteristics are created by the multitude of wild grasses and herbs that are only found growing on estuary salt marshes. Grasses like puccinellia, and herbs like sea lavender and marsh samphire.
Without getting too technical, the high salt levels and iodine-rich content of these plants and grasses also make the muscle cells in the flesh retain more moisture and so the meat is juicier and much more tender. The added benefit of the sea-washed pastures is that the salty water kills a large number of bacteria that can be harmful to sheep and so the need to treat the animals with chemicals is considerably reduced. A leg of salt marsh lamb is delicious simply roasted with a few sprigs of rosemary, a few garlic cloves and a drizzle of olive oil – it requires just a seasoning of salt and pepper to bring out its incredible, unique flavour.
If you want something a little different, it doesn’t get any better than fall apart tender lamb shanks, braised in a luxurious sauce with red wine and rosemary! The humble lamb shank may have fallen out of fashion, but I really think it’s the perfect comforting dish for any occasion.
Slow cooked spring lamb Shanks with rosemary
Ingredients Serves 4
4 lamb shanks
A handful of plain flour
120ml extra virgin olive oil
2 red onions, peeled and chopped
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
150ml red wine
2 bay leaves
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
1tsp tomato puree
1 tin of chopped plum tomatoes
500ml lamb or beef stock
Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based, ovenproof pan that will hold the lamb shanks quite closely together. Season the shanks and lightly dust them with flour. Sear the shanks on all sides until golden brown. Take the meat out and set aside. Fry the onions, carrots and garlic and cook for 5-10 minutes until starting to brown. Add the rosemary and bay leaves. Stir in the tomato purée, then pour over the wine and stock. Add the tinned tomatoes and return the lamb shanks to the pan. Bring to a simmer, season with salt and pepper and cover with a lid or tightly with foil and cook in the oven, undisturbed, for 1½-2 hours until the lamb is tender. Remove the lamb from the sauce and set aside.
Put pan back over a high heat and bring the sauce to the boil. Remove the fat from the surface and cook the sauce down until rich and glossy. Return the lamb shanks to the sauce and serve with pureed potatoes.
Recipe by Marc Fosh – Michelin Star Chef