The history of Australia is woven in wool: from knucklebones in the schoolyard to candles made from tallow, where telling a story is ‘spinning a yarn’ and lanolin is a cure-all. While Tom Roberts was painting ‘The Golden Fleece’, cementing Australia’s global reputation as the country that ‘rode on the sheep’s back’, locals were sitting down to another lamb roast (albeit in the early years, it was more often mutton –meat from sheep that had served their purpose providing wool first – that the family sat down to).
Sheep have long earned their place in the heart of farmers due to the ease with which they will graze on meagre pastures and thrive in marginal, rocky areas. Add to this the collective nature of sheep – as the idiom suggests, they follow each other – which makes them quite easy to manage. Where you find one, you will often find them all. It is perhaps for these reasons that sheep herding – tending a flock – is considered one of the first professions.
Due to their small stature, sheep have many predators and there are very few examples of wild sheep in the world. And yet, compared to other livestock, sheep remain largely outdoors, free-ranging on grass pastures. Their adaptability allows them some of the most picturesque of homes and the most diverse of diets: where the flowers and herbs of beautiful hilly pastures can easily be traded for sea succulents on windswept salty plains. These locations also impact the flavours in the lamb, whether by the seasons (and the available grasses), or the aromatic herbs that will develop some of the taste of the aromatics in the meat.
Lamb, particularly grass-fed lamb, is a great source of omega-3s – in countries with limited access to the ocean, lamb can form the key source of this essential fatty acid. Furthermore, up to 40 per cent of the fat in grass-fed lamb comes from oleic acid (the same fat for which olive oil is lauded).
the right cut
If you imagine how a sheep moves, you will have a pretty good idea of what the cut will be appropriate for in the kitchen. Basically, the more movement, the more cooking time required – necks that bob up and down for feed, and shoulders used to propel the animal forward, will enjoy long, slow cooking, while those cuts literally riding on the sheep’s back do very little, leaving them very tender and requiring less cooking.
Due to their small size, there are a number of cuts that we get to appreciate in conjunction with the cap of fat that sits above them. This is a treat for the cook, as the fat will protect the cut as it roasts and will baste the meat, keeping it moist. A lamb rack or rump with the cap on are two great (and delicious) cuts that can be purchased with this advantage.
Recently, the shoulder has overtaken the leg as the go-to cut for a great family roast. The shoulder consists of a group of muscles reaching down from the neck, including the blade and sometimes chuck. These moderately working muscles appreciate slower cooking, and this combination of fat, collagen and meat rewards with a richly flavoured, tender roast. It is great slowly roasted on the bone, or try it boned, stuffed and rolled. Either way, it’s better cooked a little slower and longer than the leg.
So good, it’s worth giving up a dinner with Tom Cruise…
Rosemary, mint, thyme, anchovies, olives, potatoes, garlic, eggplant, onion, yoghurt, lemon, almonds, apricots, pomegranate, cumin, cinnamon, ouzo, sumac, coriander seeds, chamomile, oregano.
Select and store
Sheep are pretty good at living on meagre pastures and rocky areas and, as such, the lamb you find at the butcher’s will most-likely be free-ranging and grass fed. Look for lamb that is pink in colour with clean white-to-yellow fat. Lamb will have a beautiful fresh smell. For her recipes that follow, Lyndey Milan says: “Explain to your butcher you want some different cuts: two shoulders (on or off the bone), a boneless neck and could he/she (yes mine is a she!) let you have the fat trimmings from both. You could even ask for the fat to be minced if you want to make rendering it easier!”