edible Marin and Wine Country Spring 2010 : Page 26
TASTING NOTE: In tasting lamb from various sources, it appeared that age at weaning, diet, harvest weight, processing and packaging differences had more impact on flavor than breed. Christian Caiazzo and I discussed the strong flavor of lamb from New Zealand. He feels that their standard procedure of Cryovac™ packaging contributes to the strong flavor. According to Caiazzo, some chefs call it the Cryovac™ “fart” because an unpleasant odor is released when the packages are opened. Bill Jensen pointed out that New Zealand lambs are slaughtered in huge volume and immediately Cryovaced™, which holds in blood that should have been given time to bleed out. It would seem that the best flavor comes from allowing the meat to settle and air age. Left: Chef Humphrey’s salad wrapped in lamb tongue Don is creating a unique flavor in his lamb by going against convention and using mostly East Friesians even though they are usually bred for their great dairy production. He said he didn’t pick a “meat” breed because he believed that the lambs of heavy milk producers would grow faster and have a wonderful milk-fattened flavor. The fact the Marcia Barinaga’s East Friesian lambs are so close in flavor to Don’s really bears that out. Another factor that makes Don’s lamb unique is harvesting at 75 to 80 pounds when normal harvest weight in our area is about 130 pounds. Don discovered that he can command a better price for his premium product, but the premium market can’t be accessed by the conventional ways of selling lamb. That transition can be challenging for a larger rancher. This along with issues of predator control make for some difficult choices. Bill Jensen is an established fifth generation rancher who lives on 240 acres near Tomales. His family has raised sheep for nearly a century. During the lamb season, Bill watches over about 1,000 ewes and lambs. We discussed challenges to large ranchers. The number of sheep raised in California has dropped due to the return of predators. Small ranchers like Don and Marcia are on the rise, but the large ranches struggle. In the 1980s coyotes reappeared, after being exterminated by early settlers. The use of traps and controversial poisons by Marin county sparked protests from some citizens and the county stopped providing a predator control person for the ranch- ers. The county splits the cost of non-lethal measures such as electric fences, guard dogs and llamas, and reimburses ranchers for up to 3% of losses. As Bill says, “Make it easy on the coyotes and they make it hard on you.” Many larger ranchers experi- ence up to 30% loss. The predator problem is heated with con- troversy, but the bottom line is that if the ranchers get a better price for their lamb it would help mitigate the loss. Bill’s sheep are raised on beautiful natural pastureland and don’t receive hormones or antibiotics. They are completely milk and pasture fed. Bill talks about taking good care of your pastures, “These grasses are also our crop and these coastal hills grow an amazing variety of native grasses that are great for our sheep.” When I ask Bill if I could purchase his lamb specifically—he said no and explained that he sells to Superior 24 | EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY SPRING 2010 Meat Packing in Dixon—his lamb is then sold under their brand. All those natural, locally raised sheep could end up on a table in Bakersfield—or even worse they could end up going to a feedlot first. It’s a pragmatic choice for Bill, “I can’t afford to have my money on ledger at a specialty market—I need that money in my hands.” By harvest time Bill has spent a lot of energy and resources raising and protecting his lambs. He isn’t set up to sell in a niche or premium market manner. Bill isn’t our only local rancher making this choice. As soon as an individual or a company can bridge that gap for Bill, he would love to see his lamb on local tables Loren Poncia is a fourth generation rancher in Tomales. For over 100 years the Poncias have cared for the land that Stemple Creek winds through on its way to the Pacific. As a steward of his family’s land and legacy he has embraced the market demand for quality food, grown locally, with a solid story behind it. He created the “Stemple Creek Farms” brand for both their cattle and lamb. Their milk-fed lambs are raised on sweet clover and grasses and are hormone and antibiotic free. Their whole or half lambs are sold direct to consumers and they’ll match you up with others if you prefer a smaller portion. Loren believes that having visitors to the ranch and holding events are crucial ways to build the relationships and community that will create a thriving business. He says that there is more profit in operating this way, but it requires more time and makes it a challenge do the niche and premium market on a larger scale. Along with Don Gilardi, Loren Poncia seems a likely candidate for bridging the gap from conventional sales and marketing of lamb into a new, more profitable modality. Gazing out my window at the grass growing greener on our lush coastal hills, I know that shepherds are watching over their flocks and that with their good stewardship and some enthusiastic salesmanship, domesticated bliss will spread across the land. Robin Carpenter grew up in Ragg Swamp, Alabama, where she learned the finer points of storytelling and food in a land rich with tall tales and well- marbled alligators. She now keeps an eye on the food chain from her home in Northern California. You can hear her at KWMR.org on the Monday morning Farm Report and keep up with her at www.huntandgathergirl.com.