Once, it was imported Pyrenean and salt marsh lamb that made chefs swoon. Now, it is Scottish North Highland Fine Lamb (NHFL, 01863 766505) that gets rave reviews from the likes of Michel Roux, Rowley Leigh and our very own Jeremy Lee.
The overheated kitchens of the capital's top eateries are a world away from the heartbreakingly beautifulheather moorland of the Strath Of Kildonan, a remote corner of remote Sutherland. There, you have to scan the landscape for the white dots that are these celebrated sheep. Blink, and you'll miss them. The term "free-range" just cannot do justice to these creatures - they have the outdoor lifestyle of wild animals and, to all intents and purposes, would qualify as game were it not for the fact that they can be herded by dogs. They walk dozens of miles each day, drinking spring water and seeking out their favourite feed, ling, bell heather, lungwort and cottongrass being just a handful of species in the rich plant mix that is their birthright.
Birthright? Yes, these sheep have an impeccable pedigree. They are traditional breeds: the positively Alpine neat little Blackface or the short North Country Cheviot. They come from closed flocks that have been registered on the same estates for more than 100 years, with no cross-breeding for bigger, faster-growing animals. In shepherding terms, they are "hefted", or acclimatised, to their location and won't stray. That means that even if you herded them into a van and dumped them in Inverness, they'd more than likely find their way back home.
That home is majestically scenic, but also tough and inhospitable, and only these breeds have the survival skills to hack it up here. With its short summer and harsh winter, the environment makes for slow growth, which is why the first "new season" NHFL is six months old when killed, while the bulk of the output is in much older lamb, known as hogget, or even mutton, at 18 months or so.
It is how you would hope all lamb is reared. Dream on: most of it is from sheep cross-bred for quick growth, reared mainly indoors, fed concentrated animal feed, fattened in muddy fields and despatched to our plates in a rapid three months. That, unfortunately, is the way the lamb market is going. By 1999, the market price of sheep was at an all-time low, putting farmers under pressure to cut costs and get their lamb to table as quickly as possible - or give up entirely. These days, farmers increasingly view sheep as little more than expensive lawnmowers.
All of which leaves consumers with no way of knowing whether their lamb is from a do-it-right farmer or a do-it-fast farmer, since it is generally sold as one undifferentiated category, country of origin being the only distinguishing feature - a ridiculously rudimentary state of affairs, since traditionally reared, mature lamb tastes as different from most fast-growth stuff as wild salmon does from farmed. Or is that just whimsy?
Out in the glens, it was easy to be persuaded of the notional advantages of this Sutherland lamb. Back in my kitchen, a tasting confirmed the romantic prejudice. I pitted some NHFL cutlets (out of the farmer's freezer and defrosted negligently in the car boot) against some freshly-bought cutlets from an upmarket multiple. Tasted blind, the unanimous preference was for the Sutherland lamb. The multiple's lamb was tougher, watery and comparatively devoid of flavour, while the NHFL cutlets were exceptionally tender, with a deeper, sweeter more aromatic character. No contest.
The impetus behind NHFL, a venture launched by farmers Michael Wigan and Charlie Brooke, is to introduce a location-based brand into the market that consumers can latch on to, and so create sales for sheep reared in a traditional manner but to strict production standards. "The quality and taste of our meat is the only thing we've got going for us," says Wigan. "We want to get recognition for the quality of meat, not just see it disappearing in a supply of mass-produced 'Scotch' lamb."
Working so closely with chefs for whom the quality of raw materials is almost a religion, Wigan and Brooke have also had to ensure that there is no weak link in the production chain. In winter, when natural feed has to be supplemented, the sheep are given home-grown hay and silage, never bought-in concentrates. When they are ready for fattening, they are moved on to coastal farms and fed turnips until they have just enough, but not too much, fat. A short journey takes them to the slaughterhouse in Inverness, without being traumatised. Hanging for at least seven days or more ensures that the meat stays tender. So, what princely sum does this formidable lamb attract? A very reasonable average £4 a pound - and it's delivered to your door, to boot. Here's hoping that more beleaguered sheep farmers follow this precedent - in droves.
All recipes serve six.
Lamb sweetbreads with peas, almonds and mint
280g lamb sweetbreads
Vegetable oil, for frying
1 clove garlic
20g whole blanched almonds
40g shelled peas
30g unsalted butter
8 fresh mint leaves, chopped
Put the sweetbreads in a colander and place under running cold water for an hour, to rinse off all impurities. Place a pan of water on a high heat and, when boiling, drain the sweetbreads and drop them in the pot. Stir and cook for a minute only. Drain in a colander, lay the sweetbreads on a tray and cover with another that is weighted down. Leave for half an hour, until they have cooled. Peel the sweetbreads, removing only the little pieces of fat and membrane adhering to the outside. Cook the peas in boiling water seasoned with salt and a little sugar. Finely chop the garlic and chop the almonds very small.
