The Little Karoo’s untethered lambs


The Little Karoo’s untethered lambs

EMILIA SMUTS shares her winning rib recipes.


IN the vicinity of Oudtshoorn there are a few places where you can see the Enon rock formation, locally called the “rooikoppe": red clay heads with tunnels and cave-like walls which look as if a giant caterpillar was active there.

You see them on the road between De Rust and Uniondale, near Oudtshoorn on the way to George — where you can see the beautiful petrified rock formation on the side of the road — and, best of all, above the Doornkraal farm stall, a few kilometres outside De Rust on the road to Oudtshoorn.

For generations, the farm stall has been a welcome stop for parents with children constantly asking “when will we be there" and almost-there holidaymakers who have just driven through the Karoo on their way to the Southern Cape coast.

My parents built the farm stall almost 40 years ago to create an outlet for the wine my father made at the time, but also for the abundant produce from the vegetable garden and my mother's inventive cooking: quince cheese, roasted pumpkin seeds, moss jam, green figs, jams, atjar, smoked salt.

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Under the hand of my brother Piet and now my sister Celia, the farm stall has become a one-stop wine shop where you can taste and buy the products of the area. And because visitors from the north always yearn for lamb chops by the sea, Celia, with the help of the veteran farmer and breeder Hennie Ahlers and the Karoo livestock expert Cassie Carstens, began to breed lambs for this purpose. The challenge was to produce not just another mutton chop but something unique. The result was a crossbreeding programme that uses hybrid vigour.

For this, she used double-purpose ewes from friend Andries Streicher from Swellendam and Afrino rams from George Stegman from the Karoo. The result is a genuine local dual-purpose sheep (comprising, among other things, merino, ronderib-Afrikaner and South African meat merino). The lambs have a good fat distribution and are hardy and adaptable — everything, therefore, that a sheep needs to survive in the Little Karoo.

Like most South African sheep, they are not raised in a factory. But what do you write on the label? The words “free range" and “Little Karoo lamb" are incompatible, and ultimately the lambs deserve a better name. The family brainstorming eventually yielded the phrase “untethered and grazed widely". The lambs are slaughtered locally when they weigh about 40kg and are packed as half a carcass.   

Most readers will know about the awareness these days that one must use a whole animal and not just the choice cuts, which is known as the nose to tail approach: you eat everything. There was even a restaurant in Cape Town with this philosophy, but unfortunately it perished when people started putting masks on their snouts.

If you still feel tentative about this approach but hate mutton head and offal, a partial cut is the answer — for example, a lamb neck or rib with its thin flank, or a mutton tail. 

The half lamb neck in the box of meat may be enough for two small eaters, but with another piece of stewed meat it is enough for a nice pot of lentil soup for the rainy, cool days by the seaside that you sometimes have until after Christmas in the Southern Cape.

The rib is one of the best cuts if you want to taste the flavour of a Little Karoo lamb. For cooking this, I have tried many winning recipes — tasty and less tasty — but I still find my mother's the best. It's versatile because the cooking is done in steps and the finishing is done over the coals or in the oven.  

The piece of loin meat between the rib and the leg of the lamb is called the thin flank. It is usually sold with the rib but you can sometimes buy it separately. Many people avoid this because the cut has a lot of connective tissue and can therefore be tough. But it is deliciously fragrant and as popular as pork belly. 

You can cut the thin flank into small cubes or coarsely grind it and make cracklings. It requires effort and patience but there are people — myself included — who swear by it. Or you can leave the thin flank on the rib and make Park Railings — tasty finger food.


Lamb rib         

This recipe is for a lying rib, not a standing rib: soft and fragrant, little effort, even for the cook, who will be rewarded for his effort with the mutton tail.

1.  Place the lamb rib with its flank and the tail in an oven pan so that the meat lies flat. Rub both sides with salt and pepper.

2. Also place in the pan two sliced ​​onions, a carrot cut into slices and a bunch of thyme, rosemary or herbs that are at hand.

3. Pour two cups of stock or water and a quarter of a cup of sweet wine over the meat.

4. Cover the pan with foil and put in a lukewarm oven (130-140ºC) for about two hours, depending on how big the rib is and how mature the animal was; in any case, cook until the meat is tender.

5. Now you can follow any of the recipes below. The fragrant stock that remains in the pan after cooking can be strained and added to the pot of lentil soup.

For ribs (and the lamb's tail) grilled over the coals, do this: Daub the cooked meat with a sauce — mixed to taste with soy sauce, lemon juice, finely pressed garlic and olive oil — and grill over moderate coals until golden brown and crispy. Use a sprig of rosemary as a brush for extra flavour. Keep an eye on the frying fat to prevent the meat becoming charcoal. Because the meat is already soft, it's a pleasure for the griller to watch the fat fry out and become crispy. Do the same with the mutton tail.

If you don't feel like making a fire, you can coat the rib with the sauce and bake it in a hot oven (200°C) until golden brown. It takes barely 20 minutes for a golden brown, soft, juicy rib.    


Park Railings

The Park Railings recipe comes from Elizabeth David's classic An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. 

The real Park Railings is a cooked rib with its bones, which is covered with a crumb crust and baked in the oven like a giant lamb schnitzel. The boneless variation is easier to serve and each piece has its own crispy crust.

Park Railings taste best fresh out of the oven, but you can also eat them at room temperature.

  • 1 hot, cooked lamb rib and loin, as described above
  • Dijon mustard
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 3-4 cups crushed breadcrumbs

1. Slip the bones out of the still warm rib. If the rib has curled up in the oven, put it under a breadboard with a weight on top to keep it flat while it cools for the next step.

2. Cut the meat into pieces or strips (about 2 cm wide works well) that are ideal for snacks. If there is too much fat for your taste, you can now trim it away.

3. Smear the strips on both sides with mustard, dip in beaten egg, cover with the breadcrumbs and press the crumbs down well. You can do all this then keep the meat in the fridge until almost dinner time.

4. Bake the crumbed strips on a rack in an oven pan at 180ºC for 20-30 minutes. Then drizzle a little melted butter over the pieces and switch on the grill element if you want an even more crispy and brown crust — I find this step unnecessary. Beware of burning.

5. Serve with a hot sauce, such as mustard mayonnaise or a tartar sauce. And raise your glass to the untethered lamb that was able to graze widely and had a relatively short, but good life. L'chaim! 


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