A special and highly seasonal breed of Welsh lamb
Salt marsh lamb. Even the name is evocative—hearing it instantly conjures images of coastal environments with sheep splashing around in salty water. In some ways, that image is not far from the truth. A salt marsh is defined as coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water, brought in by the tides. Their deep boggy soil is home to a wide variety of plants not found inland, and it is the uniqueness of this environment that is the secret to this most sought after of delicacies.
“Rhug’s organic salt marsh lamb is produced on the Estate’s coastal farm, Tŷ Mawr, near Caernarfon,” says Jay from behind a splendid array of Rhug produce. “The fields at Tŷ Mawr are covered by the sea in the winter and as a result grow special grasses and herbs such as sea lavender, samphire, sorrel, thrift, among others, which thrive in that environment. There is a slightly sweeter flavour to a lot of these plants and many of them are quite strong as well. They are also very high in nutrients, so the lambs are very energetic, happy and lively animals.
Islands and streams
“The saltmarsh is a network of islands and streams, so the sheep and lambs spend their lives surrounded by water,” Jay explains. “When they are taken to the marshes Deio Hughes, who is in charge of the herd, will get them as close to the water as possible because that is where the best of the grasses grow.”
Salt marsh lamb has a particular season—within the regular lambing season—because the herd cannot feed on the marshes all year round. As winter takes hold, the intensity of the flavour in the grasses and herbs starts to diminish and then they die back altogether, so the herds are moved to inland pastures. As always, the British weather’s unpredictable nature has a say in the matter, but usually this special meat is available from around June until just after Christmas.
“Compared to lamb raised inland, you will definitely get the taste of herbs coming through. There is also a saltier taste, but as sea salt is different from table salt it is a more mellow, savoury taste. This all combines to give the lamb a ‘fresher’ taste, which is very hard to describe—but you can definitely tell once you try it.”
On the pink side
Salt marsh lamb doesn’t need to be cooked with a special technique, but Jay—along with a host of chefs who buy this lamb—believes that you get the best out of it if it is cooked medium-rare, “especially with the prime cuts such as loin, cutlets, racks of lamb or noisettes,” he advises. “Cooking them this way really brings out the difference in flavour that the salt marsh has brought to the meat,” he explains. “Shoulders you can cook long and slow, but still do keep it slightly on the pink side—it will still be nice and tender, as well as having that wonderful flavour. I love this lamb. When the season is coming up, I personally look forward to the cutlets or racks of lamb. I love the sweetness those cuts have.”
The popularity of this seasonal treat among chefs as far away as the Middle East shows that Jay is not alone in his love of salt marsh lamb. If you have yet to discover it, Jessica Seaton’s lamb chops with capers and sea greens or Angela Clutton’s lamb cutlets, pan-fried potatoes and aubergines would be two excellent places to start.