Ben Machin grew up in Vermont on a small organic homestead where his family grew their own food and produced apple juice, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup for market. After some years working for the US Forest Service as a Smokejumper, Ben came back to Vermont to study and work on various natural conservation projects. Eventually he rekindled his interest in farming.
Tag: heritage lamb breeds
Lamb Breed Histories and Tasting Notes
Want a hot recipe? Choose a lovely, well- sourced piece of meat — from a farm you know, and from a breed you have come to love, and add fire. Et voilà! There’s your recipe. Just remember, the fire is the constant, the meat is the variable. We believe in the formation of breed charts that describe the gastronomic wonders of every livestock variety. “One 32-ounce flank steak” as the prime mover in a recipe is not enough information. Heritage Foods USA is an ingredient- based philosophy.
It’s hard not to respect a breed that was referenced numerous times in the Bible (see fat-tailed sheep) and is reputed to be 3000 years old. It’s even harder to imagine the Tunis not being completely delicious since the first three U.S. presidents raised and consumed them.
John Adams mentioned the breed in his diary in 1782 when the Tunis had an excellent reputation for delicious mutton — and tail (not sold today!). Thomas Jefferson ordered the importation of a second herd from Tunisia because he loved them so much he thought they should be more readily available. George Washington bred them —one of his early legacies was the proliferation of his particular Tunis crossbreed on farms and dinner tables along the East Coast.
The tail is now smaller and the color ranges from tan-to-red with the occasional white spot on the head and tail. Ewes usually birth twins although the Tunis still remains on the ALBC-USA.org Conservation Priority List. The Tunis is an excellent ambassador breed for the grass-fed movement – they don’t like to eat a lot of grain.
Woodsy and Rootsy
Not lamby or pungent
Taste seasoned without seasoning
Notes of fresh buttermilk
The Dorset Horn is a breed of sheep that spread over Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and most of Wales. In 1750 this is the breed the English with a fine palate would eat for Christmas! Today we eat it more frequently because the Dorset Horn is able to give birth three times a year. Dorsets tolerate heat well, and heat tolerance contributes to the rams’ ability to breed earlier in the season than rams of other breeds. This contributes to the Dorset Horn being a very profitable sheep to grow although it remains on the Threatened List of the ALBC-USA.org website.
The Hudson Bay Company first shipped the Dorset Horn to America in the 1860s. But it was a livestock show in Chicago a few years later that made it famous. The Dorset Horn is known for its healthy appetite and thrives on the lush pastures of Vermont where Ben Machin and Grace Bowmer raise a herd.
Great fat/meat ratio
Gamey in the best way
Lamby and sweet
The Katahdin is inextricably linked to Michael Piel of Abbott, Maine who had the brilliant idea of separating out the wool producing side of the lamb business from the meat side. Wool production took time and energy from both the animals and the farmers while only providing about 10 percent of the farmer’s income. In addition wool creates a more pungent and muttony taste in the meat.
Piel imported three hair sheep from the Virgin Islands and bred them with various breeds like Tunis and Suffolk in an effort to produce a sheep that excels in taste. The result of the crossbreeding efforts finally produced a flock so perfect that it became the foundation for a herd and eventually the Katahdin breed that is raised around the country. Piel named it after a mountain in Maine even though the breed excels in hotter climates. The Katahdin is known to live a long time while remaining productive. There are now a couple of hundred U.S. breeders of the Katahdin including our very own Chris Wilson of Clover Creek who has worked with us for almost a decade.
The Katahdin serves land conservation projects very well and are perfect for grass-fed systems like that found in Northeastern Tennessee where Chris has won awards for land conservation.
Spicy and peppery
Barky and woody
The Churro was perhaps the first domesticated animal in the Americas when the Spanish brought it here in the 1500s. The animal quickly became a big part of Hispanic and Native American ways of life. One of the few positive legacies of Spanish conquerors was the lamb breeds they left here, especially at missions, as they searched for gold. It was these very sheep that the Navajo and other Native Americans stole and purchased making them a part of their way of life and diet.
