Suckling Spring Lamb on a Spit

Spit-Roasted Suckling Lamb with Salsa Verde, Spinach-Ricotta Gnudi and Artichoke Salad

“I’ll have your lamb shipped to you by the end of next week. Right now he’s still suckling on his mama.”

Those were the words of Sarah Hoffmann at Green Dirt Farm. Hearing them brought on a head rush of mixed emotions. There’s nothing like thinking of yourself as a heartless killer of a cute baby farm animal while at the same time greedily salivating at the thought of its pale, tender flesh.

A healthy sheep at Green Dirt Farm

It started innocently enough. I had only intended to grill a simple leg of lamb for dinner, but what I got instead was a whole lamb carcass sitting in a cooler by my back door.

I was planning a menu for our supper club - four couples who meet four times a year for seasonal dinner parties. I had spring this year. Perfect. I put together an Italian-themed meal that would center on some classic harbingers of spring: fresh chives, artichokes and lamb.

After setting out on an Internet search for some fresh local meat, I landed on a page from Green Dirt, located just outside Kansas City, Missouri. They produce grass-fed lamb and sheep dairy products. And they offer a limited supply of baby spring lamb - animals raised exclusively on their own mother’s milk.

Right away I remembered a story I’d read ten years ago in Saveur magazine about the Roman Easter tradition dating back to ancient times, of serving tiny, milk-fed lamb, called abbacchio. I found the idea so very appealing; something about the sheer pagan ritual combined with photos of piles of juicy, pink roasted meat. It made my mouth water. I wanted to eat one.

Trouble is, finding one of these milk-fed babies in the United States is nearly impossible. Over the years I’ve made attempts to track down a baby lamb. It’s not something your local butcher stocks, needless to say. Usually what’s available is not strictly suckling lamb, but young lamb, which can be anywhere between 5 - 12 months old - too mature to be considered a sacrificial lamb. Typically, true abbacchio is slaughtered at 1 to 2 months of age and weighs between 15 and 20 pounds.

Sarah told me my little lamb was in the 18-pound range, and she would ship it to me fresh, right after slaughter (or, um, processing if that sounds better). I could see the lamb turning over a spit on my backyard barbecue, and I recited my credit card number. It was a huge splurge, considering this main course was going to cost somewhere close to two hundred dollars.

The night before, after marveling a little at the image of a whole gutted animal laid out on my counter, I rubbed the baby down with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and lots of salt and pepper. I threw some halved and squeezed lemons into his tummy cavity and sewed him up.

Being the sort of fly by the seat of my low-rise jeans cook that I am, I didn’t actually plot out how I was going to get the little bugger onto my Weber rotisserie attachment when it came time to fire up the grill. I guess I was sort of passively hoping that it would all work out, or that T would get in touch with his inner Roman shepherd and wire that thing onto the spit for me.

We ended up using the method I’m most comfortable with - improvisation. In order to get the lamb on the relatively short shaft of the rotisserie rod, we had to scrunch him up a bit and lash him with wire. It seemed a perfect fit for the 21-inch wide kettle, until we turned on the motor and saw that the lamb’s neck protruded in such a way as to prevent a full revolution. That’s when we had to get out the hacksaw and saw it off, and that’s also the moment that A chose to come outside to see what we were up to (I’d felt the need to shield her from the sight of the lamb until this point, for some reason) It felt like a scene from Fargo, minus the wood chipper and a crazed Swede.

After about 30 minutes of roasting, the lamb starting to brown a bit too fast, and my olive oil marinade was causing flare-ups. I had a brief image of my guests coming over for the much-touted lamb only to find a charred piece of sinew. So I did what any sensible lamb spit-roaster would do. I took it off the spit, transferred it to a large roasting pan, lightly covered it with foil and put it into a 350-degree oven for two and a half more hours.
T pulled the meat off the bones, and we served it up on a giant platter.

Was this the most delicious lamb I’ve ever eaten? I have to tell you, yes, it absolutely was. I’d heard that the meat of suckling lamb was mild, almost to the point of being bland. But this guy had delicate flavor, and tender, juicy meat.

