What is salt marsh lamb?
Salt marsh lamb is seen as a culinary speciality, but what makes it so special?
One of my favourite meats, salt marsh lamb, comes into season around June or July and is available throughout summer and autumn. My butcher sources his lamb from North Wales and it's succulently tender, with the most incredible flavour.
Lambs have grazed on the salt marshes of North Wales for years, but in the UK it's only fairly recently that their meat has been treated as a speciality. In France, on the other hand, this unique lamb (l'agneau pré-salé) is a highly prized terroir delicacy and the French just can't get enough of it. In fact it's so highly thought of that pré-salé lamb from the Baie de Somme has received a coveted French AOC label, which officially establishes strict conditions and rules that producers are obliged to follow.
What makes it so outstanding and special? It's the distinctive flavour and meltingly tender texture, which make it significantly different from mountain lamb. The juicy meat is also darker than mountain-reared lamb, has less fat and, of course, is fully traceable.
The lambs are born between March and April and live first of all on their mother's milk, then after four to six weeks, grass is added to their diet. They graze on the estuary salt marshes and coastal pastures that are flooded by the spring tides and doused by the sea. The lambs feed on a rich variety of plants and minerals growing in the salt marshes, which give the meat a superb flavour. Surprisingly it doesn't taste at all salty or of seaweed as you might expect; instead the richly flavoured meat has gentle hints of the coastal flora and fauna, such as glasswort, sea purslane, samphire and sea lavender.
The high salt levels and iodine-rich content of these plants and grasses also make the muscle cells in the flesh retain more moisture and so the meat is juicier and 'melt-in-the-mouth' tender. The added benefit of the sea-washed pastures is that the salty water kills a large number of bacteria that can be harmful to sheep and so the need to treat the animals with chemicals is considerably reduced.
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I'm intrigued by the fact that the 'leaders' of the flock can sense when the tide is coming in and lead the flock in a long line up the estuary to the higher ground, then when the tide goes out, the flock returns to the marshes! A leg of salt marsh lamb is delicious roasted - it requires just a seasoning of salt and pepper to bring out its unique flavour. The Welsh often serve it with laverbread too.
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