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the best kept secret of the La Mancha shepherds

25 mayo, 2021

The meat of a two-year-old sheep does not seem the most palatable. In Spain we like quite young lambs, and we associate everything that is over a certain age with a strong and robust flavor, only suitable for initiated palates. But there is one lamb meat, soft and tender, reminiscent of the best red beef, and that very few have tried.

Among the ranchers of La Mancha it is known as “Wedding meat”, for they were the sheep that the shepherds kept for their own celebrations. They are not, of course, just any specimens: we are talking about young sheep, around two years, which have not given birth, so they do not give milk, but they feed like the rest with grasses and stubble.

How the lamb has gone from being the most important animal for the economy to being eaten only at weddings and Christmas

These sterile sheep, known as “Machorras”, represent around 2% of the herds and, until now, they were kept for their own consumption or, for the most part, they were sold to kebab makers. But Rafael Solana, a farmer from Las Pedroñeras (Cuenca), decided that the time had come to value this meat.

“My father loves sheep meat,” explains Solana to Direct to the Palate. “We always had a couple of sheep in the chamber for him and friends, and for a party. The meat is so red and so similar to veal that we think about maturing it like the ox or the Galician cow and the surprise is that it was undoubtedly better ”.

Sheep5 The rancher Rafael Solana (right) and the cook Fernando del Cerro (left).

No one would say that it is sheep

Solana has presented this meat to the media and chefs at a dinner held in Madrid’s Mercado de Chamartín by the hand of Interovic, the interprofessional of the ovino, that sees in the invention of the farmer a new way of income for its partners.

Fernando del Cerro, veteran restaurant cook House Jose de Aranjuez, has been in charge of preparing this meat, which had a maturing between 45 and 60 days, in a very successful Mediterranean-inspired menu.

Sheep1 Moorish skewer made with the stump of the leg, with Lebanese dressing and curry.

Regardless of its flavor and texture, which is more reminiscent of red beef than lamb, one of the great advantages of cooking sheep is that we are dealing with a much larger animal than we are used to when it comes to sheep.

As Solana explains, the sheep they weigh between 35 and 40 kilos in the carcass, while a recental lamb is around 5 kilos. This makes it possible to extract unthinkable cuts in most of the lamb we eat.

Thanks to this we were able to taste the animal from neck to tail, in such interesting and novel elaborations, such as a Moorish skewer made with the stump of the leg (exquisite) or a low loin, boneless and clean, that the cook served half raw, and that we would never have identified with sheep if not have been warned.

Sheep2 Bass loin with yellow beet chili, pickled onion, flowers and tender stems of radish and fennel.

Spectacular fat

One of the characteristics of these sheep is that they have a huge fat coverage, which facilitates ripening. When cooking, most of this fat is a waste, but in its fair measure it is a perfect addition to dishes.

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Perhaps the proposal that most surprised us at dinner was the Grilled Tomahawk (in the opening photo). This rib cut is named after the popular ax of the Powhatan Indians and is quite common in cattle, but hitherto unthinkable in sheep. Well, this meat can be cooked almost raw, as if it were a steak, and be accompanied by part of its fat, which was delicious.

The legs are so big that you can separate them into pieces and take out a big steak, which makes it possible to serve dishes such as the contra cut that Del Cerro served stewed, as he would have done with veal.

Sheep4 Stewed leg cut with ratte potatoes in brava sauce.

A great invention, hard to sell

As he remembered at dinner Tomás Rodríguez, Director of Interovic, sheep farmers mostly live in the Empty Spain, in places where livestock is one of the few economic activities carried out. And initiatives such as the one promoted by Solana may be, if not a lifeline, at least a respite for farms.

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The truth is that we are facing a fantastic meat, at the same time surprising, but everyone is aware of how difficult it will be to convince the general public of his excellence. “The word sheep, older sheep, backs off,” acknowledges Solana.

It is the restoration that can release this meat, and give it the value it deserves. Solana is happy because, right after presenting the product during the past Madrid Fusion, got the call from four or five cooks who were interested in trying it.

Solana and her colleagues are already moving to commercialize this meat. For now channels are very limited, but although they are very special sheep, representing only 2% of each herd, in huts of 17,000 heads, as there are in La Mancha, the numbers are becoming more interesting.

The only question we have left is what will they buy now to make the kebap.

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