Growing up in God’s Country – the island of Great Bernera to uneducated plebs – I did not particularly like sheep, our fabled caora dhubh-cheannach – the blackface sheep.
These meh-aggs meant a lot of work for us young ‘uns having to go round them up, tramping over sodden moors with an over-enthusiastic collie when I really wanted to be at home to see what Spit the Dog was doing on Tiswas. Darn, I hated those sheep.
However, there were some fine rewards to come later in the sheep-rearing calendar. From a single carcass came yummy chops, gigot, flank, shank, rolled loin, rolled shoulder, noisettes, valentine steaks, shish kebabs, doner kebabs, lamb mince and lip-smacking stews. That was as well as homemade black puddings, white puddings and suet for the duff.
Please skip the next few lines if you are of a queasy disposition. Then we would – or rather my Dad would – saw in half the sheep’s head and chuck it with the legs into the furnace that was our Rayburn stove. That would singe then and partially cook them so we could then haul them out with tongs and make a pot of soup.
I remember that greasy soup. As the head and legs cooled, we would sit and gnaw at the sooty, blackened cheek, the tongue and the brains alongside our own baby spuds and carrots and tinned peas from the Co-op van. No seasoning required. Delish.
Here’s one. What is the difference between my favourite dish and the reason my computer keeps crashing? One is a rack of lamb and the other is a lack of RAM. Where else would you get dinner tips and technological advice? Keep reading.
Whatever you call lamb or mutton, it’s the same soft, slightly-spongey meat that has made me what I am today. Soft, slightly-spongey? No no, that’s not what I meant. A couple of years ago, I even roasted a superb shank myself. I followed a recipe closely, part-cooking then seasoning. I only had a minute or two to season my shank before it went back in the oven. It was a race against thyme.
I detested those sheep – except on a plate. Alas, a black day has come and the nationhood of ewes, lambs, rams and ones that had the operation are finally taking their revenge upon me. The grim news is I have developed a weird medical condition which means I can no longer eat lamb. It probably has a name but the fattiness of sheep meat triggers in my abdomen what I can only describe as a massively painful spasm that requires the administration of powerful painkillers to quell.
The NHS’s finest with syringefuls of morphine bring me a kind of dopey relief. When a senior medic appears at your bedside and says you should not eat lamb again, it’s a bit of a shock. I am convinced a flock of blackfaces is on that same hill that I scoured with collie Rebel all those years ago and they are sticking pins in my effigy and muttering: “For decapitating, singeing and scoffing my great, great auntie Morag – and enjoying her, take that, human.”
Some will say poetic justice but, sorry, I cannot ever turn vegan. Well, I can, but … Anyway, maybe it’s good timing. I was reading the other day that households now consume a lot more chicken than in the past and a lot less lamb. Yet most of us still spend similar proportions of our weekly shopping on lamb and chicken. That’s because lamb is now becoming extremely expensive – it has become really dear and is not to be scoffed at. Unlike that other kind of mutton.
I did say earlier that mutton and lamb were the same thing. I was wrong. They are absolutely not the same. Sometimes you get mutton dressed as lamb. If you were watching Nicole Scherzinger and the Pussycat Dolls on Saturday’s final of X Factor: Celebrity, you would know what I mean. As a judge on that show, which was an unexpectedly excellent series by the way, she was hinting to Simon Cowell at a reunion of her and her mates in the Dolls. They shouldn’t have.
It is not so much their age people were concerned about as the age of the audience. To have these ladies shaking their moneymakers at kids watching what is essentially a family show was yuck. To put not too fine a point on it, the more mature the lady, or anybody, the more they have to shake – and with them nearing or even past their fourth big birthday, the Dolls shook a heck of a lot. There have been hundreds of complaints already and I am not very surprised.
So, I am bereft. No more lamb stews. With apologies to Sarah Josepha Hale, who is usually credited with writing about another lamb, here is the rhyme I should have written back then.
I once had a little lamb
My father killed it dead.
Now it comes to school with me
Between two chunks of bread.