British lamb is bought and admired across Europe and the world for its quality. It is sold in European restaurants at premium prices, and in this country is becoming more and more popular in restaurants of all grades.
However, the British generally eat less lamb than beef, pork or chicken. It might be suggested that the reason for this is threefold: cost, health factors and difficulties in cooking.
The cost factor can be quickly dismissed - lamb is incredibly flexible in price because of the variety of cuts. As for healthy eating, 90% of lamb is reared by natural methods, fed off the land, untouched by hormones and growth promoters, and the recent BSE scare has left lamb with an untarnished image.
Cooking with it couldn't be easier, either. Take a fresh leg of British lamb, gently score, season, stud with rosemary and garlic, baste with olive oil and roast to your liking. Even when well done, lamb has a special quality.
When I was a commis we carved roast barons and legs of lamb from a gleaming silver trolley in front of the diners, but times and trends change and it has been many years since I carved like that. As with many chefs, plated food has been my interest and I have experimented with new cuts, flavours and presentations - always ensuring, though, that all those classical flavours are retained.
I am fortunate enough to have my butcher, Mick Treagust, a couple of minutes' walk away. He says that sales of lamb are increasing, though at a sedate rather than a meteoric rate. Leg of lamb, as a joint, seems to be most favoured by his customers, but sales of more expensive joints, such as best ends and prepared racks, are growing in popularity.
Treagust is convinced that television coverage, with commercials showing beautifully prepared racks, and chefs demonstrating exquisite cutlets in a plated form that is perfect for home entertaining, have been good news for lamb. And he maintains that the Chernobyl scare had more effect on his sales of Welsh lamb than any links with BSE.
In the restaurant trade, prime cuts and joints will always continue to be the choice of most caterers but cheaper and more flavoursome cuts now seem to be selling, even in big-name restaurants - lamb chumps, for example, now appear regularly. Bought as a piece of chump weighing about 500-600g, whether roasted on its own fat as a small joint or battered out slightly and tied in a small roll, lamb creates a versatile and tasty main course.
Another cut now being used more widely is lamb shanks. This reasonably cheap cut is easy to obtain and to prepare. When married with classical flavours and gently braised, an exquisite dish can be created, with the added bonus of versatility in plate presentation because of its portion size.
Small legs of lamb, too - once boned, sinewed and trimmed completely, rolled and tied and then cut into even-sized noisettes - are brilliant for portion control and presentation. Cooking with these cuts involves a little more work but the results and costs are worth the effort. Obviously, new butchering techniques can achieve these cuts, thus reducing the work in the kitchen to cooking and presentation.
Weather permitting, the lamb season begins around March/April and runs through to October/November. During the earlier months, when the first spring lambs are produced, the cost is highest but the meat is often at its least tasty. As the months go by, the flavour improves, as does the cost equation.
As a rule, May, June and July are the best months for buying as the cost dips and settles for a time. From August to November, lamb is normally at its cheapest, but be careful when you buy towards the end of the lamb season - insist on being supplied with younger lamb so as to avoid any toughness or unwanted excess fat.
Knowing exactly what you want from your lamb is extremely important. All chefs have their individual styles and specifications - spring lamb, young lamb, older lamb, even hogget (lamb more than 11 months old). Having made your initial choice, the cut and weight you require must be considered.
The butchery specification list is long, but be forthright and explain carefully. Always use a quality butcher you can trust. If he knows exactly what you want, he will help you to avoid unnecessary hassle and costly waste.
British lamb is available almost all year round, so there is no need to buy or make do with frozen lamb. If lamb is looked after, it does freeze well but, like other meats, it will leach blood on defrosting - avoid frozen lamb if you can.
Toughness in lamb is normally due to two causes: an older beast, or bad handling before it reaches you. The latter is more likely. Lamb carcasses must cool slowly after slaughter; rapid chilling creates cold shortening (shrinkage and tightening, resulting in toughness), which will affect even the most tender meat, and no amount of hanging will rectify it.
When buying lamb joints or particular cuts, check the product carefully on delivery. Inspect the colour, size and fat-to-meat ratio. Make sure there is no dryness to the flesh and that the bone has been cut accurately. A good way to ensure your lamb is fresh is to smell the cut or sawn bone - it will be obvious if it is not fresh.
Buying a carcass of lamb also needs care. A quality animal will have an all-round good proportion and be stocky in appearance. It should have good square shoulders with a short and tight neck and short, almost stumpy, hind legs with a show of pink meat through the surface fat.
This also applies to the saddle. The joint and visible bones should show that the ribs have a dark separation between the vertebrae, with only a small amount of suet around the kidneys. A carcass in prime season need only be hung for four to five days, possibly a day longer later in the season. It should weigh between 13kg and 20kg, and the meat should be of a pale cherry-red colour, according to the age of the lamb - it darkens gradually as the animal gets older - and the carcass size.
The shelf life of lamb is shorter than that of beef, and the meat can begin to spoil, even at good temperatures, within a week. On delivery, make certain that the meat has no dark or dry surfaces which would indicate that it has been cut and prepared too far in advance of delivery. If this has happened, it will shorten the life of your valuable purchase. In fact, because of its limited shelf life, it is best to buy only the quantity you need at any one time.
With a reliable butcher who is aware of your weekly consumption, you can have a one- or two-day turnover of quality meat, which is vital in small kitchens with limited refrigeration space. So, talk to your butcher regularly like a good friend - it pays.
Once your lamb has been prepared to your satisfaction it is important to keep it in top condition. Marinating is not recommended with most prime lamb, unless that is what you particularly require. I prefer to prepare my own lamb and wrap it securely in lightly oiled clingfilm (possibly also sprinkled with a little chopped rosemary, garlic or thyme). This retains the freshness and introduces gentle flavouring.
If larger cuts or joints of meat, such as best ends, legs or barons, are being stored, then try to keep them hung. To prevent the exposed meat or fat from drying, wrap completely, but lightly, in clingfilm, which will help to maintain freshness and avoid discoloration and dryness of the fat areas.
We all have different preferences and requirements when it comes to the butchering of our meat. Larger operations obviously find it necessary to have all, or most, of the butchery done in advance, and with new and more tailored butchery techniques this is widely practised. However, remember that the butcher has to earn a living, and excess fat and unwanted extras all weigh.
Obviously, doing your own butchering has the advantage of achieving exactly what you want, but it takes time. The best method is to rely on your butcher to undertake the initial preparation, then complete the final stages yourself.
From experience, I have discovered that most butchers will not charge any extra to take your preparation a stage or two further than normal. For example, for racks of lamb or cutlets, I may ask my butcher to skin the best end and cut it into two, but I would personally do any chining, rib-bone scraping, sizing and general trimming.
This is all common sense, really, but I would urge you to woo your butcher - it could be the most beneficial "chatting up" of your career.