Lamb is a stalwart of traditional British cuisine. Few sights and smells can be more tantalising than those of a slow-cooked roast, the meat falling away from the bone, finally emerging from the oven. But there’s so much more to it. Lamb is hugely versatile.
“It can be cooked in lots of different ways in a huge variety of dishes,” says Graeme Pallister, chef-patron of 63 Tay Street Restaurant in Perth, and former Catering Scotland Chef of the Year. “Scotch lamb isn’t just a seasonal product, but can be bought all year round, as lamb, hogget and mutton, each with its own distinctive character.”
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But what’s the best way of making the most of the national treasure that is Scottish lamb? We asked some of Scotland’s top chefs for their tips on cuts, cooking and choosing.
Don’t fear the fat
With lamb, fat means flavour, which is why top chefs covet it. Scott Davies, head chef at the Michelin-starred The Three Chimneys in Skye, says: “My favourite choice of cut would always be the lamb shoulder or neck joints and I look for a lot of fat content because this is what will bring out the taste during long slow roasting. Set the oven to no more than 130C and baste the meat at regular intervals in its own juices.”
Fraser Allan, executive chef at The Pompadour by Galvin, and Galvin Brasserie de Luxe in Edinburgh, agrees: “The beauty of lamb is the versatility of the meat and with the variety of cuts lending themselves to multiple cooking methods and flavour pairings,” he says “Don’t be afraid of the fat in lamb as it is key to adding flavour and moisture to the meat.”
It doesn’t have to be anything to do with national pride. Buying Scottish lamb simply makes sense, according to proud Geordie Paul Kitching, proprietor of Michelin-starred 21212 in Edinburgh.
“I live by this one rule,” he says. “If I’m in Scotland I’ll buy Scottish lamb, if I’m in England I’ll buy English lamb and if I’m in New Zealand then I’ll buy New Zealand lamb. We have an abundance of lamb available on our doorstep so what would be the point in buying lamb from another country that’s been frozen and shipped over? Local lamb isn’t difficult to buy and it will always taste the best.”
Derek Johnstone, Masterchef Professionals winner and chef at the acclaimed Golf Inn in Gullane, agrees that you don’t have to look far for the best quality: “During the Scottish summer months I enjoy using the finest Scotch Lamb that’s available. I feel strongly that when you have a product as good as young Scotch Lamb is then the cooking process should be fairly simple. A roasted rack of new season lamb with some boiled jersey royals accompanied by summer greens and a simple jus is hard to beat in my opinion. Sourcing our lamb locally from farmers that are passionate about their animals really does ensure for a quality product,” he adds.
Location, location, location
While most of us might think of preparing a delicious lamb dish as beginning once we start chopping the vegetables or heating up the pan, for top chefs, the process starts much earlier. The flavour of the meat is often closely related to exactly where the lamb was raised, so has a huge impact on the dish.
Scott Davies of the Three Chimneys explains: “The most important part of selecting lamb is to have a close look at where it comes from. Lamb from Perthshire will have enjoyed rich grazing and tastes especially good. Highlands and Islands Blackface lambs spend all of their lives grazing outdoors. This results in the meat being slightly leaner and darker in colour. The animals have a much harder lifestyle living in the rough coastal conditions so the meat develops a more gamey flavour and a slightly salty taste from all the seaweed they have eaten.”
Fred Berkmiller of L’escargot Bleu and L’escargot Blanc in Edinburgh agrees. “For me, provenance is key,” he says. “That is my priority before choosing a cut of meat. I get our lambs and hoggets from Shetland, Orkney and Perthshire. Cooking starts by sourcing and buying. When a product is well sourced, nothing much needs to be done.”
For Catering Scotland Chef of the Year 2014 Neil Forbes of Cafe St Honoré restaurant in Edinburgh, there’s something special about lamb from the northern islands: “Flavour is a main reason why I buy local, organic, specific-breed lamb. I love native Shetland lamb - it has such an individual character and taste, these beasts are tiny in comparison to a lamb we see on the mainland but they're wonderful.”
Cook according to your cut
With lamb, the cut calls the shots when it comes to choosing your dish. “You need to build the menu around the cut of lamb you have,” says Paul Kitching. “The cooking process and the equipment come second.”
Different cuts require very different cooking times, explains Kitching. “Lamb cutlets and chops are very lean so they’re best pan-fried. The leaner the meat, the quicker the cooking time,” he says. But while other parts of the meat might take longer to cook, they’re definitely worth investing the time in, according to the chef: “Lamb neck, shoulder and rump have working joints so they need more time to cook to help the connecting tissue melt. The slow process will ensure the meat is tender and incredibly flavoursome.”
Forbes adds: “Cooking styles vary with different cuts, for example the loin must be served pink and never over-cooked as it will be tough and a waste of money. It’s the most expensive cut so be careful when cooking. Whereas a belly or breast of lamb is wonderful cooked in confit-style like a duck leg, then rolled through flour, egg wash and bread crumbs and baked before serving with an anchovy mayonnaise, delicious. A saddle of lamb is brilliant for a posh dinner party, bone out and stuffed with wild garlic and dried tomato. I love that roasted lamb taste and the garlic taste really adds something special to it.”
So which cut is best? Berkmiller is sitting firmly on the fence on that one. “Each cut of lamb is different so in turn they’ll all have different flavours and textures too. Each will require a different cooking process but none are better than the other. Every piece of lamb will create fantastic dishes when cooked properly. A lamb leg bone out and cut like steak is beautiful. A belly rolled with mince and cooked slowly will have phenomenal flavours.”
Go the whole hog
Why settle for one cut when you can buy the whole thing? “Buying the whole animal is brilliant and allows me to use every cut of the carcass, so there’s no wastage,” says Forbes. “It’s a great way to play around with different cookery methods and to understand why different cuts cook differently and taste different. Team up with a neighbour and go halfers on a whole lamb and the cost reduces dramatically.”
According to Pallister, buying the whole carcass is becoming more popular: “Recently, in both domestic and professional kitchens, there’s been a shift in focus to ‘nose to tail’ eating, using the whole animal,” he explains. While still cherishing the traditional roasted leg, Pallister also enjoys trying out less celebrated parts: “I like to experiment with lesser-used cuts like the neck, belly and shoulder. Lamb offal is also wonderful – liver, kidney and heart - nothing needs to go to waste. I even find use for the suet in steam puddings.”
Try something different
While there’s no doubting the profound joy of a traditional roast, Pallister likes to journey beyond the flavours of these shores on occasion: “I simply love a slow-roasted leg of lamb, the meat falling off the bone, served with those wonderful roast juices,” he admits. “But I also love using lamb in Asian cooking, whether Indian or Thai.”
Johnstone echoes this sentiment: “Lamb has a wonderful unique natural flavour, which stands out on its own in dishes, but it also has the ability to be enhanced by stronger flavours. Curried lamb tastes wonderful, as does saffron braised lamb. “
Or you could try adding some sweet notes to a rack of lamb, suggests Berkmiller: “A rack of lamb will go extremely well with goat’s cheese, a mix of pears that have been slightly poached and some berries.”
• This article was produced in partnership with Quality Meat Scotland