And, just in case I’ve come off as a cruel carnivore, I was reminded over and over of the importance in knowing where our food comes from. It seems a little shocking to behold and prepare a meal out of something that still looks remarkably like what it is, a dead animal, when we’re so used to seeing neatly wrapped cuts in the meat case.

Why is it that going out of my way to find local farmers who produce my food in a sustainable, humane manner feels like a big privilege? I wish it were the norm. As much time and expense as my baby lamb cost, it was totally worth it, and I can't wait to repeat it. Something I read in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma really struck me, and I can’t seem to forget it. Pollan writes that:

No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent...we would no longer continue to raise, kill and eat animals the way we do....we might eat less, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony and respect they deserve.

For more interesting words about abbacchio, check out Cooking the Roman Way by David Downie.

Steven Raichlen, once again, is the Man. His book How to Grill has complete step-by-step illustrations on spit-roasting a whole lamb.

Save This Page

Copyright (c) 2007 FamilyStyle Food


Deborah Dowd said...

I am sure this was really wonderful,but I have an aversion to meat that looks so much in death (and on plate) as it does in life. Meaning, Iprobably would have trouble cooking it (that's what men are for!) but not eating it.

Karen said...

Deborah, I hear you.

It is a little shocking to have a whole animal to deal with, but at the same time I feel it's important to recognize that if I'm going to eat meat, I'd better own up to it and face the animals who live and die in order for me to eat them.

Then again, females were the gatherers and males the hunters...just proves I've lost touch with my primitive instincts!

Kristen said...

I would not be able to do this either. I grew up on a farm and we raised our own beef. At dinnertime my brother would always announce who exactly we were eating (because of course...I would always name the cows).

Kitchen said...

This is an amazing story, Karen. I admit it's some shock to see the lamb so obviously once-alive but you write with such reverence about the longing, the preparation, the consumption that somehow, it comes off as gentle and well, humane. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself and the evening.

Karen said...

Kristen, are brothers always like that?
My husband spent time on the farm of a family friend in Vermont when he was a kid, and remembers sitting down at the dinner table to eat one of the animals, named Betsy or something.

Now that's knowing your food!

Kitchen (I think I know who you are), thanks for the good words...

William Conway said...

Awesome. As time's moved on I've been cooking more "whole animals". I'm still working on chicken and turkey-sized critters, but some day I hope to move past poultry.

Personally, I think people should get over their squeamishness. Maybe that's why I posted a picture of the (pre-processed) deer in my freezer on my blog.

In any case, the lamb sounds delicious! Bravo!

Karen said...

William, thanks for visiting and your nice comment.

I've never bagged a deer, or hunted for my own food, unless you count digging up clams for a clambake!

My father grew up as the oldest of five kids and immigrant Italian grandparents. As a youngster of 8 or 9, he was often chosen to go out and grab a chicken or rabbit from the backyard and "dispatch" it for dinner.

I might have some of that tradition running through my veins, but I don't know if I'd have the nerve to do the deed.

Sarah said...

Wow--I'm really impressed. The end result looks absolutely delicious, too. I agree it's important to eat locally whenever possible. Can't wait for the greenmarkets here in New York to get into full swing.

Libby said...

Good job! I really appreciate your documentation, the cooking. Very very good work.

Mark said...

Your flagrant bloodlust for baby animals is nothing short of revolting. Your desire for suckling lambs is a manifestation of evil that you ought to try to control.

swirlingnotions said...

I love this post, Karen! It brought back memories for me of when I lived in Greece and we would eat spit-roasted lamb. When I got back to America, it was actually the processed parts so pristinely packaged in styrofoam and plastic that seemed revolting to me. Needless to say, that paragraph from Omnivore's Dilemma resonated with me as well.

Karen said...

Sarah, and Libby, thanks for your comments on this post.

Mark, I appreciate your opinion - I see we are in disagreement about our individual food choices.

Swirling Notions, it's always nice to hear from you...this lamb was a special feast, maybe almost as good as eating spit-roasted lamb in Greece!