Saturday, 28 August 2010

Epaule d’agneau (Shoulder of lamb)

During a recent visit to the Lake District, I fell a little bit in love with the local lamb population. They dotted the landscape, clustering in just-visible fields, clambering onto the fells and meandering along the private road. Even when out of sight, I could still hear their plaintive bleating. I found them comical,characterful and quite adorable.

In what has been an inadvertent project of connecting the contents of my plate to their living source, I’ve been eating lots of lamb too. On the trip it was chops, their garlicky marinade filling up the old stone pantry. The following weekend it was a Spanish-style braise, redolent with saffron, olives and tomatoes. There were homemade kofta too, flavoured with harissa, coriander and freshly-ground cumin.

My favourite has been a shoulder cut, seasoned with a Franco-Italian mix of anchovy, lemon, garlic, rosemary and thyme. The meat came from Ginger Pig, whose North Yorkshire lamb tastes like the happy creature it no doubt was. I hadn’t cooked shoulder before, but the butcher recommended it as the sweetest and tastiest cut, provided it was cooked long and slow.

I took that seriously, roasting the lamb on a very low heat for the better part of 7 hours. The herb rub permeated the flesh, which was soft enough to be pulled apart with a fork. It was sweet and deeply earthy, with a hint of freshness and acidity coming from the lemon. Judged by a ratio of effort to pleasure, it was perhaps the best thing that has ever come out of my kitchen. Judged by most any another standard, it was still pretty damn good.

Slow-roasted lamb shoulder with anchovy, lemon, garlic and herbs
adapted from Clotilde Dusoulier’s Chocolate & Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen

As the meat doesn’t produce any gravy, accompany it with a moist, interesting starch. I made a warm farro salad with chopped tomato, chives and fresh oregano, and topped it with a lemon juice and olive oil dressing. Another good option would be crushed new potatoes with black olives and thyme. A spicy, well-structured French or Italian wine would be my pick: the former from the Rhone, Provence or Corsica.

Serves 4
Total time: 7-10 hours; Active time: 10-15 minutes

½ lamb shoulder
6 anchovy filets
4-5 cloves garlic
handful fresh rosemary and thyme
olive oil

In a mortar and pestle or small food processor container, combine anchovies, garlic and herbs. Grate or microplane zest of ½ lemon and add. Moisten with enough olive oil to make a coarse paste.

Line a roasting tray or baking dish with a double layer of foil large enough to fold an envelope. Place the lamb on the oil. Use your hands to massage herb paste into the meat, particularly any pockets in the flesh.

Set aside for 2-3 hours. (If it’s warm in your kitchen, do this in the fridge, letting the meat come back to room temperature before cooking.)

Set the oven to 100C. Cook the meat for at least 5 hours, and up to 7. Because of its natural fat and the sealed foil package, it doesn’t need basting or turning. Turn off ½ hour before serving.

Remove from foil and place on carving board. Slice meat against the grain into large chunks. Serve warm.

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