Spring Lamb

Published Spring, 2008
Edible Portland

Wherever there have been undulating grassy slopes and people living among them, there have been sheep. The animal and the people who tend it have long embodied the gentle, bucolic spirit of a culture. Like Mary and her little lamb, flock and shepherd wander freely from one verdant knoll to the next without destination or deadline. When counted, they woo us to peaceful slumber. Theirs is an innocent freedom that celebrates nature’s renewal.

From time immemorial, lamb has symbolized the season of rebirth. Mostly associated with iconic and religious rituals, especially at Easter, “spring” lamb represents the expiatory sacrificial lamb for some, the most delectable of seasonal treats for others.

The reasons for lamb’s seasonality are straightforward: Ovulation in ewes is naturally prompted by the shortening days of autumn, so the birth of lambs, whose gestation period is five months, coincides with the first fresh grass of spring. The term “lamb” actually describes the meat of the animal from the time it is weaned, at four months, to one year old. A bit of simple arithmetic raises this question: Why is there a tradition of eating “spring” lamb at Easter?

Terminology is the problem here. Centuries ago, “new season” or “spring” lamb were born from Dorset Horn ewes. An old English breed that naturally lambs in autumn, Dorset ewes yield newborns that will mature in time to claim a place at…er, on the Easter table.

These days, however, Susie Wilson of SuDan Farm explained to me, a spring lamb refers to an animal raised on grass and butchered at the right weight rather than a certain time of year. The “younger is better” maxim does not hold true for lamb.

Oregon’s climate offers the same unique advantages for producing fauna that it does for flora. The winning combination of an extended grass-growing season and access to sheep with longer breeding cycles—like Dorset Horn ewes—means fresh lamb is available 52 weeks of the year. Farmers and ranchers can tinker with a flock by putting a “teaser” ram among the ewes, allowing them to lamb twice a year, usually around March and again in September.

Perhaps the real question is whether the lamb is truly “spring” lamb or merely all-season.

We’re unlikely to take into account our carnivorous leanings when we talk about eating seasonally. As wild creatures, animals have seasonal cycles of breeding, roaming, grazing, and birthing that dictate when they are harvestable. Because technology and the global market have interfered with these natural rhythms, like almost everything we eat today, meat is available year round. Still, lamb is perhaps the only widely farmed animal whose consumption retains a seasonal element.

But there are factors other than season that enhance the quality of a leg of lamb, such as breed and native habitat. Meat can be one of the great expressions of a spirit of place, an edible calling card from the animal’s hometown.

An animal from the Connemara region of Ireland or certain parts of France will grow fat munching on salty marsh grass and herbs. Lamb from Provence might taste herbaceous, redolent of rosemary, thyme, and wild fennel, while Colorado lamb is perfumed with clover and balsam. Sonoma County lamb is reputed to have a faint hint of wild garlic.

Genuine spring lamb is born, not killed, in the spring. Born in February or March, these animals are weaned four months later, at which point they graze and fatten exclusively on summer grass. Their meat becomes rich and sweet, and takes on a dark hue and a pronounced marbling of creamy-colored fat that matches beautifully with the earthy, forthright flavors of root vegetables and orchard fruit.

The lamb born in autumn is the one who will join the pastel-stained eggs and hollow chocolate bunnies. When you eat it, you will be communing with both seasons, something to keep in mind when you next celebrate spring.
Recipe for Grilled Lamb with Minted Yogurt