A few months ago I was at a dinner with organic and natural wine-makers. It was a beautiful spring day. The long table on a terrace overlooking a fruitful valley was dotted with bottles of wine, white, rosé, red, smoked fish, fresh veggies and salads, the finest Spanish saucissons… a real feast.
Chatting away with the wine-makers in front of me, a couple to be described as laid back, humble, and even rustic, we got to talking about eating meat and facing the death of the animals we eat. I’m not from a rural background, so the killing of animals was invisible for most of my life. As the picky child that I was, I only ate meat very well cooked, if not blackened. I had the idea that cooking could turn a piece of dead animal into something less savage.
Later in life, as an occasional meat-eater who prefers it rare, I decided that I should know how to face the origins of anything I eat, including the death of any animal I eat. I have witnessed chicken-killing and helped with the plucking and emptying by hand. I enjoy good meat, though I might be a vegetarian if I had to raise my own hand to slice the throat of any living creature. I am thankful that some people can overcome that awful moment, and I can accept that it is savage, and that somewhere in there, I too am savage.
During the meal, I learned that this wine-maker raises sheep. As someone who has done this for years, who has slaughtered animals on occasion, but usually takes them to the slaughter-house, he said that it is still a difficult task. It is with a heavy heart that he drops them off to be picked up later, chopped-up in vacuum sealed bags. But he loves to have animals, he knows which animal a leg of lamb came from. He knows that it had a good life in the fields, and that it was well cared for.
The next week, Bastien and I met him next to the slaughter-house, where he was picking up neat brown boxes of vacuum-sealed lamb. These animals had spent a little extra time in the fields and found some sweet spots to eat, so they were well-fattened and larger than usual. We went home with a few bottles of red and white wine and a box of lamb chops, leg of lamb, shoulder of lamb, and some different pieces for stewing, all together, half of a lamb. In other words, we had half of a young sheep that spent part of its life dwelling among the vines that grew the grapes that made the wine that we would drink with it.
At home, we divided the pieces for freezing and for the fridge. The first piece to cook: shoulder of lamb. We found a simple recipe using thyme and garlic and served with little potatoes that were cooked under the meat.
At the table, we stopped talking when we bit into the meat. Paired with the wine, you could taste the delicate peace of sheep munching away at the grass in fields of vines…the vines themselves collecting sunlight above and minerals below, probably happy to have animal company for part of the year. A little glimpse of harmony, a little sacred moment.
Shoulder of lamb sits upon a bed of small potatoes, ready to be placed in the oven
recipe for roast shoulder of lamb:
adapted from The Complete Robuchon, by Joël Robuchon
1 lamb shoulder (2 pounds)
trimmings and chopped-up bones (or small potatoes instead)
neutral oil (I used olive)
4 sprigs of thyme
3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and lightly crushed under your palm
fleur de sel
Remove the lamb from the fridge 20 minutes in advance. Prepare a cooling rack or small overturned plate over a large plate.
Preheat the oven to 460°F or 240°C at least 10 minutes in advance, with a rack in the middle position.
Pat the lamb all over with oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Shower with thyme leaves by stripping two of the sprigs.
Spread the potatoes (or trimmings) and garlic cloves on the bottom of a baking dish. Season with salt, pepper and oil. Place the lamb on top, skin side up, so that it does not touch the dish, but only the potatoes, or trimmings.
Put the roast in the oven for 15 minutes. Don’t open the oven door during this time. Take out, turn with tongs, and cook for another 15 minutes. Again, don’t open the oven door, or heat will escape.
Take out and turn off the oven. Place the meat onto a cooling rack and sprinkle with the rest of the thyme. Tent with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the pan juices. Add 8 tbs water to the pan, stir with a wooden spatula to loosen any sticky bits. Season with salt and pepper if needed and place back in the oven that is no longer on but still hot.
To serve, slice the meat, cover with a spoonful of cooking juices, and sprinkle with fleur de sel.