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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Fresh Lamb

There is something liberating about being involved in the harvest of food.  Even if I can't produce enough for a year round supply, it still feels good to harvest an animal that was raised under conditions that were humane and with techniques that contribute minimal stress to the animal.  Setting out to do something like this can be intimidating, but if you take a step back for a realistic look you will remember that people have been around harvesting and eating food for as long as they have been in existence.  The fact that a large part of the human population is now no longer involved with the process of harvesting and processing plants and animals into food does not mean we have lost the capability to do so if we just put forth a bit of effort. 

Sheep having a hay day.
I honestly do get most of my food from the grocery store.  However, I am fortunate to have access to land where I can raise sheep.  Therefore if I want lamb I do not need to buy it from the store.  I simply need to harvest it.  It is more work, and the upfront costs do make it more expensive initially.  There is the cost of fencing, foundation stock for your flock, and supplemental feed to get them through the winter when the natural forage has all but stopped growing.  To be honest I started with sheep just because I wanted some help keeping my parents' acerage from getting overgrown with blackberries and weeds, but then I decided that if I was keeping sheep anyways I might as well breed them and harvest the offspring for food as a byproduct of the land maintenance.

First harvest...
My first harvest of a sheep was a young ram in the fall.  The process of slaughtering, skinning, and cleaning the carcass took a few hours.  It was a long laborious process partly due to my inexperience, and partly due to the use of rudimentary tools not really designed for the purpose.  In the end though it worked.  I wasn't sure if I could actually handle the part of the process where the meat is hung to tenderize and then cut and wrapped, so we sent the carcass off to the butcher and the next week received back a box of various cuts of frozen lamb meat.  I'd like to say it was tasty, but it wasn't.  There was a very strong flavor to it, and I had to experiment with various preparations in an attempt to make it palatable.  In the end I finally found that the strong flavored meat tasted good after being marinaded in a mix of kombucha (basically tea vinegar), soy sauce, and shallots or onions and garlic.  I've found kombucha does a great job at pulling out flavors from objects placed in it to soak which is why it's so easy to flavor with fruit ect., but I digress.

I suspect that I made a mistake in harvesting the ram lamb in the fall because that is the prime breeding season for many sheep.  As with many male animals behavior during the breeding season can be noticeably different than in the off season, and this is no doubt expressed internally in the way of raging hormones.  That I suspect fouled the flavor of the meat.  Every subsequent lamb harvest I have participated in I have done in mid to late winter thus ensuring two things.  The first is that the sheep are given time to normalize their bodies after breeding season, and the second is that I can wait for them to use up some of their winter fat reserves  ensuring leaner meat (I've found that in lamb the stronger flavors tend to concentrate more in the fat).  It may be luck, or maybe I'm on to something, but my lamb always has good flavor now.
Greyhound Sheep

This year I decided I didn't want to shell out money for the butcher anymore.  I'm sure he's a nice enough guy, but part of the benefit of raising food is that it is supposed to in theory be cheaper than buying it from the store (if you've harvested enough to recoup your set up expenses).  My family was initially against the idea of aging, cutting, and wrapping the meat at home because they wanted to make sure we had proper commercial cuts of meat.  However, I finally came to the conclusion that it's going to be the same meat no matter how it is cut, so I bought a knife kit for field dressing game on hunts.  I also sewed a cloth bag big enough to cover the carcass and keep any flies off while it ages out in the shed.  I had a few lambs to process this year so I figured the cost of my new tools would pay for themselves quickly not having to pay a butcher to cut and wrap the carcasses.

I was amazed at the difference it made having a knife kit designed for processing game.  It made the whole process of slaughtering, skinning, and gutting faster than ever and for the first time in my experience the carcass was still warm by the time I was done.

I'd like to note that the sheep I keep are one of the smaller breeds and I refer to the carcasses amongst those I know as greyhounds because they're so small under all that wool.  That said my father has told me I need to switch to a larger breed of sheep so we can get more meat.  That leads me to my next point.  When we were paying a butcher to cut and wrap our lamb he was apparently cutting the carcass into all the same cuts as he would have if it were a larger animal.  Therefore each cut of meat was very small, and it's no wonder my father felt the sheep were too small.  I realized though that when I am in control of portioning the meat I can make much larger cuts.  I may get less cuts overall, but the cuts I end up with are much more substantial. 
Whatever size we want
If I were to switch to a larger breed it would make the job more difficult without a more specialized facility to process it in.  It is much more practical to stick with the breed I have now, and just raise a larger number of them which is easy because a pasture can support more small sheep than it can support large sheep.
Pasture to Plate (or napkin)

While cutting and wrapping the meat we took some trimmings and rolled them with rosemary, baked them and then sliced them up for sandwiches.  Now that's pasture to plate for you.

More recently I took the neck roast of one and cooked it overnight at 200°F resulting in tender juicy meat that was falling off the bone.  That meat was then cooked down with wine, tomato paste, fresh grated nutmeg and cinnamon to make a delicious bolognese sauce that we ate with pasta.
Lamb Bolognese

A cushy byproduct of lamb meat are the lambskin rugs.  I process each one a little differently as I have an experimental nature and I want to see the results of different techniques while I decide what methods give me the best outcome for the effort I am willing to put into it.  In general though it's just a matter of washing, trimming, scraping (or rather tearing off fat and connective tissues), salting, drying, working, and oiling.  The nice thing about salt is that it preserves the hides so I can work on them when I have time and there is no time crunch.
A washed and salted hide laying on a towel to dry.