A sheep by many different names
Sheep must grow up with a terrible identity crisis. One moment, they're a sweet little lamb; the next, they're smacked with the less-flattering label of mutton. The youngest, milk-fed lamb, refers to an animal that has primarily suckled from its mother. In Australia, this label generally applies to animals less than eight weeks of age, but can refer to a lamb up to two or three months old. In Italy, milk-fed lamb is called abbacchio or agnello da latte, a classification generally used to describe animals as young as 3-4 weeks. Their flesh is soft, succulent and buttery. Meanwhile, spring lamb refers to animals born in autumn and killed the following spring. Their characteristic taste is a grassy milky flavour. As soon as the first baby teeth fall out, at about 12 months, they become hogget. Once they hit two years, it’s mutton; equally as delicious as lamb but treated very differently.
Throughout the ages, lamb has been thought to symbolise new life and has been associated with religious festivals and ceremonies. The sacrifice of such a young animal with many years of potential use makes it all the more poignant. Easter, with its roots in Christianity, is a time when we see this symbolism quite strongly. Pasqua in Italy, Easter is a time when a milk-fed lamb is traditionally roasted whole over coals and enjoyed with family and friends.
The different cuts
Once, huddled with friends, I found myself transfixed on a whole lamb rotating over a spit. As it neared completion, armed with hunks of fresh bread, very cold beer and perhaps a whisky, we wiped the bread along the lamb, enjoying the smoky lamb fat. There’s the ubiquitous Australian dinner of lamb chops, a quick and tasty meal my mother used to cook, served with green beans and lots of garlic. I think, though, that lamb shoulder is one of my favourite cuts: it's perfect slow-cooked on the bone; delicious diced and braised; and ideal for curries made using sweet spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, a little clove and perhaps tamarind for sourness and zing. I love lamb neck too – its soft fattiness means it softens beautifully – which is lovely slow-cooked with olives and tomato.
The wool and the milk
Australia has a massive sheep industry, which exports animals, and produces lanolin and wool. It's no surprise, really, that many of us grew up eating lamb chops and wearing ugg boots. Italy also has a long history of sheep rearing and using sheep's milk to make pecorino. Pecora is the word for sheep, and therefore pecorino refers to any cheese made with its milk, from the softest ricotta to firm aged cheese. Pecorino Romano is perhaps the most common found in Australia. Where parmesan has an almost fruity note, pecorino has a sharp saltiness and slight nuttiness. Last time I was in Italy, I had my first taste of a fresh variety, Pecorino Toscano, from Tuscany, which is pure white, soft, slightly salty, creamy and delicious.
You can’t really speak of lamb without rosemary, although thyme works very well, too, as does a hint of oregano. And then there’s lamb’s other great friends, garlic and potato, which sounds traditional but is such an ideal flavour combination you don’t want to mess with it. Another perfect partnering favoured by Italians is lamb and anchovy – the saltiness of those tasty little fish balancing perfectly with the rich fatty flavour of the meat. I like to make a quick sauce for lamb by pounding garlic, a little rosemary, anchovy and a good amount of orange zest and olive oil in a mortar and pestle.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.