Heat a heavy-based frying pan. Put a spoonful of flour on a plate, add salt and milled pepper, toss the sweetbreads in the flour and shake off any excess. Pour in enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan and lay in the breads in one layer. Once they have turned a pleasing gold, turn and add the garlic/almond mix. Cook for a three to three to four minutes, until golden brown. Add the butter and peas, raise the heat, add the mint and adjust the seasoning. Serve at once.
Roast leg of lamb in the abruzzi manner
The milk of the sheep of Abruzzi region is used to make Pecorino. It is unlikely that you'll get authentic Italian lamb in the UK, but this manner of cooking can be emulated with our own produce, as long as it's top quality.
1 2-2.3kg, leg of lamb, boned and butterflied
5-6 cloves garlic
A fully-charged pepper mill
3 tbsp good olive oil
900g good waxy potatoes
2 small sprigs rosemary
Ask your butcher to prepare the meat for you. Preheat the oven to 225C/ 425F/gas mark 7. Peel the garlic, cut it into thick slivers and insert into the flesh of the lamb. Liberally season the meat with salt and pepper. Peel the potatoes, cut them into 2.5cm dice and rinse under cold water.
Heat a big roasting tray in the oven. Remove the tray from the oven, pour in the oil, lay the lamb in the bottom and surround it with the potatoes. Put the tray back in the oven and, after five minutes, reduce the heat to 160C/325F/gas mark 3, and scatter salt and pepper over the potatoes. Push the rosemary into the meat, and scatter a few leaves among the spuds, then turn the meat and potatoes over. Cook for another 20 minutes, then transfer the lamb to a serving dish. Return the potatoes to the oven until crisp, then tip them and all the cooking juices into the serving dish and take the lot to the table. (In Italy, they sprinkle grated Pecorino over the spuds - by all means do the same, as long as you can get hold of the good stuff.)
Rack of lamb with mustard and parsley crust
Old-fashioned and brilliant.
3 racks lamb, with 18 chops in total
1 big handful flat-leaf parsley
2 big handfuls white breadcrumbs
Sea salt and fresh black pepper
2-3 large tbsp Dijon mustard
Ask your butcher to chine and trim the racks. Heat the oven to 225C/425F/gas mark 7. Finely chop the parsley and mix with the breadcrumbs and seasonings. Spread the mustard over the fat on the lamb, then dip the racks into the crumb/ parsley mix - the crust should be evenly distributed.
Heat a roasting tray and pour in a little oil. Entwine the bones of two racks, like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and lay them, crust-side down, in the oil. Lay the other rack beside them. (Alternatively, lay the three racks, bones upwards, side by side.) Cook for 10-12 minutes for medium rare. Leave to sit for 10 minutes before carving.
Come summertime, I get cravings for Indian food and start leafing through An Invitation To Indian Cooking, by Madhur Jaffrey, an all-time favourite.
3 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp desiccated unsweetened coconut
4 medium onions, peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 thumb-sized piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 large tomato
1 tsp ground turmeric
6 tbsp vegetable oil
5 whole cardamom pods
6 whole cloves
7 whole black peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick, 5cm long
2 small hot red peppers (optional)
1.6kg cubed lamb - shoulder, leg or, best of all, neck
1 tbsp plain yoghurt
2 tsp salt
1 tsp garam masala
Roast the coriander, cumin and coconut in a pan for a few minutes, until just darkened, then put to one side. Put the onions, garlic and ginger in a liquidiser, along with the tomato and turmeric, and blend to a paste.
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat four tablespoons of oil over medium flame. When it is hot, add the cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, bayleaves, cinnamon and red peppers, and stir. Add just enough meat to sit in one layer without crowding, and cook, turning, until it is a rich brown all over. Repeat with the rest of the meat.
Tip the browned lamb and cooked spices into another pot. Return the cooking pan to the hob, add the rest of the oil and add the paste. Stir as the liquid evaporates and the paste starts to stick to the bottom. Lower the heat and stir for five minutes longer, adding a little water as necessary.
Now add the roasted spices, and cook, stirring, for another five minutes, then stir in the yoghurt, taking care that it does not scorch. Return the meat to the pan, add salt and enough water to cover the lamb, and stir to scrape up any spice mix adhering to the bottom of the pot. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to a quiet simmer. Cover, and leave to cook for an hour or so. Stir in the garam masala and cook for a further five minutes.
A few sliced green chillies, some chopped fresh coriander leaves, fried onion rings and a little ground cardamom seed are a traditional finish to the korma. Aloo gobi, rice and chapatis are great with this
Jeremy Lee is chef at Blue Print Cafe, Butlers Wharf, London SE1.