Salted by the ocean
Blasket Island lamb is an autumnal revelation
A couple of weeks ago, a group of experienced boatmen and shepherds with their dogs had what herdsman Donncha Ó Céileachair calls "an adventurous day at sea" bringing this year's "crop" of Blasket Island lambs to the mainland by boat.
Although not originally from the Blaskets himself - the connection comes through his father-in-law, who was born on one of the islands - Ó Céileachair has been raising sheep there for the past 25 years. They are mainly Scotch ewes crossed with Dorset Horn rams to improve the confirmation (or carcass) of the animal, and Ó Céileachair 's farming methods are low-intervention. He visits his animals on the islands only as needed rather than maintaining a constant presence.
"The sheep graze freely, unrestricted by wiring or fencing, as they would have in the past," he explains. "The animals have a natural hardiness thanks to their habitat, and we don't restrain the rams in any way, so everything happens according to a natural cycle that they determine themselves. The sheep are quite nervous of human interference so our breeding programme leaves them to get on with it. The ewes usually start lambing in early March and finish in late April, but we are not there for that and we don't lose any more lambs than they do on the mainland. If we interfere, it might lead to the ewes abandoning the lambs. There is no fox on the islands, which helps.
"Weather-permitting, we bring the lambs off the islands in late September or early October. The real logistical issue is that we need a good day on the sea, and lots of help."
Ó Céileachair says that without the 'meitheal' in which a dozen or more of his fellow shepherds and the local boatmen participate, Blasket Island lamb - which is troublesome and labour-intensive to rear - as a special seasonal meat would not exist. "Commerce alone does not drive it," he says. "We are maintaining a tradition that goes back for generations and ensuring that it's not lost. It fosters a sense of community, and the very activity maintains the connection. Many of the people involved are descendants of islanders and it allows them to connect with their roots. There's a social element too, because we have a couple of pints together at the end of the day when the sheep are safely landed."
As soon as the sheep reach the mainland, butcher Jerry Kennedy from Dingle comes to assess them, selecting the best for the Cork-based Market Lane group of restaurants, and a cohort of loyal customers who put their names down on a list in the hope of securing a whole lamb for the freezer. "We send the sheep for slaughter at one of two small local abattoirs the next day," explains Kennedy. "We find that the quality of the meat deteriorates the longer the animals are out of their natural habitat."
"Another reason for slaughtering them quickly," adds Ó Céileachair, "is that once they leave the islands, they are no longer what they claim to be if they spend a long time on the mainland. It's important to maintain the integrity of the product."
Jerry Kennedy credits Éamonn Ó Catháin's culinary guidebook Around Ireland with a Pan with kicking off the interest in Blasket Island lamb. "He named it the signature dish for Kerry. I have been handling the lambs every year since then."
Ó Céileachair in turn credits Kennedy with finding a market for the lamb. "Before Jerry got involved, it was being sold in bulk to a factory along with all the other lamb. He found people who would appreciate its unique qualities, like the chefs at Market Lane."
So, what makes Blasket Island lamb so special? For Ó Céileachair, it is like the mutton he remembers eating in his youth, but more tender. "I think," he says, "it's because they don't just eat just one type of grass as they would on the mainland, in a field where they are fenced. Sheep don't like to be constrained, so they decide what they want to eat, they pick their own menu from the wild grasses, heathers and herbs that grow on the islands."
"The best lambs come from Beiginis and Inis Tuaisceart [The Sleeping Giant]," says Kennedy. "This last time, two dozen came off the islands and I picked 16 for Market Lane and the shop. The rest go to the local market as store lambs, and local farms will fatten them and slaughter them as hogget next year. It takes them time to settle away from their natural habitat and they end up having a different flavour."
Over the season, there are no more than 100 Blasket Island lambs in total. "The meat has a saltiness that the French call pré-salé," says Kennedy. "The Atlantic Ocean storms and waves sprinkle saltiness on the grass; it's like a marinade for the grass and when the lambs eat the grass and the herbs, it's as if they are marinated from inside. As the lambs age, the meat develops a strong wild taste - right now it is bang on, a deep burgundy colour and lovely marbled fat that melts into the meat, rather than the lardy fat that you sometimes get with lowland sheep."
Kennedy's preference is for simply grilled or pan-fried lamb chops, seasoned with salt and pepper and served with carrot-and- parsnip mash and potatoes; no mint sauce necessary.
Pamela Kelly-Gough is the head chef at the Market Lane group of restaurants and this is her fourth year working with Blasket Island lamb. "As a chef, it is really exciting to get new-season lamb in autumn," she says. "When you are training, it's all about new-season spring lamb so this is a unique product. I love the high, almost gamey flavour that it has, even though it's young lamb. It smells different to other lamb. The animals are a little bit smaller, and because they are free-roaming, they have built up a fat reserve, so the fat content is slightly higher - but it is so delicious that we don't trim it back so much. The flavour of the lamb differs year on year, depending on the weather and what the lambs eat.
"From a restaurant perspective, lamb varies so much - you are not always getting it from the same outlet or the same farmer, so for us to get 12 carcasses of the same lamb is great. We have them sent straight from the abattoir into our butcher, Tom Durcan in the English Market, and our chefs help to prepare the animals under Tom's guidance. Breaking down the lambs gives them great insight, and they have to think fast on their feet because we use every bit of the animal.
"We are used to using the rack because everyone wants that, but there are some ribs and the shanks that are harder to use - it's a real farm-to-fork experience; we just relish it. It also gives us a chance to put lamb on special every day using a different part of the animal."
Among the dishes that the chefs within the Cork group have planned for the coming weeks are lamb with fish sauce and seaweed gratin by Stephen Keogh at Elbow Lane; Beirut spiced lamb shank by Mamun Bhuyan at Orso (see recipe, right); confit of lamb shoulder by Lee Scahill at Castle Café, and lamb rack with roasted garlic pommes mousseline by Gough herself at Market Lane.
"Our regulars are already asking when it's going to be in," says Gough. "They embrace it and we don't put a high price on it - we want to share a special food experience with them."
MAMUN'S BEIRUT SPICED LAMB SHANK
This dish has been a great success story for Cork's Orso restaurant.
4 lamb shanks
500ml good-quality chicken/beef/lamb stock
For the Beirut spice mix:
50g cumin seeds
25g coriander seeds
25g fennel seeds
4 bay leaves
5g whole white peppercorns
20g Maldon or good-quality sea salt
For the mirepoix: 1 onion
2 stalks of celery
½ bulb of garlic
To make the spice mix, combine all the spices, excluding the salt, and place on a roasting tray in a moderate oven 160˚C (325˚F/gas mark 3) for 10-15 minutes until the spices are nicely toasted. Stir occasionally. Remove from the oven and leave to cool. Add the salt and grind in a mortar with a pestle, or if you have a coffee grinder this works just as well. Take half the quantity of the spice mix and combine with 4 tbsp sunflower oil.
Rub the mixture into the lamb shanks. Cover lightly with cling film and refrigerate for 4-6 hours or, even better, overnight. Roughly chop the vegetables for your mirepoix and place in the bottom of a roasting tray or casserole dish. In a hot pan, add oil, and sear the lamb on all sides, taking care not to burn the spices. Place the shanks on top, and cover half way with stock. Loosely cover the tray with foil, and place the shanks in a preheated oven at 180˚C (350˚F/gas mark 4) for 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes until the lamb is tender.
MOGHRABIEH (Giant Lebanese couscous)
Salt and pepper, to taste
300g moghrabieh couscous
2 bay leaves
1 medium onion, finely diced
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp caraway seeds
½ tsp allspice
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tin of chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Fresh parsley, chopped
1 lemon, zest and juice
Pomegranate seeds, to serve
Natural yoghurt, to serve
Pickled red onion, to serve (optional)
Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, add the moghrabieh and bay, and boil for 10 minutes until tender. Drain and cool. In a pan, add some oil and fry the onion until soft. Add the spices and cook 2-3 minutes, then the garlic and chickpeas followed by the moghrabieh. Add freshly chopped parsley and lemon juice and zest. Top with pomegranate seeds, natural yoghurt (our favourite is Velvet Cloud sheep yoghurt) and some pickled red onion.