Sacrificing lamb

Eating lamb at Easter is a strong cultural tradition rooted in religion – the only problem is it may be out of season. Hugh Thomas finds out more.

If we’re conscious of eating fruit and vegetables at the right time of the year, for reasons of flavour and sustainability, should we not want the same of meat?

At the time you read this, about three quarters of the British population will be making their plans for Easter celebration. For many of them, that entails buying a lamb joint for their Sunday roast. But however well-ingrained this custom is, it might be ill-advised. 

“Basically, Easter is the wrong time to be eating lamb,” says Owen Singer, who owns Penleigh Farm Butchers. Up until a couple of years ago, Singer was rearing his own lamb for his shop in Frome. “Inherently, lambs are only starting to pop out now [early March].

“If you think you need to get lamb from the end of March, then they need to be born in January, when there’s not much grass and the weather’s shit. So is that the right thing to do? All because, by tradition, we need to eat lamb on Easter Sunday?”

And a relatively recently found tradition, at that. England was a powerhouse of the European wool trade in the Middle Ages, which made eating lamb almost unthinkable. Doing so would waste the profitable fleeces it would otherwise produce throughout its life, so mutton – that is, meat from an older sheep – was much preferred. As Mrs Beeton wrote much later in her book of household management in 1861: “Mutton is undoubtedly the meat most generally used in families.”

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Eating lamb at Easter is a cultural tradition.

Post-industrialisation, the tables turned, and gradually wool became seen as the by-product of sheep cultivated for their meat. As the UK population rocketed in the Victorian era, so too did the need to feed all those new mouths, so for sheep farmers, the pressure was on to transition from wool to meat production. 

As wool devalued, it was pointless and expensive for a farmer to keep an unproductive sheep in their flock. Like with veal, it became preferable to send young male sheep, surplus to requirements, to the abattoir as soon as is realistic. Unlike veal, there’s also strong, convenient religious connotations with the animal. Reverend Liz Dudley says the Old Testament is riddled with references to lambs, sheep and shepherds. But it is the plagues of Egypt in the Book of Exodus which are the most telling.

“The last plague that God sends is that the angel of death will pass over the land, and will kill the firstborn of everything,” she says. “And the instruction was that they would take the blood of a lamb and mark their tools with 

their blood, and they should roast – not boil – the lamb, ready to flee. From that story we get the tradition of Passover, and our date for Easter is linked to Passover.”

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Sheep are common across the UK but mutton is still rarely eaten.

Even so, lamb as a symbol of sacrifice reaches its peak in John’s gospel, and it is perhaps here where lamb is most closely linked to the modern religious foundations of Easter. “Here,” says Dudley, “Jesus is the lamb of God, and is the sacrifice. In the way that they sacrificed lamb – which took them so far in the relationship with God – Jesus comes along and moves it up a level by being the sacrifice that enables us to find a way back to God.”

If you eat grass-fed lamb at Eastertime, it’s likely to be from climates opposing ours, like that of New Zealand. The other possibility is that your Easter lamb is from a breed not limited by the seasons; as Singer puts it:, “it’s up for it all year round,” which was the case with his Dorset sheep. “But you have to keep lamb inside, and make sure there’s plenty of dry food like hay as there’s no energy in the grass,” he explains. 

A stocky breed with a thick coat, Dorsets might be built for the colder months. “But it’s not great,” says Singer. “Keeping them inside you think would be the nice thing to do, but they get too hot and sweaty, and there’s an increase in mastitis however much straw you put down. Whatever you have to do for them isn’t what I’d call optimal. What I would call optimal is having lambs pop out in March on a beautiful spring day so they can do their thing in the field.”

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Winter lambs are kept inside because there’s no energy in the grass. 

Lambs need at least six months to mature before they’re ready for slaughter, but even by that point they haven’t put down much weight or fat. Perhaps, then, the issue is less ‘why we shouldn’t eat lamb at Easter’, and more ‘why we shouldn’t eat lamb at all’? 

At 12 months but under two years, lamb becomes hogget, which is cheaper and arguably has more flavour. The difference, Singer says, is simply: “People aren’t paying a premium for something that’s not as good.” Though hogget might not always be as tender, it is less likely to be fed indoors on animal feed rather than grass, and is an alternative to ’seasonal’ grass-fed lamb shipped in from New Zealand.  

The meat of the matter

Because grass isn’t as sweet or plentiful in winter, ruminants like deer, cattle, and goats could, or should, be considered seasonal. Less so with pigs, which naturally breed all year round. Eating at the right time of year also comes into play with some fish and shellfish, especially in the interest of giving stocks enough time to recover. Dover sole is at its best in the summer, for example, while monkfish is best eaten during the winter months. 

This piece was originally published in the spring print edition of Wicked Leeks. You can read the full magazine for free on Issuu.

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