Spring is in the air - time to order lamb for Easter!
By Jeanne McCaul, Lauzerte
When driving or hiking high on the ‘causses’ of our region, you may notice kilometers of dry stone walls stretching out among the Quercy oaks and juniper bushes.
Many years ago, these walls were used to delineate landowners and served to keep sheep on their own property. Another unique feature is the presence of ‘gariottes’ or ‘cazelles’, conical shaped ‘huts’ built with dry stones, which served as shelters for shepherds.
As far back as the 18th century the Quercy region was renowned for the quality of its lamb. There are very good reasons for this reputation; and, with the designation of the ‘Label Rouge’ in 1990 and IGP (‘Indication Géographique Protégée’) in 1996, the reputation and quality will be maintained.
The climate is hot in summer, cold in winter and very dry. This has a direct effect on the breed of sheep which can adapt to these conditions. What better qualifications than traditional breeds of the ‘Midi Pyrénées’ region which have lived here for centuries. The primary breed is the ‘Caussenarde du Lot’, its distinguishing feature being the dark rings around the eyes. The other breed eligible for certification is the Lacaune, also well known for its high milk production, used for blue cheese such as Roquefort.
Both these breeds (but more so the Lacaune) have been obtained from crossings, early in the 20th century, with other breeds from the region, to become more productive and perfectly adapted to the climate and ‘terroir’. For example, their feet and legs are strong and high to walk easily on the stony ground and very steep slopes. They are strongly resistant to ticks, enabling them to graze close to the oaks, junipers and brush predominant on the ‘causses’. They are also calm and easy to manage for the shepherds. And, to top it, they are good mothers, protective of their young and capable of surviving in a harsh climate with poor quality feed.
However, there are other factors which come into play before qualifying for certification.
The physical region is strictly defined: the department of the Lot, parts of the Lot and Garonne, Tarn and Garonne, Aveyron and the Dordogne. This definition came into force during the 1980s, when there was an influx of sheep from Eastern Europe, lowering the quality of the meat and disappointing consumers. Having said this, 80% of the ewes are raised in the ‘Parc Naturel Régional des Causses du Quercy’, a protected area, unique for its flora and fauna.
The farmers are inspected on an annual basis to ensure that environmental concerns are respected and their animals are healthy and treated correctly. Lambs must be milk fed by their mothers (‘élevé sous la mère’) for a minimum of 70 days. As they mature they are fed a complementary mix of cereals and other vegetable matter to reach an ideal weight of between 35 and 40kg and must be slaughtered before 5 months.
There are also strict regulations surrounding the transportation and slaughtering to ensure healthy and humane practices. Carcass weights are verified (around 50% of original weight), the structure of the carcass is regulated, as is the amount of fat. In fact, only 1 in 3 lambs succeed in obtaining the much sought after label.
Butchers have contracts to certify that they respect regulations in order to be supplied with ‘Label Rouge’ IGP labeled lamb. Pricing is such that the farmer can receive adequate premiums for the efforts needed to maintain such high quality and care.
Each animal must be traceable, a guarantee to the consumer that the farmer stands behind his/her product and a panel of experts do annual tastings to ensure that the meat retains all of its specific qualities and flavors.
A very important aspect is the environmental benefit provided by this industry. Grazing on the ‘causses’ combats rural desertification and keeps the land free of undesirable brush and weeds, while naturally fertilizing the soil. Keeping the land cleared of dry grass helps minimize forest fires. Sheep are the only possible animals capable of thriving in such harsh climate and poor soil; they honor our table and deserve recognition, complementing the other wonderful produce of this special region called the Quercy.
In 1980 Alexis Pelissou, well known chef and author of the book « La truffe sur le soufflé » was in the forefront of the battle to keep foreign breeds of lamb out of the Quercy. One direct result was that Quercy lamb was the first French lamb to obtain a ‘Label Régional’ stamp of guaranteed quality, as early as 1983. This stamp was the forerunner of the ‘Label Rouge’ – the true guarantee for superior quality. As Philippe Bressac of the ‘Agneau Fermier du Quercy’ organization explains: “An IGP stamp refers to a geographic area – not to be confused with taste or quality, an AOC (Appéllation d’Origine Controlée’) stamp refers to the notion of ‘terroir’ which confers a specific taste to a product – again, separate from notions of quality. As for the reason why we speak of ‘agneau fermier’, this is our way of differentiating between lamb raised by farmers as opposed to industrialized production.” Hence, we end up with the full description of ‘Agneau fermier du Quercy, Label Rouge/IGP.’
In 1995, competing with 114 entries, Pelissou’s entry for Quercy lamb, also using other local produce, won him a gold medal at the ‘Première Coupe d’Europe des saveurs régionales’.
It was quite an elaborate entry, composed of 4 variations of lamb dishes and using ingredients such as truffles. Here follows one of the 4 winning recipes - easy to make and tasty.
Light ‘daube’ of lamb in Cahors red wine
To serve 8:
1 kg leg of ‘Agneau fermier du Quercy’, Label Rouge/IGP
50gr pink Lautrec Label rouge/IGP garlic
200gr rolled pork rind (‘couenne’)
3 liters Cahors AOC red wine
‘Bouquet garni’, salt and pepper
Debone the leg of lamb and cut into cubes of about 60g each. Arrange in a dish, preferably round, together with the chopped onions, garlic and tomatoes (skinned and seeded), juice from the oranges, ‘bouquet garni’ and ‘couenne’.
Season, pour the wine over to cover and bring to the boil. Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Decant once the meat is cooked but still slightly firm.
Put the sauce through a strainer, pressing through with a spoon to recuperate all the juices and vegetable pulp, which will bind the sauce. Return the meat to the sauce, decorate and serve.
Frédéric Bacou, owner-chef of the ‘Hôtel Restaurant du Quercy’ in Lauzerte and president of the ‘Association des Restaurateurs du Tarn et Garonne’, proposes an unusual, somewhat exotic recipe:
Shoulder of lamb with a ‘confit’ of fruit and vegetables
To serve 6 to 8
1 good size (2kg or over) shoulder of lamb. Ask your butcher to debone it and remove excess fat, etc.
3 soup spoons duck fat
½ liter dry white wine
½ liter bouillon
200gr celeriac, peeled and rubbed with lemon to keep it from coloring
200gr red onions
4 garlic cloves
coarse salt and pepper
100gr almonds, blanched and sliced
150gr dry, ‘pruneaux d’Agen’, stones removed
150gr each of dried figs and dried apricots
2 soup spoons quality honey
Chop all the vegetables and fruit into cubes of 1cm. Mix together well.
Season the inside of the meat with salt and pepper
Melt the duck fat in a heavy skillet
Brown the meat on all sides, remove from skillet and set aside
Put fruit and vegetable mix into the skillet, cover with wine and bouillon and bring to the boil
Lay the meat on top of the mix and add honey
Cook in the oven, pre-heated to 180°C, for 90min
If needed, add bouillon
Check seasoning and serve.
Of course, if all of this seems too much, remember that a classic roast of lamb, with garlic and rosemary, served pink with flageolets beans, remains unbeatable.
Photo credits - Agneau Fermier du QUERCY, Organisme de Défense et de Gestion