Tastes: In the Kitchen With Sam Gugino:
Lamb That's a Cut Above
By Sam Gugino
As seen in Wine Spectator magazine, September 30, 2006 issue

Jamie Nicoll used to sell women's clothing in New York. John Jamison sold coal in Pennsylvania. Today, Nicoll, owner of Summerfield Farm in Culpeper, Va., and Jamison, owner of Jamison Farm in Latrobe, Pa., sell what many consider to be the best lamb in the country.

Mark Cox, owner of Mark's in Houston, has been using Summerfield lamb since he opened the restaurant nine years ago. "I've tried all the others. I like the consistency [of Summerfield]. It's got good fat content and they do a great job of aging," says Cox, who typically uses Summerfield lamb in a tasting plate made up of grilled loin, house-made sausage and the slow-roasted cap from the loin, which is shredded, much like pulled pork.

Terrance Brennan uses Jamison lamb in his two New York restaurants, Picholine and Artisanal. "It's very clean, not too strong," says Brennan, who also likes how the taste varies depending on the season in which the animals grazed before slaughter. He's never done a side-by-side comparison, though, since that would necessitate using frozen lamb.

There was a time when raising sheep-heck, almost any kind of farming-was handed down as an occupation from one generation to the next. Since the end of World War II, however, that tradition has faded. Farming has become big business, with animals turned out like assembly-line automobiles.

Not so with Nicoll and Jamison. Small is beautiful for these two good shepherds, who were artisanal food producers before people even knew what that term meant. Both men are self-taught, and they share common philosophies about the humane raising and slaughtering of their sheep. And both are involved in every facet of their operations, from how the animals are fed to how they are prepared for sale.

In 1976, John Jamison and his wife, Sukey, bought a 65-acre farm because they wanted the old stone house that came with it and the farmer would only sell the property in its entirety. For nine years, the Jamisons were content to sell corn, oats and hay to the previous owner for his dairy cows. When Jamison got laid off in 1985, they decided to raise sheep. Why sheep? "Because cows are too big," he says. "They break things."

Jokes aside, the Jamisons decided to raise sheep, bought from local farms while they are still being weaned, for a number of reasons. "Most lamb comes from Montana, Colorado, California and Texas, which don't have the quality of grass we have in the East," Jamison says. "It makes the lamb taste better and it's ecologically better because you're not using a lot of petrochemicals."

The downside of grass-fed lamb is that it is leaner than lamb finished on corn and can be tough if not handled properly. This occurs, for example, if the meat is chilled too quickly after slaughter-a process that, unlike most lamb producers, Jamison Farm does itself. Unfortunately, Jamison only discovered this himself after sending a leg to Julia Child, who found the meat chewy. Now he slowly chills down the meat after slaughter.

Although the Jamisons work together on farm production, they split the other chores. John handles the slaughtering and selling, while Sukey, a trained chef and former caterer, does the butchering and oversees the making of lamb products such as stew, pie, sausage and pasta sauce.

Jamison Farm is certified by Humane Farm Animal Care, a Virginia-based nonprofit organization. "Jean-Louis used to say that a happy chicken is a tasty chicken," says Jamison, referring to his close friend, and one of his first customers, Jean-Louis Palladin, the late Washington, D.C., chef.

Nicoll, meanwhile, came home to the family horse farm in Virginia when his father died in 1983. "I looked at restaurant menus and saw that the three most expensive items were Dover sole, lobster and milk-fed veal," Nicoll says. "Since I couldn't raise sole or lobster, I started with veal." He began raising sheep so he'd have something else to sell. "I just jumped in," he says. "I started with 21 sheep. Pretty soon I was up to 500." Nicoll has since moved and expanded his operations several times, landing in his current location in 1993.

Because leg of lamb didn't move as fast as the racks and loins that restaurants preferred, Nicoll began to dry-age the legs in the mid-1980s, which no one else was doing at the time. Soon restaurants started asking for the legs, which had a richer, deeper flavor similar to that of dry-aged beef. In addition, Nicoll broke down the legs into individual muscles that restaurants could use more easily. He also started to dry-age other cuts to order, such as a loin he dry-ages for Gunther Seeger, an Atlanta-based chef and restaurateur. Mark Cox also custom orders specific cuts from Summerfield. "Jamie is very creative," he says. "He's great for consultation on various cuts."

Nicoll achieved his expertise on his own, which fits his rather contrarian nature. From the time he started, he has butchered his own meat, and he cooks for his family every night. By experimenting in his own kitchen, Nicoll came to better understand how to advise chefs and how to use the meat chefs didn't want, such as the shoulder that he transforms into sausage.

Nicoll's animals, like Jamison's, are bought from local farms when very young, and he says that he raises them without growth hormones or prophylactic drugs. But Nicholl can't be bothered to get an official seal of approval. "I've got enough bureaucracy already," he says. So how does one verify his husbandry practices? "Come and visit the farm," he suggests.

Even though Nicoll doesn't do his own slaughtering, he insists that the slaughterhouse he uses let the animals rest for 24 hours before slaughter in order to calm them. Stressed animals pump out adrenaline, which stiffens the meat.

Unlike Jamison, Nicoll doesn't think the grasses in the East are much different from those in other areas of the country. In addition, he prefers to finish his lamb on corn. This adds more fat to the meat and gives it a richer flavor. I tried legs, shoulders and racks from both producers, and found the Summerfield meat somewhat earthier, or a bit more "lamby." The Jamison lamb was more delicate-cleaner, if you will. It is the kind of lamb that people who don't like a more pronounced lamb taste might prefer. The Jamison meat was also leaner, but still very tender.

Though the Jamison lamb varies in size from a carcass weight of between 35 and 50 pounds, it tends to be smaller than the Summerfield, which ranges from 40 to 60 pounds. (Mass-produced lamb carcasses can weigh up to 85 pounds, sometimes more.) The Jamison shoulder I cooked was 4.48 pounds, as opposed to 8.63 pounds for the Summerfield. The Jamison rack was 1.08 pounds, while the Summerfield was 1.55 pounds.

One reason for the difference in size is age. Summerfield sheep are typically slaughtered when they're between six and 10 months old, while Jamison has his slaughtered at three to six months, though he'll let some get bigger if a chef requests it. Summerfield's use of corn to finish its lamb also provides more bulk than the grass that Jamison sheep eat throughout their lives. (Summerfield and Jamison use similar breeds, such as Dorset and Suffolk.)

Brennan says lamb makes him think of Provence, so he often uses preparations evoking that region of France as well as the neighboring regions of Spain. The results can be seen in dishes such as an olive-crusted loin with a chutney of Basque peppers and a romesco mousse, or braised shanks with goat cheese polenta and ratatouille.

Despite his preference for lamb cooked in the manner of southern France, Brennan thinks that Southern Rhône wines are too strong for lamb and prefers Pinot Noir. I concur, sort of. In tasting a variety of wines from France, Spain, Italy, Australia and California, my favorite was a Sonoma Pinot Noir, which worked well with both brands. But my second favorite turned out to be from southern France, a Côtes du Rhône.

In the end, the differences between Summerfield and Jamison lamb are of style, not quality, which is excellent in both cases. "It's like the difference between Bordeaux and Burgundy," Jamison says. Or women's clothing and coal.

Contibuting editor Sam Gugino has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1994, becoming a regular columnist in 1996.