Have you ever heard of Sambuco lamb (Agnello Sambucano)? If not, then you should start getting excited about this wonderfully succulent find – just in time for Easter!
The Italian name ‘Sambucano’ comes from a breed of sheep that has been reared in the upper Stura valley (valle Stura) of Demonte in the province of Cuneo, Piedmont since the 18th century. Full of protein, their flavoursome, lean meat is a result of an organic diet of their mother’s milk and munching on nutritious Alpine grasses and aromatic herbs on the high plains of the valley.
For some years until 1985, the breed was in grave danger of extinction. Just 80 sheep remained in the valley but the L’ Escaroun consortium, the Lou Barmaset agricultural cooperative, the Pietraporzio ram selection centre, and more recently the Slow Food Presidium (2001) have marked the painstaking work done to implement their biodiversity action plan to increase the population numbers. Now there are more than 5,000 ‘Sambucano’ sheep in the valley with around 10,000 lambs born each year. There they live on small farms, where they can graze freely during the summer months and are protected from the cold in the winter by being brought inside the farmers’ sheds and fed dry hay.
The sheep are excellent breeders and produce a fine, close grain wool. L’Escaroun consortium and the wool factory Lanificio F.lli Piacenza of Biella work in collaboration to produce light yarn sweaters, plaid blankets and hats. The milk, too, is considered top notch and a few of the farmers use it to produce ‘tuma’ cheese, which is great to use as a dip, as a spread or in baked dishes.
Protected by Slow Food and with the Traditional Farming Product seal of quality (Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale - PAT), laboratory tests done at the Agriculture Faculty of Turin confirmed that its bright red meat and lean, low cholesterol content makes it the perfect choice for anyone.
The ‘Sambucano’ lamb is produced in two types: the "Tardoun" variety, which is ready for consumption in autumn and particularly popular around Christmas, or the 18-20 kg lamb, available throughout the year. Since it is can be eaten throughout the year, Easter is a must for lovers of succulent lamb.
Here’s an Easter recipe from Enrico Crippa, chef at Piazza Duomo Restaurant – Alba, Piemonte
Roasted "Sambucano" Lamb with Fresh Goat Cheese and Chard
Ingredients – for the lamb (serves 4)
4 racks of Sambuco lamb (Agnello Sambucano) from Stura valley Demonte (valle Stura)
2 cloves of garlic
1 fennel stalk (dried)
salt and pepper to taste
Roast the lamb together with the garlic, fennel and butter until cooked but leave it slightly pink. Leave it to rest in a warm place.
Ingredients - for the goat’s cheese
100 g goat's milk
1 g agar agar
50 g fresh goat cheese
boiled chard leaves
For those unfamiliar with Agar agar, it is also referred to as ‘China grass’ and used as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin. Obtained from algae, it is available in health food and Asian grocery stores. Available in powdered or flake form, you need to prepare it before using. Dissolve 1 tablespoon of this with 4 tablespoons of hot water, bring it to the boil and leave it to simmer for 5 minutes (powder) or 10-15 minutes (flakes). Mix it with your ingredients and then put to one side. As your ingredients cool, your agar agar will set. Note that with this recipe you bring both the agar agar and the milk to the boil together.
Heat the milk with the agar agar until it boils. Leave it to cool and with a hand mixer, combine the mixture with the cheese until you get a creamy consistency. Blitz the candied lemon in a blender until it turns creamy too. Arrange a serving of the candied lemon purée on one side of a plate and the cheese sauce on the other. Place the lamb and its natural gravy in the centre of the plate and decorate with the chard leaves. Dress with green olive oil and salt and add a sprinkle of powdered liquorice and fennel seeds. Voila!
If you don’t fancy making a fuss, you can always roast the lamb (flavoured with rosemary and garlic) and instead of the goat’s cheese sauce, substitute with roast potatoes (patate al forno) and a mixed salad side (insalata mista). And most importantly, don’t forget the wine!
Barbaresco, the Italian red made with the Nebbiolo grape is an elegant accompaniment for your Easter meal. This wine is produced on the hillsides and vineyards near the commune of Barbaresco, Neive, and Treiso in the Langhe, just to the east of Alba. As it is made from the same grape variety as its big brother Barolo, the two wines do share some characteristics, but there are also differences. The sea breeze reaches the Barbaresco growing zones earlier, which allows the grapes to ripen before those in the Barolo areas, altering its aromatic and taste profile and creating altogether a different wine.
Pleasantly aromatic with floral bouquets of roses and violets and notes of cherry, truffle and fennel, it is lighter in colour and body than Barolo but is nevertheless well structured. To obtain DOCG status it has to age for a minimum of 2 years (with at least one year in oak barrels). To go to Riserva status, that extends up to 4 years. The best examples of Barbaresco are generally consumed 5-10 years after bottling.
You’re ready to go! Happy Easter & cin cin
Lara Statham was born in the UK. She has lived in Greece, Hungary, Jordan and Egypt but has called Turin, Piedmont home for the past 17 years. A fan of Piedmontese cuisine and wines, with a penchant for Langhe’s reds, she writes for www.turinitalyguide.com an online travel guide and lifestyle blog about Turin and Piedmont.