Heaven-sent spring lamb

Garlic and rosemary.
Garlic and rosemary. Photo: David Reist

There are many signs that there is a God, and one that loves us. Foremost among those signs is the sheer wonderfulness of putting us at the top of the food chain. Unless, of course, you are a vegetarian, which puts you one rung down, I'm afraid.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in spring with baby birds, sleepy lizards and turtles warming themselves on the highway, green paddocks filled with calves and lambs, misty mornings giving way to warm afternoons, and longer evenings …

Hang on, pedal back to the frolicking lambs. Yes, let's focus on these fat baby sheep, getting quite plump at five or six months old. Wow, they sure do look healthy, fat and tender.

Spring lamb with garlic and rosemary.
Spring lamb with garlic and rosemary. Photo: David Reist

Today's musical interlude is the funeral song from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, you'll agree quite poignant given our topic.

Have a listen and we'll meet back here in, say, 30 minutes.

So as always, the shoulder gets my attention first, and a slow-cooked shoulder of spring lamb is a perfect feed for a small family. If you have a rosemary bush and have done the right thing and pruned it back over winter, right about now you'll be getting the new growth: delicate shoots that are at their absolute best.

Today's musical interlude is the funeral song from Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, you'll agree quite poignant given our topic.

This is more evidence of that God I was talking about, lamb perfectly sized to eat and young rosemary out at the same time.

If you were particularly well organised, the garlic you harvested and stored after last summer is the third ingredient you need.

You never know where garlic comes from these days. It's generally China or Mexico and is always so coarsely flavoured.


But if you have the chance to try home-grown garlic, it's sensational and sweet.

I found some small bulbs at the organic grocer at the markets, about a quarter the size of the giants you see everywhere else. As the lamb we are using is so delicate, it's easy to overpower it with garlic, so a good technique is to cook it in milk a few times to tame the stronger flavours. A shortcut is to do it the microwave oven (see recipe), and at the end, the garlic is very soft and sweet.

Pair this with a tip of the new-growth rosemary, season and stick it into the lamb shoulder. Each piece needs to be well buried so you can just see the tips, and over the course of an hour or two it will flavour the lamb with a beautiful herby combination.

The final twist to my spring tale is to cook this over a pile of very thinly sliced potatoes. Use pontiacs or something similar - they need to be super thin so they almost melt together.

Usually this would soak up the lamb juice as it cooks, but using a low temperature means that not much juice will come out so you need to augment the dish with lamb stock.

I always set aside the necks and shanks for this task, browned off first to give it a richness. The potatoes really suck this up so you end up with a very meaty gratin to serve with the shoulder.

>> Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au.

Slow-roasted shoulder of spring lamb with rosemary, garlic

1 lamb shoulder

5 cloves garlic


20 tips of new-growth rosemary (the top four or five leaves)


grapeseed oil

Potato gratin

10 pontiac potatoes, unpeeled

1 litre lamb stock (see recipe)


salt and pepper

Trim the lamb shoulder to remove larger fat deposits. Don't go too wild here - remember the equation: fat = flavour + happiness. Place the unpeeled garlic in a coffee cup and cover with about 150ml of milk. Microwave for about a minute, so that it just boils, leave to cool for a couple of minutes, then drain and discard milk. Repeat two more times, using fresh milk each time. Cool.

Peel the now-soft garlic and cut each clove into four slices. Make 20 incisions into the meaty part of the shoulder. Pair each garlic slice with a bit of rosemary, sprinkle with salt and wedge them into the meat. Rub with more salt.

Heat a large pan till hot, add oil and brown the meat all over. Take your time so it is well browned.

For the potato gratin, on a mandolin - not the musical instrument favoured by Neapolitans but a very fine slicer - slice the potatoes into very thin slices. Soak them in a large bowl of water to remove the starch. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper.

Warm the lamb stock a bit and gently mix through the potatoes so they're evenly distributed, sloshy but not swimming.

Arrange in layers in a baking tray so the shoulder will fit on top and you have at least eight layers of potato. Wedge in some rosemary. Place the prepared lamb shoulder on top.

Slow-roast in an oven set at 130C for 1½ to 2½ hours or until the internal temperature reaches about 65C. This will be around medium; adjust as needed.

Serve with a mixed salad full of all your favourite things.

Lamb stock

2kg lamb bones

oil and salt

2 largish onions, chopped

3 carrots, chopped

2 stalk celery, chopped

½ head garlic, unpeeled

500g lamb mince

1 cup red wine

1 sachet of thyme, rosemary, parsley stems, peppercorns

Rub the bones with oil and salt and roast them in a hot oven until they're brown, 40 to 60 minutes, turning every 20 minutes. Add the vegetables towards the end so they enjoy a tan too.

Fry the lamb mince in some more oil until very well cooked and caramelised. Deglaze with the wine. Add to a stockpot with the roasted bones and vegetables. Add the sachet (or just throw in the herbs without packaging them in a sachet) and cover with water. Cook for six hours on a very slow, lazy bubble. Strain, chill, skim and cook down to about a litre.