Determined that you should never judge a book by its cover, Ed Smith explores the hidden charms of some of the Market’s less obviously alluring ingredients. This time, scrag end of lamb
The photograph above paints a rather flattering picture of the subject of this month’s column.
At first glance, it could be any number of cuts, with a bone in the middle, bone-dust from the cutting process, and ragged pieces of meat, sinew and fat around it; indeed, it has a similar look to that of a steak taken from a shin of beef or veal, a leg of lamb, and so on. So far, so unremarkable. Except that this particular cut comes from a sheep’s neck. And, let me tell you, this cross-section is the version of that neck after hours in the make-up room and half a day with a stylist.
When whole, the scrag end of lamb is a thick cylinder of bone and sinew, wrapped in dry, tight skin which is often bloodied at one or both ends. I see beauty in all things animal. But believe me, this is not a good looking piece of meat, and it barely seems plausible that it’s worth cooking and eating. But, of course, it is.
You’ll have read, I suspect, about neck of lamb being a good, thrifty cut of meat. That’s often a comment made in reference to the neck fillet: the ‘good’, fleshy part of neck from the end closest to where the spine branches out to the shoulders and the loin (the cutlets). Well, the scrag end is the thrifty person’s thrifty bit of thrifty. These bony chops, as my wife would say, are high admin, and the price reflects that.
A joy to eat
Yet if you cook scrag end in the right way, you get meat with all the flavour of lamb shoulder (just imagine how much work a sheep’s neck gets through), which falls off the many pieces of bone and is a joy to eat.
In fact, I prefer scrag end over boneless fillets of neck. Essentially the same flesh, both are a meat that needs to be slow cooked—usually as part of a stew or soup. However, the bones add so much flavour to a stock, I’d say that unless you’re making a pie (in which bones just won’t do), then the scrag end is the best thing to go for. The broth you’ll get as a result is quite remarkable. It’s a classic case of ‘poor man’s cooking’ producing rich results.
It is absolutely possible to cook a lamb neck whole. In fact, a restaurant in London called Pitt Cue does a very fine smoked neck for two people to share, cooked for hours and hours in a barbecue with just a hint of wood smoke for added flavour. The same effect (though not the smoky part) could be achieved by cooking a whole neck ‘low and slow’ in the oven as you might a lamb shoulder, say 150-160C for five hours or so, until the rich, juicy meat can be forked off the bone.
But scrag end chops are readily available from the butchers at Borough Market and are perhaps easier both to deal with and to love. They simply need to be browned in a hot frying pan, covered with as much liquid as you need (depending on whether you’re aiming for a stew or a soup), and simmered for two to three hours, until the liquid is richly flavoursome and that meat yields at the slightest suggestion of a spoon.
Which is exactly what happens in this recipe: a hearty, scrag end, squash and barley broth. Ideal winter comfort food.