Years ago, Walt and I started cooking a leg of lamb for Thanksgiving. We were living in San Francisco back then. Turkey for Thanksgiving and then turkey again for Christmas just seemed like a little too much turkey and stuffing.
To mark the holiday but a little differently, we turned it into an occasion to make the classic French Sunday dinner, a roasted leg of lamb with those pale green flageolet beans that you only really find here in France. We could get good lamb in San Francisco, and we could actually get dried flageolet beans in certain supermarkets. They were expensive, but it was worth it once a year.
There are two categories of lamb available here in France: French lamb and imported lamb. The imported lamb comes from New Zealand, Australia, or South America. It's less expensive, and it's what I buy if I want to make a lamb stew, a tajine with Moroccan spices, or lamb barbecue Kentucky-style.
For a roast leg of lamb at Thanksgiving, we buy a French leg of lamb — un gigot d'agneau from lamb raised in France. Like many French people, we are convinced it has a milder, superior flavor. For one thing, it hasn't been frozen.
One day at Intermarché, I asked the butcher if he had any lamb legs. I had seen them advertised at a special low price. They were imported, but fresh. He said he had just a few. He didn't order very many, because a lot of people just wouldn't buy them. They preferred French lamb. I told him I was going to make a Moroccan tajine- type stew with one of them, and he said that the imported lamb was perfect for that, but not for oven roasting, in his opinion.
Chauvinism? Or reality? I'd do a tasting comparison one day but I'm not going to roast two legs of lamb at the same time. What would we do with all that meat?
I think the quality of mutton/lamb has improved greatly in France over the past 50 to 75 years. Here's what I read yesterday in a cookbook called Tante Marie : La Véritable Cuisine de famille — La bonne et vieille cuisine française (Aunt Marie: Authentic Family Cooking — Good Old-Fashioned French cuisine). It was published before World War II, I'm pretty sure (but the book doesn't have a copyright date in it), and it describes how to "tenderize" a leg of mutton or lamb. It says:
« Le mouton, pour être bon, doit avoir la chair rouge foncé et la graisse fine et blanche ; il faut autant que possible qu'il soit rassis, car le mouton trop frais est dur et le goût n'est pas aussi bon. »Tante Marie also says that lamb should be prepared and cooked as she describes for mutton. If you don't know, mutton is meat from an older animal — un mouton, or sheep — and lamb is meat from a young, immature animal — un agneau.
"To be good, mutton needs to have dark red flesh and delicate, white fat; if at all possible, it should be hung up to age properly, because mutton that is too fresh is tough and doesn't taste as good."
« Gigot rôti. — Prenez un rouleau à pâtisserie et battez votre gigot pendant deux ou trois minutes, ceci l'attendrit beaucoup... »
"Roast leg. — Take a rolling pin and beat the leg of mutton or lamb with it for two or three minutes, which will greatly tenderize it..."
Well, I'm not going to take the rolling pin to the leg of lamb we bought at the butcher's in Saint-Aignan yesterday. It weighs six pounds and cost 41 euros — that's more than $60.00 U.S. at current exchange rates (and 13.50 €/kg). It's a splurge, and if past gigots d'agneau we have bought in this same shop are any indication, it will be very good without the bashing.
There will be four of us for our holiday dinner, and we'll cook the lamb carefully for guests (and considering the price). Another book, Les Recettes d'une grand'mère et ses conseils (A Grandmother's Recipes and Cooking Advice), by Renée de Grossouvre, says:
« ...beurrez tout le gigot, posez-le dans le plat et, sachant exactement son poids, cuisez-le à four ardent à raison de 15 minutes par livre de viande. ... Surveillez la pendule pour ne pas dépasser le temps prévu, ce qui serait une catastrophe, car un gigot doit être saignant, toute sa qualité en dépend. »
"...butter the leg of lamb all over, put it in the baking dish and, knowing its exact weight, roast it in a hot oven for 15 minutes per pound of meat. ... Keep an eye on the clock so that you don't exceed the proper cooking time, which would be a catastrophe, because the roast leg should be very rare — it's not good cooked any other way."
I don't plan to rub the lamb with butter. Maybe a little olive oil, though. Bon appétit !