Optimism, like a burst of sunshine or a bunch of forced daffs can be a short-lived thing at this time of year. There may or may not be snow, but the north wind doth continue to blow, and we're on a bit of a cusp, food and drink-wise.
Easter is early this year but fortunately we have continuity on one very important ingredient. There's Dorset lamb, the first of our home breeds to come onstream and it won't be long before the British season is in full swing.
It pays to be clear about how lamb evolves throughout the year. The expression 'horses for courses' is best avoided after the scandal surrounding processed meat earlier this year, so let's just say that 'spring' lamb, largely indoor-reared and delicate in flavour, is more suited to concentrated whites, gastronomic pinks and elegant pinots than bold 'Med reds'.
Any butcher worth his salt marsh will tell you that the lambkins gambolling in March meadows will taste of a great deal more from late April onward, having come of age on lush pasture and ready now for claret and similarly digestible reds. As the year progresses, flavour gathers momentum and fuller Rhône-style reds tempt the tastebuds, especially with the arrival in late June of the stronger, darker flavours of wonderful slow-growing breeds like Herdwick.
A year in the life of a lamb culminates in the transition to hogget or, as I like to call it lamb dressed as mutton and all the better for it in flavour-packed slow-cooked shoulders and shanks and the like. Rewinding here, the leonine part of the month is a good time for these, with warming syrahs and zinfandels.
For the more tender end of March- going-on-April, I'm evangelical about Welsh lamb, which delivers the balance of freshness and tenderness that goes so well with the young vegetables, but New Zealand has my warrant for the wine: Greywacke Pinot Gris is a fantastic match or just about any pinot noir. A mature claret, rather than a young and feisty one, bristling with tannins, is also a treat. Or why not follow the advice of David Ling of Hugel, guest speaker at the January 2013 dinner, celebrating 20 years of The Society in France, and try it with Jubilee Riesling.
- 1.5k lamb shoulder, cut into generous chunks
- 3 tbs olive oil
- 1 tbs plain flour
- A teaspoon of sugar
- 250g of little shallots, blanched for 30 seconds and peeled
- 250g baby carrots, peeled.
- 150g little turnips, peeled and trimmed
- 250g green beans, trimmed
- 300g little new potatoes, scrubbed
- 200g peas, shelled weight , or use frozen
- a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and rosemary, wrapped in a spiral of lemon peel
- 2 plump cloves of garlic, finely sliced
- 50g butter
- Salt, pepper
- Fresh continental parsley, leaves only, to garnish
If the carrots and turnips are toddlers rather than babies, cut them into batons or bite-sized pieces. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron casserole and brown the lamb, in batches. Remove and throw in the shallots. Turn them in the oil, sprinkle with the sugar and let them caramelise a bit. Remove and reserve.
Return the meat to the casserole, sprinkle with the flour and cook for a minute. Stir in the garlic, and add 750ml water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and keep in a warm place. Melt the butter in a frying pan and when frothing nicely, add the carrots, turnips and potatoes. Coat in the butter then add to the lamb cooking liquor in the casserole. Cook for 25 minutes or until the potatoes are just tender. Now add the beans, peas, onions and lamb, season to taste, cover and simmer the whole lot very gently on the top of the stove for an hour.
Check the seasoning, garnish with fresh parsley and serve from the pot.
This recipe first appeared in Wine Without Fuss in Spring, 2009