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First it was vegetables, and now it’s meat: products we should buy only when they’re raised locally by people we know. It’s hard—okay, it’s really hard—to live just on vegetables and fruit that grow in season near you. Luckily, though, finding local meat, and year-round, is getting easier. Farmers’ markets increasingly feature coolers filled with sturdily shrink-wrapped cuts of meat and homemade sausages. Community-supported agriculture groups (CSAs) are forming just to deliver subscribers boxes of meat. Food stores that specialize in local produce—to my lazy, non-gardening mind the best result so far of the locavore movement—are branching into butchering.
Lamb offers several advantages to the budding locavore. Sheep are easier to raise and require less pasture than cattle, so aside from poultry and pork, lamb is the local meat you’re likeliest to find from small farms. Unlike cattle, sheep are seldom raised only on grain, which can damage the digestive systems of ruminants, so you can worry less about their health and think more about the grass they foraged on. (I’m eager to taste the lamb now being raised on the salty grass of Martha’s Vineyard, which promises to be America’s answer to the pre-salé, or “pre-salted” lamb of the salt marshes of Brittany.)
Lamb is synonymous with spring, and it is the meat to serve at Easter and Passover, usually as some sort of roast—leg for Easter, rack or stuffed shoulder for Passover (the leg isn’t kosher, unless specially butchered to remove the sciatic nerve). But both those holidays fall before spring lamb is actually available in most places, in May and June. So now is a good time to look for it. And lean spring lamb, naturally lower in fat than the big animals that provide meaty chops, has less of the marbling that accounts for the “lamby” flavor many people find objectionable.
Buying local lamb also sidesteps the meat version of the organic-versus-local battle. Vegetables (or milk or coffee) that are certified organic say nothing about whether workers are humanely treated or fairly paid, and as demand for cheap organic food rises and big farms muscle in, the label can hide ugly truths. In the confusing way of these things, meat “Certified Humane” often signifies origin on one of the large industrial farms that helped write the rules and fund the program, Nicolette Hahn Niman writes in her new Righteous Porkchop. (Don’t be put off by the title. The author, a vegetarian environmental lawyer, pokes fun at “self-righteous” vegans—like, say, her former boyfriend—who search out weird soy-based meat replicas. She finds love with the rancher Bill Niman, the pioneer of humanely raised and good-tasting meat.) The certification to look for, she says, is that of the Animal Welfare Institute, which is based on new models and favors small farms. For now it’s hard to find, as the labeling program is in its early stages. Fortunately, the question for lamb is practically moot because most U.S. sheep are raised on relatively small farms. (I’m leaving out the “food miles” battle—but it’s heated, especially when anyone mentions grass, New Zealand, and airplane fuel.)
The surest way to be confident about humane treatment is to get to know a farmer or local butcher, not read a label. Bill Niman says that unless a restaurant can tell him just where its meat comes from he won’t order it, and some chefs, when they dine out, won’t either. But chefs can’t always afford to buy local meat for their restaurants, because small farmers can’t always afford to sell it at wholesale prices. In a model other chefs should look to, the local-minded Boston chefs Michael Leviton and Tony Maws are talking about sharing the expenses of a van and driver to pick up meat and vegetables at slaughterhouses and farms: the savings would allow them to pay farmers retail prices.
Chefs typically prefer the cheaper cuts, anyway—they’re more fun to cook. Leviton’s favorites are shank and shoulder. The shank can be browned and braised like osso buco; Leviton likes braising shoulder in a low and slow oven with preserved lemons, olives, thyme, and hot peppers. You can find his recipe, along with a Greek lamb stew from Aglaia Kremezi, at food.theatlantic.com.
You’ll also find a recipe for what Jamey Lionette, owner of Lionette’s, a market in Boston that specializes in locally raised meat, says is his secret favorite cut: the neck, tiny and quick to roast—a half hour or so—and better, he says, than crown roast of beef. Any butcher will gladly part with a boned shoulder roast; there are two, after all. You can test his or her true generosity by asking for that one special treat.