The Navajo-Churro produces excellent wool and meat. It was Navajo women who owned the sheep, the grazing rights and the wool, which became an important source of income. The Navajo-Churro existed in great numbers here until the government killed off most of the population in their war with Native Americans. The breed currently sits on the Threatened List of the ALBC-USA.org website.
Today many of the residents of the Navajo reservation continue to raise sheep for wool and food. Dr. Lyle McNeal played a crucial role in increasing their population in the 1970s despite the fact that conditions in that part of the country are harsh.
The Katahdin/White Dorper is a crossbreed bred by Joseph Hubbard at Shannon Creek Ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The Dorper has a lot more muscle than the Katahdin. Combined you get a meaty carcass with the mild taste of the Katahdin.
Heritage Foods USA consideres the Flint Hills to be the best terroir for grass-fed animal farming in the U.S. The Flint Hills are band of hills that stretches from eastern Kansas into north-central Oklahoma, extending from Marshall and Washington Counties in Kansas in the north, to Cowley County in Kansas and Kay and Osage Counties in Oklahoma in the south.
Anywhere tallgrass grows makes for a great and sus-tainable terroir for grass-fed sheep, but what makes the Flint Hills our number-one choice is that it boasts the most dense cover-age of intact tallgrass prairie in North America and has blossomed into a mosaic of independent family farms— many of which are at the heart of the heritage breed movement.
Tallgrass is the food the prairie produces naturally in the absence of intensive row-crop agriculture. Unlike corn, tallgrass is not dependent on petrochemical fertilizer or herbicide, and its roots run deep below the thin layer of topsoil. It is potent, incredibly resilient, the all-you-can-eat salad bar for healthy sheep. And they love it, gladly eating pounds of the stuff every day.
The result of this robust food supply is a meat with a nice even ratio of intra- and extramuscular fat, a clean taste, a natural delight. It is the taste of the Americas.
Varietals like Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, Prairie Dropseed, and Sideoats Grama have stalks whose profound roots are able to pull moisture and nutrients from deep within the ground, making them the best candidates to withstand the drought and deluge likely to accompany climate change. They are resistant to all types of extreme weather, and they bounce back quickly, even from fires. And they do not rely on the dwindling power of the thin layer of topsoil to grow.
This Holiday Season we are proud to offer Tunis Lamb from Meadowood Farms in Cazenovia, New York. Meadowood Farms produces fine sheep and cow cheeses that our friends at Saxelby Cheese have been carrying for a some time. After a visit to the farm this summer, we began working with Meadowood to feature beef from their Belted Galloway cattle. We decided to deepen our relationship with them this fall after we tasted their incredible lamb.
We spoke one of the farm managers, Fiona, to fine out more about their flock and production methods. Here’s what she had to say:
“At Meadowood Farms, we raise dairy sheep so in order to improve the meat quality in our lambs, we use Tunis sires (rams) on our ewes. The lambs are raised on their mothers for 30 days at which point we wean the lambs and start milking the ewes. The lambs are raised up to eight months old on lush pasture here in central New York. They are moved to new paddocks daily so they always have a fresh mix of grasses and clover to feast on. Since the lambs are weaned early from their mothers, we do supplement them with a small amount of grain, about 3% of their overall diet, which rounds out their nutritional needs. They also have access to a mineral supplement and fresh water at all times. The Tunis work well in our system because they thrive on pasture and in turn produce a mild yet flavorful and tender meat.”
We are proud to feature Tunis lamb legs and racks currently on our website. Order here http://store.heritagefoodsusa.com/lamb-and-bison-c52.aspx
Spring is here, and so is lamb season. Lamb is closely associated with Easter feasts, but did you know that the lengthening of days matches up with a lamb’s natural mating patterns?
Unfortunately, rare and heritage lamb breeds lack the industrial-sized methods of production which yield mass-produced, individual lamb cuts found in grocery stores. To avoid waste, Heritage Foods USA has moved into the half lamb game. Purchasing half lamb from our farmers is the best, most cost-efficient way to enjoy these gastronomical masterpieces.
