Laura Mason and Catherine Brown surely did, ages before me, as their seminal book Traditional Foods of Britain inspired my first attempt at cooking North Ronaldsay lamb.
A legend in gourmet circles and a harsh reality for the farmers that raise it, the lamb comes from North Ronaldsay sheep which are almost feral. They live on the rocky beaches of the northernmost Orkney island, kept from inland pasture by a 13mile long stone dyke which is repaired each year as part of the North Ronaldsay Sheep Festival in early August. The hefted sheep have evolved slowly and now seem perfectly adapted to a diet of just seaweed on the beaches which are their home. To my palette the lamb has an earthiness and attitude which not apparent in the salt marsh lamb of South Wales or Normandy. The lambs are also a very different shape in terms of carcass, with small legs and little in the way of belly meat or muscle in the loin and best end.
My first attempt at cooking the lamb was with a boned-out shoulder from last season, which I managed to buy when there were still Seville oranges for sale here on Orkney. Mason & Brown inspired me with the observation that a sauce of Sevilles is a traditional way of serving the lamb. How that came about requires research that I have yet to begin, yet alone complete, but it inspired me to slow roast the lamb on a small pile of beremeal (to start thickening the gravy at the end of cooking), with sprigs of rosemary and 3 sliced Sevilles under the meat. With the lamb resting I then finished the gravy with the vegetable water, sieved it and added marmalade with seasonings. The flavour was Fantastic but I was relieved when our new friends Susan and John announced that North Ronaldsay lamb is not known for it’s tenderness! There is always a big worry for a cook when you entertain new friends and think they will expect too much. These guys passed the test well with their kind comments!
My second attempt was much more successful as I opted to stew the lamb. We were back in Sussex and I had invited foodie friends to dinner so took another boned out shoulder with me – frozen, in hand luggage, which was good as our suitcase somehow did not travel with us!! By mid-March Sevilles were long since gone and so blood oranges and marmalade had to provide the citrus notes in the dish. I stewed the meat slowly for 3 hours on the hob with onions, the sliced oranges with their pith and some fennel seeds. I then let the stew cool and skimmed off the surface fat before adding a small jar of marmalade and cooking for a further hour. Meanwhile I had dried and crushed some more orange peel – which was not necessary but delicious – and added that with some kale (another Orkney staple) and some cavelo nero. I had also cooked some shredded kale with a little oil to make a Chinese-restaurant style crispy topping which I then mixed with some shredded wild garlic leaves, the first of the season, for the top of the stew when serving. Wow – what a success, with spicy potato wedges and a fresh salad of baby leaves: it was a meal which got our friends to realise that we have not moved to an ingredient abyss and that the food scene on Orkney is every bit as good as I had been telling them! PS – of course we all tucked in far too quickly for me to take a picture of Recipe Number 2 – you’ll just have to believe me and one day I will make it again…