Irish Lamb Stew (or, Lamb’s Neck Stew)

Don’t let anyone try to tell you that it’s hard to raise and slaughter your own meat. Nothing could be easier, or more fulfilling.  Suddenly, buying meat from the grocery store feels like paying someone to come into your house to brush your teeth.   It’s absolutely ridiculous.   Raising as much of your own sustenance as possible isn’t a lost skill, as much as it is a lost part of what makes being a human enjoyable.

Above is a photo of Irish Lamb Stew, or as some call it, Lamb’s Neck Stew. It was also last night’s dinner. The stew is a traditional peasant recipe from Great Britain dating back many hundreds of years. Inexpensive and readily available ingredients were key, mainly lamb neck and root vegetables. I used neck of lamb (along with the neck bones for added flavor) and vegetables from the garden including whole young potatoes, carrots, onions, leeks, peas, and parsley.

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First Time Lamb Butcher, part 2

Here’s the rest of the photos from last month’s lamb slaughter. After letting the halved carcass rest in the fridge for a few days, we brought it inside to make our final cuts. We started with the upper portion of the animal.

The larger cuts begin to take shape.

Breast fillets, shank steaks, shoulder roasts, neck fillets, boneless leg of lamb…the meat is piling up.

 

Cuts are packed for storage in the deep freezer.

People rave about the flavor of Katahdin lamb. But still you expect that some sort of lamby, gamey taste will be present.  After a few hours of slicing, chopping, and sawing, a few pieces were cooked for the first taste. Wow!  It’s every bit as delicious as they say…maybe even better than they say?  This is some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted and fortunately we’ve a deep freezer full of it.  Lamb number 2 will be slaughtered tomorrow which should satisfy our red meat needs well into the winter.

A juicy cut of shoulder steak with fresh Beurre De Rocquencourt beans from the garden.

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First Time Lamb Butcher

The time has come to slaughter our first lamb. We were going to bring it live to a butcher where it would have stood around for hours in a strange environment, before eventually being killed and processed.  A few days later you pay the butcher and bring home your meat.  But bringing it to a butcher didn’t seem quite right.  As soon as an animal is separated from the herd it becomes stressed, so at a meat processor it would be stressed for many hours at least.  Plus, why pay someone else for what I should be doing in the first place?  We’ve decided that for us, home butchery is the best option.

So last week was butcher day, and it was mostly straightforward and simple. The first step is to choose the lamb. Our first candidate was a black male lamb, 4 months old and already 90 pounds.  He was pulled from the herd and quickly brought behind an out-building where it was killed with a bullet to the head.  If you have your equipment ready to go, this process takes only 5 minutes.  Had we decided to use a butcher, It would’ve taken 5 minutes just to load the lamb into the truck.  Again, you want the beast to be under stress for as little time as possible.  Using a razor-sharp knife, the throat was then slit, and the deceased lamb was hung upside-down from the tractor scoop to bleed out.

As soon as the blood was drained we started the skinning process. This is not a difficult job but was slow for us first-timers. We took off too much fat in a few places (rookie mistake) but overall did a decent job. Then the animal was gutted, with the liver, heart and kidneys being saved to feed the dogs.  After a quick wash, we cut the carcass in half with a bone saw and hung it up in a converted refrigerator for a few days to rest. This allows the meat to age and develop more flavor before the final cuts are made.  Staring at 37 pounds of fresh, high-end meat from our own farm feels fantastic, but we’ll have to wait a few more days to see how it actually tastes.

 

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Lambs and Dogs

 

A few Saturdays ago the first of the sheep went into labor, and as usual it happened late at night right before bed.  You always want to be present when an animal gives birth but when the clock hit 1AM and the ewe was still groaning and shifting with nothing to show for it, I went inside to sleep. The following morning after breakfast it was back to the barn to see (hopefully) a happy mom and a few new lambs.  Walking up to barn seemed strange though, it was unusually quiet and there were no baby animal sounds like I was expecting.  Instead, I saw a huge fresh hole dug underneath the door to the lambing stall and a bunch of bedding hay pulled out.  In such situations the following thoughts will run through your head:  “Something got into the barnyard and killed the new lambs…or maybe all the sheep!  No, the livestock dogs wouldn’t have allowed that to happen. But maybe they’re the ones who did it. They killed the lambs they were supposed to protect, now I’m gonna kill them!”

It was a relief to finally look inside and see a tired ewe and two new lambs nursing away.  I was so fixated on watching them that I almost didn’t notice one of the dogs poking its head through the hole under the door.

Then it all made sense.  While the ewe was giving birth, her screams of pain must have driven the dogs insane.  Unable to reach her in the closed stall, the Pyrenees heroically dug a massive hole to rescue their friend but upon finding no predator, they instead sat, watched, and guarded.  Good dogs!  Their protective instinct continues to amaze.

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A Successful Sheep Purchase

If you don’t succeed at buying decent sheep the first time, try and try again.   And so we did, this time heading West to a farm in the mountains of central North Georgia.  The farm is run by a former cattleman who got tired of dealing with the massive animals and the higher cost of raising them and now exclusively raises sheep. Right off the bat I got a good feeling about this place. The farmer was ready and waiting and his property looked clean and well-run.  After a few pleasantries we leaned on his fence to look at the flock and discussed raising them. While we we talked he began giving verbal commands to his Border Collie…”Come by”,  and the dog moved clockwise behind the sheep, pushing them forward to a smaller pasture where we they could be sorted for purchase.  The farmer continued with more commands: “Away!” and the dog immediately switched to a counter-clockwise position, pushing them toward an open gate which they eventually trotted through.   “That’ll do!” and the dog ran right back to the farmer’s side looking happy as can be.  The first sheep farmer we visited took over two hours to separate her sheep, this farmer (or rather, his dog) did the same job in ten minutes.  It was one of the most beautiful displays of an animal working with a human that I’ve ever seen.

We soon picked out three fat ewes, all pregnant from a giant ram with excellent genetics. Once back at home there was no need to announce our new arrivals to the rest of our herd, the animals all sensed something was going on and ran to the truck as soon as we pulled through the gate.

After some initial sniffing and greeting through the cage, the new sheep integrated into the herd just fine and had a peaceful first night.

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A Failed Attempt at Purchasing Sheep

We’ve decided to add meat sheep to our farm.  Meat sheep are just that…sheep raised for meat.  The variety we’ll be raising are Katahdin sheep which not only taste delicious but have the added benefit of shedding their coat in the summer, so being able to skip the shearing process is a huge benefit.  If possible you want to start out with animals that have good genetics so purchasing them from a reputable farmer is a must.  After months of corresponding with regional breeders we settled on a farm three hours to the North where we’d make our purchase.

Everything seemed great until the moment that we actually met the farmer. The paperwork showing breeding and health history she was supposed to have?  She lost it and couldn’t produce backup copies.   The available pregnant ewes that we were sent pictures of?   Those were suddenly no longer for sale.  Other comparable ewes that ARE for sale?  No problem, but they’re mixed in with the rams and would have to be separated into a different pen.  Two hours later she finally had the ewes separated into a single pen…only to have them immediately break out of the gate which was held closed by a single strand of twine.  What a fiasco…missing paperwork,  incorrectly marked ear tags,  pens filled with poop a foot deep, prices suddenly jumping by $100, a farm seemingly held together by scotch tape and string, and a farmer who didn’t know her animals.

Enough was enough and the only thing that made my wasted time seem worthwhile was telling her why we wouldn’t be buying from her.

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