Lambs frolicking happily in the sunshine in lush green fields; it’s an age old bucolic image of the British countryside.
The sight of fluffy newborn lambs prancing around their mothers with a ‘spring’ in their step, is one of the first signs alongside gaily bobbing daffodils and the increasingly vocal dawn chorus of our native songbirds, that winter is giving up its grip.
For meat eaters who aren’t of a sentimental nature, paddocks full of cute and cuddly lambs also conjure up the vision of tasty gastronomic delights to be savoured.
It’s no wonder then that spring lamb has become synonymous with Easter feasting.
The religious festival is rooted in Pagan symbolism celebrating rebirth and the spring equinox when the powers of darkness are overcome and the world comes to life again - hence Easter eggs, chicks, bunny rabbits and little lambs as white as snow.
But the culinary custom of sitting down as a family to dine on spring lamb at Easter is actually all wrong. And not necessarily for ethical reasons, although many understandably find the notion of eating young animals unpalatable.
Aside from any moral issues, consuming spring lamb at this time of the year is in fact at odds with seasonal eating.
Think about it. If you are happily watching just born lambs romping freely in the countryside, surely you aren’t going to be popping one in the oven to roast with garlic and rosemary on Easter Sunday?
That being the case, what are you buying when you head-off to the supermarket and pick up a leg of ‘spring’ lamb?
Unfortunately, most likely meat that has either been shipped halfway across the globe from New Zealand or British lambs that were born last autumn and are unlikely to have seen, let alone had their fill, of nutrient rich, fresh grass.
To be fair, there are some breeds of sheep that do naturally lamb in the autumn and whose offspring are ready for the lucrative Easter market.
Dorset Horns, for instance, are prolific breeders and can produce up to two sets of lambs a year.
But they are mainly based on farms in the south of the UK where the climate is milder and they can safely stay outdoors for most of the winter to feed.
Then there are those lambs that have been deliberately bred out of season to be ready for spring.
Born in October and November, they are reared indoors and will suckle their mother’s milk and eat concentrated cereal feed to help them reach the optimum weight of around 40kg in time to sate the appetites of hungry Easter consumers.
It doesn’t, says butcher Chris Green, make for a particularly flavoursome product, albeit one that is undeniably tender.
This is because while the flesh melts on the tongue, there’s minimal fat. And it’s the fat, Chris states, that enhances the taste of any meat.
New Zealand lambs, meanwhile, are born in their spring – our autumn - and reared on grass. And true to form, they will have drunk their mother’s milk, learnt to eat grass and had the chance to run around, all of which will have added to the final firmness, flavour and richness of the meat.
But how environmentally aware can it be to ship meat 12,000 miles in cold storage just to appease consumers’ desire for ‘spring’ lamb in time for the first major religious festival of the year?
Much better then to support our local farmers, especially as the North East is famed for the high quality of its lamb.
Yet with the current crop of genuine ‘spring’ lambs not set to mature until early summer when those extra warm months of grazing and gambolling will have produced sweet, fine grained and flavoursome meat, what should consumers hell bent on having sheep on the Easter menu do?
Look for something older and more mature, says Chris, whose family established R Green and Son butchers in Longframlington, Northumberland, 127 years ago.
His choice would be hogget, or old season lamb.
Hogget is an animal born last spring and between one and two years old – a teenager in human terms.
“It’s a really good product,” says Chris. “Hogget is much tastier and less expensive than lamb. Because they are more mature they have more fat and a better flavour.”
But he accedes that the higher fat content and intense flavour of hogget –though less powerful than mutton, which is an animal older than two years - isn’t to everyone’s taste. “We have had mutton to sell, but it didn’t do well. The hogget didn’t do so badly.
“It’s a shame because while these animals are still relatively young they will give you a delicious meal.
“But people are hung-up on this idea of ‘spring’ lamb at Easter.
“This year is an early Easter, but even when it’s much later you will struggle to find spring lamb, although a lot of farmers will try and produce it by lambing early and keeping their sheep indoors and feeding them.
