Food Facts & History
Lamb has always been the least popular of red meats in North America. People here prefer beef, pork and veal over lamb, mainly because availability and tradition. Of late, however, two factors contributed to an increase in lamb consumption; young well-travelled chefs discovered the fabulous taste of properly cooked lamb, and an influx of Middle Eastern immigrants (Greeks, Iranians, Arabs and North Africans) who traditionally have been exposed to fine-textured lamb. Yet, still the average American lamb consumption is 300 grams ( .7 lb) per annum , whereas in New Zealand the average is approximately 26 Kilograms ( 56.5 lbs). The British have bred many mutton species but now consume less than in previous centuries.
Prior to W.W.II, lamb consumption in North America was higher than it is now, mainly because people cooks overcooked the meat and also kept sliced roasted lamb in steam tables. You can imagine the taste and texture of such tortured and abused delicate meat. Now luckily a number of well-trained young chefs know how to cook and serve lamb. Fine restaurants are starting to serve cuts of lamb they never dared offering for fear of alienating their guests. Lamb shanks and stews have become popular because of their superior and intriguing taste.
While imports from New Zealand and Australia are increasing, a lot of chefs in Canada like to serve Washington State and Colorado lamb mostly because of their full (almost beef like) texture and intense taste. California and Texas are considerable lamb producers, but sell mainly in the USA where there is a large population of Middle Eastern people (Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, New York and Chicago come to mind).
Big ranches dominate the market, but small, more quality-oriented producers dot the landscape. On the rolling hills of Latrobe (Pennsylvania), farmers raise fine enough lamb to supply the best restaurants of New York. Also Virginia has many artisan producers concentrating on quality rather than quality. The USDA defines “lamb” as the meat of sheep less than 12 months old. Most of the American lamb comes from six to eight month old animals.
Yearlings (one to two year olds) are much less popular and mutton (older than two years) is used for hallal and kosher sausages and convenience foods.
Spring lamb must be four months old and slaughtered from March to early October.
In Canada, Ontario is a large producer supplying Greek restaurants in Toronto and butchers catering to the multi-ethnic population. Of course the fabled pre-sale of Normandy and Brittany enjoy a world-wide reputation due to their diet on the sea-water inundated marshlands. The salt that permeates the live animal imparts a completely different and unforgettable taste. New Zealand lamb is consistent but relatively bland. Australian lamb has a better taste, but tends to be tougher than New Zealand. In both countries but especially in New Zealand, lamb raising and processing is a highly developed industry that supplies many Middle-Eastern countries including Iran which happens to be one of their best customers.
Most American lambs are raised on feedlots, where they are fed a variety of grains and tend to have a coarser texture and “beefy” flavour. Lambs were put on this earth to eat grass and those that are raised free-range feasting on a range of grasses have a much finer texture and taste. After slaughter, the meat should be aged (two to three weeks) for optimal taste and texture and get rid of rigor mortis.
While North Americans eat the rack, leg and shanks, elsewhere people consume every part of the carcass including the whole roasted head, the brains, kidneys, heart, and even lungs. No part of the animal is wasted mostly because of the high cost of meat.
Lamb lends itself to a greater variety of seasonings from the Middle East and India; this is another proof that nature somehow preordained food that grows together to complement each other best. In fact red Bordeaux wine and Bordeaux lamb are considered to be the epitome of food and wine matches. Whole spit-roasted lamb is one of the Middle eastern delicacies few people can forget, once hey have had the opportunity to experience.
Lamb breeds: Border Cheviot, Corriedale, Dorset, Hampshire, Leicester, Lincoln, Montadale, Oxford, Rambouillet, Soutdown, Shropshire and Suffolk.
Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu