Spring lamb for Autumn

Spring lamb for Autumn

Why we’re often confused about the best time to eat lamb – and what the different seasons offer cook, chef and diner

Sheep have long served an important place in Scotland’s agricultural economy as well as the country’s kitchens. In summer 2014, the country’s sheep population was nearly 6.7 million across 14,800 farms with almost half that number being lambs – or sheep under one year old. Lambs spend most of their time outdoors grazing on grass, and as a result lamb is generally the most free-range and naturally fed of livestock farmed in this country.

Having found favour in Scotland’s climate, lamb soon found a following in the kitchen. Scotland’s most iconic national dish, the haggis, is elevated to grandiose gastronomic heights and eulogised on Burns Night each year – not a bad result for a sheep’s stomach containing liver, heart and lungs.

Of all farm animals, lamb is the most closely associated with the seasons, with nothing quite signalling that spring has sprung like new-borns bounding about the fields, hills and glens. Of course, those endearingly cute inhabitants prancing around the daffodils are some way off being ready for our tables. The common term ‘spring lamb’ refers to when the lambs are born, but the meat will only start appearing from late summer and into autumn. Spring lamb is also known as early or summer lamb, and is between three and five months old when slaughtered. The meat is rosy coloured, succulent, with a subtle, almost sweet taste compared to the meat of animals that have been allowed to grow for longer.

As the animals age their meat darkens and the flavour intensifies. Older lamb, often called ‘late season lamb’ is available come winter time, offering a darker, stronger tasting meat. Meat from lambs slaughtered between one and two years old is often called hogget, and anything over two years old is mutton.

While the terms can be confusing and are inconsistently applied – mutton does, still, get dressed up as lamb, the situation is further muddied by the fact that lamb is available in our supermarkets all year thanks to imports from global producers – notably New Zealand whose lamb reaches us at its best during our winter. The terminology suits the overseas exporters whose produce fills our supermarket shelves just as we are spotting them in the fields, and perhaps considering a leg roast for an Easter celebration.

Small variations in nomenclature also matter in knowing how and where the lamb you buy has been reared and slaughtered. Meat labelled as ‘Scotch lamb’ holds the European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, protecting it from imitation, with the strict guidelines of Quality Meat Scotland ensuring it has been born, reared and slaughtered in Scotland to strict welfare and production standards. If the product is called ‘Scottish’ lamb it has no PGI status guaranteeing standards although the animals will be born, raised and processed within the country.

The distinct differences found in lamb meat through the year offers a range of options in the kitchen, its versatility augmented by the variety of cuts available and cooking methods possible. A loin chop needing a quick grill on the barbecue feels very different to a slow-cooked shank or flank roasted in the oven. As the animals age the meat toughens, necessitating increasingly longer cooking processes such as casseroles and braises, yet cooked this way offers a more intense flavour, often at a more affordable price. Late season lamb, hogget or even mutton is a good option for a shrewd cook. And for those keen on a bit of DIY butchery, a whole or half lamb carcass offers a manageable prospect for those with a modicum of competency in the kitchen.