As our Five Days of Meat draw to a close, there's one more meaty story we couldn't overlook: the rise of lamb. From an abundance of lamb burgers and lamb ribs popping up on menus of all stripes, to the tremendous interest in a food cart turning out turning out perfect plates of a traditional Mexican lamb prep, it's hard to miss that lamb is gaining major mainstream traction at the moment.
For some insight into the trend, Eater Philly talked to Border Springs Farm owner/shepherd Craig Rogers and chef Nick Macri. Border Springs is located in Southern Virginia and sells to markets up and down the East Coast (Rogers described their scope as reaching from "NYC to Florida; Louisville to Oxford, Missisissippi"); they opened a stand at Reading Terminal Market just over a year ago. They're selling raw product both retail and wholesale, making lamb charcuterie, and turning out a popular menu of hot dishes like tacos, burgers, and pulled lamb-shoulder sandwiches.
We checked in to see how the stand has been received, which products are most popular, and why Philly's such "a great lamb town" — and we even picked up a cooking tip or two.
How does Philly approach lamb?
Unlike some other cities where Rogers sells, like D.C., he says, "Philly's a food town where foodies actually cook." He told us that the average Philly customer is relatively knowledgeable about lamb to begin with, which he chalks up to a couple of things: large populations from cultures where lamb is commonplace, and a strong tradition of local butcher shops that never really died out in Philly as it has elsewhere. [For one such shop, check out our interview with 103-year-old Esposito's Meats.]
While rack of lamb and loins are most popular in other markets, Rogers notes a preference for lamb leg and shoulder in Philly, which he sees as a positive thing: "To use those cuts, you have to know what to do with them."
Macri notes another practical reason the prime rack and loin cuts may be harder to move: "Most people — chefs and home cooks — are watching every penny they spend," he says, and those cuts are expensive. At the moment, he notes, ground lamb is the most popular item at both retail and wholesale (must be all those lamb burgers), "which makes things difficult since there is still an entire three-quarters of an animal that needs to move."
As far as restaurants go, Macri says the popular item of the summer has been Denver ribs, which are getting snapped up by the likes of Osteria and Petruce et al.
Why does our interest in lamb seem to be growing?
"Philadelphia is a meat town, and has a really strong appreciation for the work of a farmer, for good quality meats," says Rogers. He thinks that the recent growth in interest "coincides more with the rapid explosion of quality restaurants in Philadelphia."
Macri points out that, "like anything, it goes in waves," though it does seem that lamb is currently on an upswing. "I think we are seeing a lot more of it because chefs are a little more willing to go outside the most popular or safe choices," Macri goes on. "And also — and I am sure I'll be strung up to a cross for saying this, but — chefs are kind of bored with pork."
(Before anyone readies their pitchforks, it should be noted that Macri has shown no shortage of enthusiasm for pork, either. Previously the executive chef at Southwark, he was highly regarded for his pork-intensive and ever-changing slate of housemade charcuterie.)
So what do you do with it?
While Rogers is probably right in saying that many Philadelphians already known their way around a hunk of lamb, for many of us, it's still a little less familiar than beef and can be intimidating. Rogers deferred to Macri to handle most of the cooking questions, offering just one imperative: "Just don't overcook my lamb, please."
For Macri, the key is communication between the customer and the person selling them meat. "'How do I cook lamb?' and 'What's the best cut?' are the two most common questions. As far as I'm concerned, there are no bad cuts on lamb. They are all fantastic in their own way, if treated properly and with respect."
He prefers to talk to his customers to find out what types of meat they already like and are comfortable cooking, and then to make recommendations from there. "If they say oxtails, I point them to the neck. If their weekend meal of choice is pot roast, I'll suggest leg; spare ribs, I'll say denver ribs." While judging a person's comfort levels can be tough, he adds, "selling an intimidated home cook a hundred dollars' worth of rack of lamb isn't really doing anyone any good."
Of course, if you're still feeling hesitant, or aren't overly interested in cooking to begin with, Macri also told us he's looking at introducing some new lamb charcuterie items soon to add to the spread already available. Rogers tells us that lamb bacon is a popular choice, and also recommends Macri's lamb liver mousse and country pate.