Forget spring lamb. Summer is undeniably the best time of year to enjoy British lamb at its seasonal best.
We’re all used to hearing that Easter Sunday lunch wouldn’t be complete without a leg of lamb on the table. After all, there’s almost no better hallmark of spring than the sight of young lambs jumping around in lush pasture (amongst daffodils of course). However, when you think about it, this makes little seasonal sense. Surely spring is when lambs are born, not slaughtered? A few months of outdoor grazing later, and it’s summer, rather than spring that makes for the peak season and tastiest time for British lamb.
Why is summer best for British lamb?
Lamb born in the spring come into their seasonal best in the summer, from around mid-June and into September and beyond. They’ve had time to graze properly outdoors on the best grass of the year, and have matured enough to develop a more substantial ‘true lamb’ flavour.
Where does spring lamb come from?
Up until around now, a lot of the lamb sold at supermarkets is imported from countries with longer lambing seasons such as New Zealand. The British lamb market at Easter is sustained by lambs born in autumn and reared indoors with their mothers’ milk during the cold months. This lamb is paler and has a milder flavour compared with lamb born in the spring and raised on grass outdoors in the summer.
There is such a thing as lamb ‘terroir’ too, where differences in flavour, taste and texture arise depending on where they’ve grazed and the breed. Romney lamb raised on natural grasses and samphire of the salt marshes in Kent has a rich flavour and natural marbled fat. Head to the Shetlands and you’ll find a leaner meat from native breed lamb raised on its heather-filled grassland. (Shetland Lamb enjoys the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in the UK.) Farmers Jen and Andy at Fernhill Farm who rear sheep, pigs and cattle in the Mendip Hills describe their lamb as having a “distinctive flavour gained from a forage diet that is part of this green and pleasant land”, says Andy. “Sheep have the ability to harvest minerals deep within the soil when they eat a nutrient-rich mix of a variety of plants and grasses,” Jen explains.
On why later in the year is makes for better-tasting, better for you British lamb, Jen says: “During the summer months, mature plants put their energy into setting their seeds for the survival of their species, thus bringing up deep-rooted minerals that sheep (as a ruminant animal which can break down grass) can digest and release to us. Slow maturing lambs fed on mature plants naturally bring beneficial qualities to our menus, right through to autumn and winter too.” Not baaad huh.