This year, we were fortunate enough to acquire four rare breeds from four family farms, spanning from Vermont to Montana.
Tunis – Sandstone Ridge Farm, Wisconsin:
Having originated in North Africa, the Tunis is especially heat-tolerant and was the most popular breed of sheep in the Southern United States until the Civil War, when nearly all Tunis flocks were wiped out. Slowly but surely, through the efforts of farms like Sandstone Ridge, this breed is being brought back. The Tunis is an excellent grazer and produces meat that is flavorful, yet delicate.
When James and Lisa Twomey found their “piece of heaven” in La Farge, Wisconsin, the land was overgrown with weeds and shrubs. They decided sheep were the best animal to help them manage their pastures and settled on the Tunis, one of the oldest breeds the world. The Twomeys aren’t the only fans of the Tunis—both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson raised flocks of this personable, good-natured breed.
Dorset Horn – Tamarack Sheep Farm, Vermont:
Nestled in the pastoral valleys of Central Vermont, Ben Machin and Grace Bowmer are continuing a family tradition by raising sheep from the same genetic line as the flock started by Ben’s great-grandfather. Tamarack Sheep Farm is committed to the preservation and continuation of heritage lamb breeds and is excited to work with Heritage Foods for the first time, offering their Tunis-Dorset Horn lambs for Easter.
Ben and Grace love these breeds, not just because of their history, but also because they possess qualities beneficial for both farmer and customer. The Tunis is a sweet-natured sheep with a docile personality. As a breed known for heavy milking, the Dorset Horn ewe makes a particularly good mother, raising sturdy lambs with good appetites. Crossing these breeds ensures vigorous lambs that produce excellent quality meat.
With fewer than 1,000 registered in existence in The U.S. and less than 5,000 globally, the Dorset Horned lamb is on the ALBC’s Threatened list. Thought to have descended from an ancient breed native to southwestern England, Dorset Horned sheep boast a milky, almost airy meat that is incredibly tender and delicately flavored.
Katahdin – Clover Creek Farm, Tennessee:
The Katahdin is a meat breed, not a wool breed. As a result, it tastes delicious. The Katahdin sheep is the product of innovative thinking on behalf of a farmer named Michael Piel. In the 1950’s, Piel brought three sheep from St. Croix to his farm in Maine. He crossed these “African Hair Sheep,” as they were known, with his own flock of “Down” breeds (more typical wooly meat sheep found in New England), producing a lamb he called “Katahdin” after the highest mountain in Maine. The Katahdin does not need to be sheared and produces a well-muscled, lean but meaty carcass.
It is for these reasons that Chris Wilson has been raising Katahdin sheep on her farm in Tennessee for more than 18 years. Following the motto “farming in harmony with nature,” Chris raises Animal Welfare Approved sheep using rotational grazing methods. In 1999 Chris was named Conservation Farmer of the Year. The Katahdin lamb has delicious, succulent meat with nutty, full flavor.
Icelandic – Willow Spring Ranch, Montana:
Brought across the North Atlantic Ocean by the Vikings, Icelandic sheep were able to survive the harsh conditions thanks to their double- coated fleece and natural inclination to forage on pasture. Katy and Richard Harjes choose to raise Icelandics on their ranch in Montana for these reasons.
Founded in 2009 by Katy and Richard Harjes, Willow Spring Ranch is grass-fed certified by the American Grass-fed Association. The Harjes use organic, humane practices and raise their Icelandic lambs on a 100% grass diet, as soon as they are weaned.
Icelandic sheep are a true triple-threat, known for their creamy milk, luxurious wool, and fine-grained, clean-tasting meat. In fact, Icelandic meat is mild enough that it has been known to convert self-proclaimed “lamb-a-phobes.”
This year’s heritage lamb project was a huge success. Eighty lambs were sold in total, thirty-eight of which were purchased within the first week. In fact, we sold all of our Tunis sheep within the first week! As always, we’d like to thank those who were able to participate in our project and helped in making it a huge success. Your support allows our farmers to continue breeding and raising new lambs, and ensures the preservation of heritage breeds for years to come.