It’s a sure sign of the new season and one of the most classic pairings. Roast leg of lamb complemented with mint sauce simply sings of spring.
Herbaceous and refreshing, mint stands up to the richness of the naturally tender roast, which comes from sheep less than a year old and tastes unlike any other cooked meat. With its crisp browned surface and velvety, juicy interior, this dramatic-looking dish makes an elegant centerpiece for springtime suppers and celebrations. The bone-in leg of lamb’s presentation is particularly impressive. Savory, succulent, and exquisitely flavored, lamb is high in protein, B vitamins, zinc, and iron, and contains very little marbling. Fat congregates at the edges of cuts, making them easy to trim.
Lamb was historically slaughtered in spring when mint proliferates. Drive through the Yakima Valley during growing season, and the air smells like the inside of a freshly brewed cup of mint tea—assertive, fresh, clean. One of the first perennials to arrive each spring, mint cuts through the heaviness of lamb. It’s a traditional pairing, especially this time of year, and it has been for centuries and across cultures and cuisines.
In British fare, there’s lamb and mint sauce, typically made from finely chopped mint leaves, vinegar, and sugar. A pinch of salt, citrus, and bit of boiling water are sometimes also added to the classic condiment. The 1828 Modern Domestic Cookery book from W.A. Henderson offered a simple recipe: “Wash your mint perfectly clean from grit or dirt, then chop it very fine, and put to it vinegar and sugar.”
The pairing was actually made into law in England more than 200 years earlier. In the 1500s, Queen Elizabeth I decreed lamb or mutton must be eaten with bitter herbs as some sort of penance in her effort to discourage consumption and bolster the wool trade. But the mint made the meat, especially from older and gamier sheep, taste that much better.
The reason isn’t just seasonal or historical. It’s scientific. Mint is rich with branched-chain ketones, chemically related to the branched-chain fatty acids released during cooking lamb. Foods that share similar compounds and chemical structures taste better together, according to the 2011 article “Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairings” in Scientific Reports. If lambs consume fresh clover and ryegrass, they’re going to pair even better with mint. This diet produces a particular compound that, according to Scientific Reports, chemically bridges the gap between the lamb’s fatty acids and the mint’s ketones with an aroma that further complements the pairing.
In the Middle East and North Africa, where sheep meat is an important protein, minted yogurt sauce is a staple. Tzatziki—a yogurt-based sauce with mint, cucumber, and garlic—is a classic Greek condiment for lamb. In fact, mint-olive oil dipping sauce dates to ancient Greece, where per capita lamb consumption today hovers around 30 pounds, about 30 times what it is in America.
Nearly one-fifth of Americans’ lamb consumption occurs around Easter. Lamb is among the most popular symbols of the springtime Christian holiday. The season itself—with its blossoms, baby chicks, bunnies, and promise that everything can begin anew—symbolizes rebirth, growth, transition, and hope. Since ancient times, lamb has epitomized spring and served as a symbol of salvation and sacrifice, new life, and renewal.
Despite its traditional significance and bold flavor, lamb is largely underappreciated in America. The United States ranks third in the world for overall meat consumption, but American lamb consumption is very low at about 1 pound per capita, down, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, from 5 pounds at its peak in 1912.
Some blame World War II for its decline. U.S. troops who served in the European theater were fed musky canned mutton, or sheep more than a year old. It’s fattier and carries a much stronger flavor than lamb. Upon returning home, American servicemen apparently eliminated both from their diets, keeping a generation of children from exposure to the distinctive-tasting meat. The numbers of U.S. lamb and sheep, which peaked in 1945 at 56 million head, now hover around 5 million, accounting for less than 1 percent of this country’s livestock industry. By the mid-twentieth century, lamb had fallen off most fine-dining menus in America.
The American Lamb Board wants to change that, starting with its “Feed Your Adventurous Side” slogan. It aims to increase the demand for lamb by 2 percent annually for a total growth of 10 percent by 2022. Its strategy includes capitalizing on consumer interest in production practices, traceability, and buying local. To reach consumers, small lamb farms in particular have been turning to direct marketing, including local farmers markets as well as their own websites and social media, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University.
Today, there are about 101,000 sheep farmers in America. Their numbers have been inching up, thanks to an uptick in recent years of small-scale operations such as the 85-acre Mellifera Farm, co-owned by Walter S. “Steve” Sheppard and Colleen Taugher in Troy, Idaho. They specialize in hardy Icelandic sheep and keep a flock of about 40 animals, including 3 rams and 17 ewes.
“It’s a primitive breed,” says Sheppard, Thurber Professor of Apiculture in the Department of Entomology at Washington State University. He manages Mellifera’s flock, pastures, and apiaries. “These Icelandics have been in Iceland for 1,000 years. They’re good foragers.”
Mellifera sells lamb by the whole animal through its website as well as word-of-mouth. They typically sell out each season. “There is something unique about the meat,” says Taugher, who recently retired as director for global research and engagement in the Office of International Programs at WSU Pullman. “I think because people don’t have it often, it’s something special. It’s something you have for holidays.”
Because of its robustness, “You can pair it with a lot of big flavors. That’s why it’s fun to cook with. There are so many great dishes from different parts of the world where people eat lamb more often. It’s fun to stretch yourself a little bit and try new recipes. I like to do a Moroccan-style tagine.”
But her favorite way of preparing lamb is with a paste of mortar- and pestle-pounded rosemary, garlic, olive oil, and anchovies.
“You could substitute mint,” she says. “It would be really good, too.”
The history of mint farming in Washington state (History Link)
From the archives: Rod Croteau, professor at the Institute for Biological Chemistry at Washington State University, and his research that has helped make Washington mint plants produce more and better peppermint.
Mint conference at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser to discuss threats to mint plants, how to control harmful pathogens, and more (WSU News, 2009)
Coordinated agricultural project on mint involving WSU
Contribution of the mint industry to Washington’s economy (IMPACT Center, PDF)
The history of sheep farming in Washington state (History Link)
Raising market-ready lambs (WSU Extension)