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Mountain miracles

Welsh lamb is as rich and memorable as the green and windswept landscape in which it thrives. Frank Armstrong puts on his walking boots to find out more

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

Lamb is a foodstuff intimately connected with Wales. Long subjected to cheap humour, Welsh farmers are now enjoying the last laugh: since 2006, the European Union has conferred on Wales the distinction of a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), making it the equal of products such as Parma ham.

So when the opportunity arose for me to learn about different aspects of its production, it was too good to miss: and first, I decided to acquaint myself with its terroir by climbing Mount Snowdon.

A blustery Friday morning seemed an unlucky day to climb one of the highest mountains in Britain, but I trusted in a favourable weather forecast which, for once, was not mistaken. Along the way there was plenty of evidence of the foodstuff-in-waiting which I had come to investigate. Perched precariously on the mountainside, many fine specimens were developing the muscle tone and enjoying the wholesome grasses that were responsible for securing that top European designation.

After the bracing walk I made my way to the Kinmel Arms, just off the A55, where I was to spend the night. On arrival I proceeded to brag about my exploits to the owner, only to learn that he ran up and down the same slopes most Sundays. Having enjoyed his fulsome hospitality, I awoke with a slight jolt the following morning: I was running late for my visit to Myrrdin Davies’s family farm near Llanrwst (pronounced ‘clan-rust’).

The previous night I had copied a rough map from my iPhone. But as I set off it soon became apparent that not only was I unable to pronounce the place names on it, but there were no signs to mark their whereabouts. Moreover, the winding roads were hardly able to accommodate my car, let alone oncoming traffic.

Progress was slow, but I eventually located the farm beneath the rising peaks of Snowdonia National Park. Sheepdogs announced my arrival with frenetic barking, and I was greeted by Myrrdin himself, who was going to show me the ropes.

I was immediately struck by how green the landscape is. This is an area that endures some of the highest levels of rainfall in Britain, but is not subjected to the severe winters further north, creating excellent grass-growing conditions for most of the year. The terrain is also decidedly hilly: 80 per cent of farmland in Wales is categorised as ‘marginal’.

When the grass runs low in the months of darkness the sheep are let loose on beds of swedes; no wonder, then, that the two make a winning combination. Pregnant ewes are also fed on peas and oats, both grown on the farm, while they are kept inside for the winter.

Our first task was to select lambs for slaughter in one of the holding pens. This involves feeling the spine and the ribs to ensure sufficient meatiness, and weighing them to see if they reach a threshold of 38 kilos. If they meet these requirements a blue paint is sprayed on their backs to show they have reached maturity.

After this, we moved on to the ewes situated in another field some distance away. Most of the ewes were Lleyns, a native Welsh variety, and at the Davies’s farm they tend to be bred with Charollais rams, originally a French breed.

After a morning spent stomping around the farm, it came as some relief to return to the warmth of the Davies’s kitchen where a delicious lamb stew awaited, the meat crumbling in the mouth and containing no fat to speak of.

Suitably warmed, I left for my last stop, a visit to the long-established Metcalfe’s Butchers in nearby Llanrwst. Business was flourishing as Saturday customers flocked to purchase their Sunday roasts. Proprietor Elystan Metcalfe informed me that his business was not losing out to the supermarkets as people in the area want to know exactly where their meat comes from.

To further my research, he generously made me a gift of a shoulder of lamb from a farm owned by another Davies family living in remote Dolgam. He advised me not to marinade it as this would only detract from the meat’s distinctive flavour. He recommended roasting it along with a little red wine and water at a slow temperature covered in tin foil at 150C for two-and-a-half hours (mine weighed one-and-a-half kilos), taking off the foil and raising the temperature to crisp it at the end. He also stressed the importance of leaving it to sit and tenderise for half-an-hour after removing it from the oven.

I followed his instructions to the letter, and the lamb that emerged was as lean and tender as promised, the taste infused with the memory of mountain landscapes and windswept farms.

Frank can usually tell his lamb from his hogget.

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