Counting Sheep

We do not eat a lot of lamb in the U.S.—less than a pound a year per person on average. Compare that to 55 pounds of beef, 50 pounds of pork, 106 pounds of poultry, and 15½ pounds of seafood. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1960s we were eating more than four pounds of lamb meat per year. So what happened? The answer is complicated, but we’d simply like to point out that should you be one who enjoys red meat, forsaking these fluffy ruminants would be a shame. Lamb, the young version of sheep, is well-suited for our environment, readily available in the highest quality, and as delicious as it is versatile.

Spending part of her youth near the English countryside, there were two things Laura Minnig knew she wanted do in her lifetime—raise sheep and play the bagpipes. She’s managed to do both, and quite a bit more, on her 12-acre Spicy Lamb Farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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Like other farms leased from the Cuyahoga Valley Countryside Conservancy, the site is more than just a working farm. Surrounded by woods, in addition to a healthy flock of Dorset sheep, Laura’s operation includes Rouen ducks, chickens, sheep dogs, horses, and a timber-framed barn. While the side attractions threaten to steal the show, as the farm’s name suggests, it’s really about the lamb.

When it came time to select a variety of sheep for her farmstead, Laura selected the Dorset, an old English breed thought to have started with Spanish Merino and Welsh sheep raised for their meat. The result is a dual-purpose animal that produces both quality wool and table fare. Dorsets also breed twice a year, rather than the customary one time. That means lamb born in spring for Christmas and equally delectable fall-born lamb for Easter.

Laura’s modest flock of 50 ewes and a few rams, combined with limited space in the Valley, makes for an interesting operation at Spicy Lamb. Too small to compete with large Australian, New Zealand, and even domestic producers, but too big to be considered a hobby, Laura takes a multifaceted approach to making the farm work.

Spicy Lamb’s main focus is breeding better Dorset ewes, with attention given to size of the animal’s loin. Larger loins equal more desirable dinners. Beyond her breeding techniques, Laura has developed more creative income streams through farm dinners featuring her own lamb and duck, sheep dog training, and landscaping through her Urban Shepherds program. Laura’s Dorsets can be rented out and temporarily fenced in to be used as an alternative to lawnmowers. The landowner gets an interesting and eco-friendly method of cutting the grass, and lambs grow to market weight as a result. You might have seen them grazing off East 55th and the Shoreway. There’s even an adopt-a-sheep program, where you can watch a lamb grow, help shear it, and get a custom made blanket from your sheep’s wool. Of course, there’s meat for sale, too.

And while you can order and pick up meat at her farm, we visited a place closer to the city to see what folks around Cleveland are doing with the lamb. Turns out, quite a lot.

Rounding out its first year in Solon, the Butcher’s Pantry is a suburban meat and wine emporium. Located in a nondescript strip mall off SOM Center Road, you’ll find two entrepreneurs following a different kind of dream. Taylor Steinhoff opened the shop to ply meats and offer butcher- style lunches and a wide selection of wines. Butcher Phil Everett cuts the Ohio-raised meat, often to order. The basic setting belies the magic that lies within.

All the meat at Butcher’s Pantry is Ohio-raised. Every other week, the Pantry brings in a whole animal for use on the lunch menu and in the meat case. So you could enjoy a smoked lamb shoulder sandwich with a blue cheese slaw while contemplating what cut you’d like to take home for dinner.

Taylor and Phil are passionate about their product. They carry young lamb, generally less than one year old, as opposed to older sheep, or mutton. They do all processing in house. While we were there, they cured lamb belly for lamb pancetta, eschewing the common curing aid of pink salt in favor of harnessing the naturally occurring nitrates in celery powder. However, most of that day’s lamb was cut fresh for the case—chops, ribs, legs, shanks, meat for grinding, meat for grilling, and meat for braising. Once the animal was broken down, the cornucopia of lamb was overwhelming. But that’s the beauty of Butcher’s Pantry or any full-service butcher shop—when in doubt of what to do with the bounty, just ask. Taylor’s take on his role and that of his employees is “Let us be a resource.”

Never cooked lamb before? Staff explain the process thoroughly because they want you to enjoy it. Expert home cook looking for some esoteric cut for a special project? Just give them a few days’ notice and they’ll make it happen for you. Like any good butcher shop, the Pantry provides the platonic ideal of grocery shopping.

That said, we’ve provided a pair of recipes to get you started. One, a gentle braise for those cool evenings begging for a bowl of comfort, and the other a quick cooking recipe ideal for the grill.

Looking for lamb in and around Cleveland? Give Spicy Lamb a call and pick up some at the farm. Alternatively, head to the Butcher’s Pantry in Solon, Foster’s Meats at the West Side Market, Ohio City Provisions, or your local meat market.