WNC sheep farmers are cheering now that lamb is the new pork.
by Hanna Raskin . photos by Naomi Johnson
Lamb is no longer a euphemism for wimpy shrink-wrapped muttonchops with a side of mint jelly. While the traditional lamb market has been in steady decline since the early 1970s, trend spotters say grass-fed, sustainably raised lamb could help rejuvenate demand for the long-neglected meat. The Conde Nast foodie website Epicurious.com declared lamb “the new pork” for 2010. And while the heyday of Julia Child’s lamb stew may be long gone, the Food Network’s celeb chef Rachael Ray seems to love lamb—from chops to kabobs to Moroccan chili—on her show 30 Minute Meals. Trendy dishes like lamb spring rolls are showing up on big-city restaurant menus, and locally, you can find a lamb T-bone or a lamb ragout at places like Zambra and Table.
That’s good news for farmers like Dawn Robertson and Molly Nicholie. In Yancey County, Nicholie just expanded her flock at Maple Creek Farm to 30 ewes. Yes, it’s tough to deal with the lingering perception that lamb should be reserved for festive occasions—or the fact that our region has an overwhelming preference for pork. But her savviest customers have lately been catching on to lamb, a deceptively rich meat that can have much less fat and calories than its barnyard colleagues.
Sheep are also much easier to raise than, say, cattle, on Western North Carolina’s steep slopes. They’re gentler on the land, according to Robertson, causing much less erosion mess than cattle. Robertson, who’s been farming sheep at East Fork Farm in Madison County for 14 years, says her flock of 100 ewes started with a single goat. “Goats tend to test your fences,” she laughs. The goat’s mischievous behavior persuaded her to switch her focus to sheep, which are much more peaceful creatures.
The average American annually eats less than a pound of lamb, or one burly lamb burger. But the influx of immigrants from places where lamb is more common may help further boost the Southeast’s burgeoning lamb scene. A February 2010 study prepared for the American Sheep Industry Association showed that 37 percent of ethnic populations in the U.S. eat lamb regularly (at least once a month or more).
Robertson says her customers are increasingly experimenting with different cuts of lamb and all sorts of new dishes. She’s especially fond of a merguez recipe Zambra devised to showcase her product. And as for serving lamb with mint jelly? “It almost hides rather than enhance the flavor,” Robertson says. “I don’t even advise it.”