Roasting a whole lamb in the spring is the epitome of the outdoor party (although a whole pig comes pretty close too).
Doug & Lois, owners of Blue Ridge Meat of Front Royal, a small slaughter house in Middletown cum butcher shop (that also does custom slaughter) provided the lamb from their own farm Two Spruce Farm in Berryville, VA. Doug & Lois raise Romney lambs (also known as Romney Marsh or Kent – its area of origin – in England). Lois describes the Romney as a mild sweet tasting breed, “one of the best breeds around”. They raise the animals from birth in a close 60 head flock, on natural grass, supplemented by grains this past winter as it was a rough winter, and alfalfa hay grown and raised by Doug and his friend, Michael Flagg, a prominent Angus breeder in Millwood. When I contacted Lois about the lamb she wrote me: “most American meat breeds (typical black face Suffolk and Hampshires) are on the tougher side, the wool breeds with the longer fleeces, we have found not too tough nor some of the hair breeds. Toughness come from age, breed and the manner in which they are slaughtered (stress, levels of cortisol, etc.). We are certified humane and every animal is raised with extremely dignity under calm conditions.”
After roasting that lamb, we can agree that it was indeed tender and succulent. It was slaughtered on Monday and roasted on Saturday, and the timing was just right for this 36-pound carcass (in fact we liked it so much that we asked Lois to do the same for a lamb ordered for us for the end of May).
We have developed a system to roast a lamb or a pig above ground that does not damage the lawn (not to mention that we do NOT want any burnt grass flavor on the meat) yet allows for the outside cooking experience that let guests gather around the fire to watch the process if they are interested. It involves cardboard, insulated bubble wrap and cinder blocks. The “pit” is assembled the day before, and disassembled the day after. Grass watered, and voila, nobody can tell a lamb was roasted there. It can be done just about anywhere – provided we have electricity for the electric rotisserie spit.
The rule of thumb for cooking lamb on an open rotisserie is 1 hour for 10 pound of animal. Because rain was in the forecasts for Saturday, the rotisserie was covered with metal sheeting, so heat was reflected down, which accelerated the cooking. The 36-lb lamb went on (stuffed with rosemary) – at 2:30 pm and off at 5:30 pm.
Over three hours, the trick is to monitor the fire so it radiates even heat, move the charcoal around when needed to provide more heat on the thicker areas and less on the thinner parts, and occasionally baste with lemon juice (lots and lots of lemon juice). It’s important to keep the fire indirect and not to have any flare to avoid charring. We use drip pans to collect the fat (this lamb did not have much fat, and so flaring was not a problem) and a re-purposed long handle garden hoe to move the charcoal around. (it’s all very sophisticated, isn’t it?)
At 5:30 pm , I helped Keith removed the lamb to the cutting area in the tent. Keith proceeded to cut it and we kept the different parts together, the legs together, the shoulders on another platter, the tenderloins together, and “every thing else” on yet another platter. It gives everybody a chance to sample different cuts of the animal to compare flavors and textures (not that this was really possible at this particular party as it was a large crowd – but still, I like the idea of not mixing it all together). As the bricks radiate heat for several hours, we keep platters warm (covered with foil) by the pit until they are needed at the table.
I serve it a with a green sauce made of cilantro (lots! as it is growing rampant in the garden at the moment), spear mint & orange mint, spring onions, a shallot, a little garlic, a dash of cumin & dash of cayenne, lemon juice, a big splash of rice vinegar and a little olive oil. It makes a beautiful bright green sauce with a nice zest that goes well with rich-tasting roasted lamb.
Romneys are also valued for their wool: they produce an abundant long fiber wool that hand spinners favor. This particular lamb – a naturally colored lamb – had a beautiful pelt which was saved and tanned. Similarly, once we were done with removing the meat from the carcass, since the hostess did not want the bones, we took them home where I was able to fully scrape them for the little remaining untidy bits that cling to the bones and then slowly simmer the bones to make stock. S0, nothing wasted at all!
We have a few “Méchoui” on the schedule for this spring – one for us and some for clients – and we are looking forward to them all. They are a lot of fun!