The lamb comes from Seamus O’Ciobhan’s farm at the very end of the Dingle Peninsula, where his pastures face the storms and wind and salt spray of the Atlantic Ocean. This is the westernmost point in Europe. As the locals like to say, “the next parish is America.”
Jerry Kennedy, our butcher, buys his pré salé lamb from Seamus and, to our everlasting good fortune, sells it to us.
At least twice a week we pop into Jerry’s shop on Orchard Lane to see what he has to entice us that day. But before we look over his offerings, we spend five or ten minutes discussing the events of the day: politics, both local and international; solicitors and bankers and their respective failings; and, always, the weather, good or bad. Then we move on to business.
All of Jerry’s wares – his beef, pork, and lamb – come from within thirty kilometers of his shop. He knows each of his farmers and personally selects his animals.
If we want a steak or pork chops, he’ll bring out a slab of meat, slap it on his big maple block, and say, “How thick would you like it?”
“About this thick,” we say, holding up our thumb and forefinger.
“No trouble,” he says as he begins to slice.
But today, cold and rainy, we want lamb to slow roast for hours in a low oven. Lamb is Jerry’s specialty, his pride and joy. His shop walls are covered with posters announcing his gold medals for lamb sausages, racks and legs of lamb, and lamb shoulder. We select a three-pound lamb shoulder from Seamus’s farm.
“Will I cut the bone for you?” Jerry asks, picking up his hacksaw.
“It’s the only way it will fit in my pot,” I reply.
With the shoulder in our bag, we stop a few doors down at O’Connor’s Fruit & Veg. O’Connor’s potatoes, carrots, onions, and cabbages are grown on the Maharees peninsula just on the other side of the mountain from Dingle town. With our produce in the bag, we head home through the rain for a long, slow day.
At home, in a break between rainy spells, I dash out to the garden and cut a good-sized handful of rosemary. When I get back in the kitchen, I crank up the oven to its highest setting, about 230C (550F). Then I pull my cast iron pot out of the drawer and plop the shoulder onto my wooden cutting board.
Half of the rosemary goes into the bottom of the pot with half of the unpeeled cloves from a large bulb of garlic. The shoulder gets a nice massage with some olive oil followed by some pepper and just a little salt. Pré salé lamb is raised in pastures with exposure to the sea, so it is naturally salty. I scatter the other half of the rosemary and the rest of the garlic cloves on top of the lamb, put the lid on, and slide it into the oven. Immediately, I turn the oven down to 160C (about 325F).
Now I can read my book for the next three and a half hours. A nap is also possible. The aroma from the lamb fills the house and rouses me.
I put my book down and wander back to the kitchen to peel three or four potatoes and a couple of carrots from O’Connor’s. The potatoes are cut into large chunks and the carrots into smaller pieces and all are thrown into pot of salted water. The pot is put on the hob to come to a boil.
The cabbage is sliced up and placed in a bowl and another pot of water is placed on the hob to simmer.
Now I can take the pot with the lamb shoulder out of the oven. The shoulder goes onto my cutting board and gets covered with some foil and a tea towel to rest for 30 minutes or so. I’ve had my rest and the meat deserves the same. I fish the rosemary and garlic out of the pot and drain the grease off the top, leaving the good brown sauce on the bottom.
At this point, I must swear you to secrecy. Each time we go into his shop, Jerry gives us a marrow bone for our dog. Some of these bones are as big as little Lucy’s head. Lucy never sees them. I throw them in the freezer and, when I have eight or ten of them, roast them with some carrots, celery, and onions in a hot oven for an hour, then cover them with water, add some herbs, and simmer for four hours to make beef stock. Please don’t tell Jerry. Or Lucy.
The good pot with the brown sauce goes on the hob over medium heat and a little flour gets stirred in, followed by a couple of cups of that secret beef stock. I stir and scrape all the good bits off the bottom and bring it to a low boil to reduce by half.
While the gravy is reducing, I drain the potatoes and carrots and mash them with butter into a chunky consistency. The cabbage is eased into the pot of water for four or five minutes, drained and tossed with a hunk of butter and some good salt.
Once the gravy is reduced, I throw a couple of tablespoons of drained capers into the pot and simmer for two or three minutes. If Sara isn’t looking, I may add a pat of butter for silkiness. Then I remove the pot from the heat, splash in a little red wine vinegar just to perk it up, and pour the gravy into a small pitcher while resisting the temptation to drink it straight.
The foil and tea towel are set aside and the lamb shredded with two forks into large chunks and served with the mash and cabbage and gravy. This, my friends, is Irish comfort food.
After dinner, we stretch out in front of a fire in the lounge, watching the rain fall, reading our books, and thinking kind thoughts of Jerry and Seamus
“How about some nice fish tomorrow?” I say.