- Updated version of story published in the Times 28 March 2013
I can’t imagine Easter without a slow-roast leg of lamb. As crucial as a Cadbury’s Creme Egg. The tradition comes from the Old Testament, but this year there is a more contemporary reason to buy lamb: British sheep farmers need our support. After a season of terrible prices, they are now trudging through a second winter, in the middle of lambing. On Tuesday a Cumbria farmer told BBC Radio 4 of having to dig pregnant ewes out of snow drifts and of many new-born lambs dying from hypothermia. “Buy our lamb to help us through this,” Alistair Mackintosh pleaded.
So I went shopping. But there was no British lamb at all in the Co-op, only the stuff that’s shipped frozen from New Zealand. At Waitrose – a shop that loves to boast of its “commitment to British farmers” – there were a few bits of Welsh lamb (I live in Scotland) on the meat counter but the fridge was filled with Kiwi sheep, too.
Waitrose’s rack of New Zealand lamb – the luscious section of upper ribs and fillet – was priced at an amazing £30.99 a kilo – £10 more than the Welsh. British sheepfarmers were recently getting not much more than that for the whole animal. For the shops, the best thing about lamb at Easter and Passover is the fact that you can make so much money from it.
At my local butcher in Edinburgh, Bower’s, manager Mark Smith said darkly that the supermarkets ship in Kiwi lamb just because there’s more profit in it. At wholesale he’d found New Zealand lamb £2.50 to £5 a kilo cheaper than British – but that price difference doesn’t get handed to the customer. The National Farmers’ Union backs this accusation. In February, it says, NZ lamb was selling at 23 per cent less than a year ago, while the price in the shops was only down 12 per cent.
This week legs of NZ and British lamb are the same price at Waitrose – £12.99 a kilo. With profits like that to be made, it’s hardly surprising that over this winter the supermarkets have bought in more New Zealand lamb than at any time this decade.
Waitrose’s spokesman told me that they stocked NZ lamb as well as British because of a “best in-season” policy. The shop wants to provide lamb that has been fattened on grass. At this time of year most British lamb will have been “finished” on grain or root vegetables, especially after a year of bad weather when grasses have not flourished. (Lamb is any sheep under one year old: older, it is hogget or mutton). But is winter-fed lamb so much less good than lamb that’s been frozen and shrink-wrapped at slaughter and then spent six or seven weeks at sea?
We put the two lambs to the test. I served the family cutlets, the little chops taken from the neck: each got two perfect jewels of pink fillet, and a little rib to chew on. They looked identical, but they were grown 11,000 miles apart: one was Scottish, the other from New Zealand. I dressed them with a little oil, salt and some rosemary, and put them under a hot grill for a couple of minutes. I didn’t tell the family which cutlet was which. We ate them with new potatoes and a rowan and redcurrant jelly.
The Scottish lamb won 4 votes to zero: “More flavour, juicier – a million times better.” The New Zealand lamb wasn’t bad: a little sweet, a bit bland, as you might expect from something that has spent a couple of months on ice. What probably made more difference than the diet was that the Scottish lamb from Bower’s had been dry-aged – hung for two weeks. And the Kiwi lamb cutlets, bought at Waitrose, were £4 a kilo more expensive. I think I can quite fairly advise you to buy British. Our farmers are having a tough time – and they produce the best lamb.