Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sandra Had A Little Lamb

The key word in the post's title is had. Technically, I still have him, he's just neatly cut up, vacuum-sealed and flash frozen. Yes, the time finally came for the one and only lamb to ever been born at Painted Hand Farm to embark on his own journey from the pasture to the plate. 

He was born unexpectedly from an adult ewe one of my  Muslim customers had asked me to source for mutton. "Please find me something older. My mother is coming from Pakistan and wants meat that has some flavor--no lamb."

"She's coming two,  hasn't lambed yet and has always looked thin," said my sheep-farming neighbor to whom I had gone. And so I thought it was a perfect match.

But only the day prior to the customer's planned trip to the butcher where he would dispatch the animal in accordance to his dietary laws, the ewe dropped a nearly nine-pound healthy ram lamb and proceeded to raise him despite the terrible toll it took on her body. Sixty days after giving birth (what would be a typical weaning time), the skinny ewe dropped dead.

Never having raised sheep before, I gave my inexperience a lofty goal of having him for Easter dinner and so the spring holiday became his namesake. He bonded with Emma, the cream cow and thrived as the months went by. Busy with farmers market, the idea of having a big Easter dinner didn't materialize. Plan B--he'll be a special guest of honor at the annual Labor Day Goat Roast.

The wet summer brought about abundance in the pastures and Easter grew larger as the months rolled by.  When Labor Day arrived, two different issues arose granting the ram lamb yet another reprieve of the knife. First, he was big and I feared he would dress out to be too large for my Kane BBQ rotisserie. The weatherman issued the second stay. There was a darn good chance of a deluge during the annual picnic and I expected an abbreviated guest list. Roasting two large animals would be wasteful.

By the time fall rolled around, he was looking mighty good. Tail and testicles intact, several of my Eid customers attempted to purchase him for their holiday dinner, but I politely declined. Yes, I'm a farmer and yes, I'm a businesswoman, but I'm also an eater with a great love for the food that comes out of my pastures.

As the fall forages diminished, the day came to start loading everyone on the trailer who would not be over-wintering, Easter included.

"Where did that come from?" questioned my USDA processor.

"He was born and raised on my farm." It was an honest reply.

"But you hate sheep." He knew me well.

"Ah, but I love lamb," I replied in a tone that made no mistake as to my gastronomic preferences. 

As a livestock producer, one of my favorite parts of the job is Quality Control. As I loaded the van at the processors with lamb, veal and goat, I made sure to set aside a choice package of loin chops to start thawing so I could cook them later that evening.
Christmas Dinner!
A smoking hot cast iron skillet, fresh cracked pepper, rosemary-infused sea salt and the lamb from my pasture that I had watched grow. Will I miss him? Kind of....

Although he stayed inside the fence (something my sheep-farming friends told me wouldn't happen), when the herd would walk out to the far pasture in the morning to graze, sometimes they would leave him when they came up to the alleyway for shade and water later in the day. Even though he walked that path with the herd day after day, he would stand alone in the middle of the field screaming at the top of his lungs as if the Big Bad Wolf were out there chewing on his leg.

Anyone who has ever heard a sheep in distress knows it's an awful sound. Inevitably, the phone would ring.

A wonderful pairing from Ojai Vineyards...thank you Cindy & Bill!
"Hello, this is your neighbor calling and I think there's something wrong with one of your animals." With the farm located on top of the hill, sound echos in all directions bouncing off barns and carrying for a good quarter mile. Likewise, I know when it's feeding time at Mr. Leib's hog farm, when McElwees get in a load of cattle, when George's cows are in heat. But Easter's bleats of panic went far beyond the normal sounds at first. Eventually, even the Great Pyrenees learned to ignore his shrieks which only subsided when the herd returned to the far pasture or I became so fed up with it I would walk out and lead him back to be with the herd.
Seasoned with fresh pressed garlic and cut fresh rosemary from Cooseman's , freshly ground black pepper and black Hawaiian sea salt.
I farm not just so I can eat well, but that others can, too. To hoard this incredibly delicious pasture-raised lamb would only defeat my mission in life. My only question after this experience is do I still hate sheep?
I'm going to loving this little boy in a few minutes...and so will everyone else at the table.
Answer: Yes, but I love lamb. And I hope others will love it enough for me to overcome my prejudice and add several ram lambs to the herd next spring for meat in the fall again. Nothing pleases me more to hear, "That was the best [insert cut of meat] we ever had!" from my customers, especially after the holidays when my animals are given the lofty honor of being the centerpiece of a celebration meal.

Cooked to perfection!
Blessings to everyone this holiday season and for the coming year. 
Thank you for your patronage and support of local foods.