My first recollection of lamb was when I was about 8 and seeing my elderly grandfather seated by the crank handle telephone one Monday morning asking for the number of the butcher in the village and saying to him “Morris – the leg you sold us for lunch yesterday came from a sheep that walked here from the Karoo.”
Karoo lamb is as unique as the Salt Marsh Lamb from Harlech in Wales where they graze on salt marshes that have never been farmed in the modern sense, eating particularly one grass called sparta. An old friend from Monmouth, Jack Harding Rolls, once said to me – “you haven’t eaten lamb till you’ve had Welsh salt marsh lamb.” So, we had to wait for the season – usually mid to late summer – and the smell alone emanating from the roasting leg in the kitchen was enough to tell me that this lamb is simply superb. The flavour of both the meat and fat is outstanding.
In France this type of lamb is also regarded as a great delicacy and justly so for its rich, slightly salty flavour. In the Legend of Mont St. Michel, Guy du Maupassant describes a meal prepared by St Michael for Satan, during which some pré-salé lamb “as tender as cake” was served. Pré-salé lamb, the pre-salted lamb that feeds on the salty marsh grass of the Bay of Mont-St.-Michel has put the town on the roster of France’s 100 sites remarquables du goût – places with a unique local speciality.
Meanwhile the other famous lamb from the other side of the world – New Zealand Lamb – grazes grass growing on the rich agricultural soil where there is a strong commitment to sound farming practices with farmers allowing them to roam free and enjoy a grass-fed diet.
No salty marshes or green grasslands for our Karoo Lamb! Dusty scrub, squat little bushes with the tiniest of leaves and the odd herb and perhaps a bit of grass if the rains come, and when they do they leave parts of the Karoo verdant, giving the cooked lamb a unique fynbos aroma, a rustic pre-herbed flavour and when just done, a rich colour like a pink tutu in a Degas painting.
How well I remember the fat merinos on Kweekwa, Uncle Pietie and Aunty Pat’s farm in the Karoo. Once slaughtered every piece was used, from the finer joints that graced the Sunday lunch table, to the cracklings that we stole from the kitchen table after the fat had been rendered from them.
For me that come-home-to-mother smell of joints of Karoo lamb roasting with rosemary and thyme slowly in the bottom oven gently mingled with the smell of the coal in the Aga and the green crushed mint in my hands having been sent out into the garden to pick some for the mint sauce made from wine vinegar and quince jelly, brings back memories of wearing short shorts, having cold knees, bottle feeding the orphan lambs on the back stoep in the thin morning sun wearing badly made hand me down jerseys, and waiting for the tranches of meat, steaming vegetables and crispy roasties piled up on green Woodsware servers on a diningroom table that smelt gently of linseed oil – just like my cricket bat.
Perhaps a slightly more modern lamb dish is one in which I use heads of fresh garlic. Fresh garlic can be obtained in most supermarkets in late summer, all green and soft and juicy.
Melty herby garlicky lamb shoulder
You’ll need: 1 shoulder of lamb weighing about 2.5kg, sea salt and freshly milled black pepper, 1 Tbs olive oil, 2 Tbs butter, 2 heads of very fresh garlic, trimmed but with green shoots left on, 1 sprig fresh rosemary, 12 small or pickling onions – peeled and left whole, especially leave the root intact as it will hold the whole onion together, 8 baby turnips, 300ml Pinotage or red wine and 100ml hot water, 4 Tbs chopped fresh herbs – a mix of parsley, thyme and sage with a touch of rosemary.
Method: Preset the oven at 220C. Place the lamb on a board and cut the fat into diamond patterns. Season the joint with the sea salt and pepper and massage the seasoning in. In a lidded shallow oven proof casserole or oval roasting tin heat the oil and add the butter. Over medium heat, brown all over on the fat side first, then turn fat side up and tuck in the garlic, rosemary, shallots or pickling onions and the turnips. Pour in the wine and the water, sprinkle with the herbs and bring the liquid to the bubble. Put in a 220C oven, uncovered and roast for 30 minutes. Then turn down the oven to 150C, cover the lamb and braise for 2 to 2½ hours or until so tender that the meat will fork easily from the bone. Now, if you have the time, allow it to stand overnight and next day, remove all the fat from the surrounding sauce. You can dolly up the sauce if you wish by reducing it and perhaps adding some port and if you really must thicken it with a touch of cornflour but be sensible and leave it alone other than seasoning it well with sea salt and pepper. Reheat carefully in a 180C oven. You just have to serve this with creamy mashed potatoes. The cloves of garlic are rich and sweet and can be mashed and eaten with the lamb.
Serves 4 generously.