“But while it’s still spring lamb they should still be outdoors eating grass. It’s costly for farmers to have them under cover and be feeding them, which is why lamb is expensive at this time of year.”
Much better, he says, to hunt out hogget.
Top North East chef Kenny Atkinson of Newcastle’s House of Tides restaurant, is a big fan of hogget for its fuller flavour.
And while he agrees it isn’t naturally as tender as younger lamb, he says the trick is to cook the meat more slowly.
“We will have lamb on the menu at Easter at the restaurant, but it will be hogget.
“We need to re-educate people to eat the seasons and which are the right times to use ingredients.
“Take asparagus. People are so desperate to get hold of it that in some parts of England it is already available. Traditionally it has always been St George’s Day. But the flavour of the early stuff is not the best.
“Eating the seasons is the old fashioned way, but it is the correct way,” Kenny concludes.
R Greens and Son, Front Street, Longframlington, Northumberland, NE65 8DR, 01665 570 253, www.greenbutcher.co.uk
House of Tides, 8 Close, Newcastle, NE1 3RN, 0191 230 3720, www.houseoftides.co.uk
RECIPE: Slow Roasted Rump of Hogget, Pease Pudding, Wild Garlic and Mint
Kenny Atkinson has devised this delicious Easter hogget recipe for Journal Taste.
He advises buying from a traditional butcher and supporting British. “If you go to a butcher the meat will be properly hung and graded. Supermarkets don’t hang their meat long enough. That’s why when you open the packet it’s sitting in blood and water, and that adds to the weight and what you’re paying.
“With a butcher you are paying for top quality and their knowledge.”
For the roasted lamp rump:
1 lamb rump, trimmed
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Season the lamb with salt and pepper and pan fry fat side down in a hot pan until the fat is golden. Turn and seal the meat.
Place in a pre-heated oven at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 10 minutes. Remove the lamb from the pan and leave to rest for six minutes.
For the lamb sauce:
200g diced lamb belly, cut into 1cm chunks
50g button mushrooms, sliced
50g shallots, diced
1 sprig rosemary
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
3g white peppercorns
500ml chicken stock
1 tsp tomato puree
200ml white wine
In a deep pan caramelise the lamb belly in foaming butter.
Add the shallots and fry until golden, then the mushrooms and cook until soft.
Add the herbs and spices. Remove everything from the pan and drain off the juices using a colander
Deglaze the pan with the tomato puree and white wine and reduce, then pour in the stock.
Add the lamb trimmings and simmer for one hour.
Pass through a double muslin cloth, skim off any fat that sets on top, and then reduce the sauce. Add a little fresh rosemary to the sauce and leave to infuse.
Pass through muslin again before serving
For the pease pudding:
200g green split peas, soaked overnight
1 pint boiling ham stock
2 large shallots, finally chopped
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to season
Sweat the shallots and the garlic in the butter.
Add the split peas and stock and gently cook until tender and emulsified.
When cooked correct the seasoning and finish with fresh chopped parsley.
For the mint sauce jelly:
1 tbsp mint sauce
200 g water
1 bag of mint
125g caster sugar
100g cider vinegar
1g agar-agar (this will gel 100ml liquid)
Lemon juice to taste
Bring the water and sugar to the boil, add the mint and leave to infuse.
Add the mint sauce, cider vinegar and lemon juice to taste.
Whisk in the agar-agar, bring to a simmer and then pass through muslin and leave to set in a tray.
For the wild garlic puree:
300g picked wild garlic leaves
50ml double cream
Salt and ground white pepper for seasoning
Fresh lemon juice
Bowl of iced water
Blanch the wild garlic and parsley in boiling salted water for approximately one minute. Refresh in iced water. Remove and squeeze the wild garlic and parsley dry.
In a pan add the butter, cream and water and bring to the boil.
Pour onto the garlic and parsley leaves and blitz to a puree. Season with salt, ground white pepper and lemon juice to taste.
To serve, carve the lamb and place on a plate. Arrange the pease pudding, lamb sauce, mint sauce jelly and wild garlic puree around the lamb.