No day on the Downs is complete without encountering sheep. They stubbornly stand and sit in the middle of paths, ignoring an oncoming bike or walker, inexplicably amble in line across valleys, or range themselves on ridges like a woolly army ready to charge like the Black Sheep of nightmares.
Why are they there? To keep the Downs downy – nibbling the landscape into shape? To add bucolic ambience to the view? To provide something meaty for us to nibble? Or are they a man made plague of woolly maggots despoiling the natural land? And where do they go?
In order to get closer to the local flocks, it seemed sheepish not to take up an offer from Sheepshare to sample a sheep for an Easter feast. Set up by Brighton Community Agriculture, Sheepshare offers the opportunity to buy a quarter of a freshly butchered sheep purchased direct from a South Downs farmer. So, to see the sheep through to its final fate £40 was paid for what is apparently premium meat. Would it turn out to be a baaaargin?
The order is placed and sheep shared out at a community collection point – on this occasion the gardens of Brighton’s Brighthelm centre. Shaded from spring sunshine a table groaned with bags of bits – leg, shoulder, chops and mince. Sheep are chunky beasts and a quarter of one quite weighty. It just about fits in the panier of a bike – ideally requiring a counter balance to avert an inadvertent sheepwreck.
Next comes the challenge of sharing out the share of sheep to squeeze it into storage. Easy enough to count out chops – but how to slice up a sheepy shoulder? Innovation in the form of haphazard home butchery was at hand – and it was swiftly sawn into more seemly sized chunks.
Now to eat some meat. For a novice sheep chef a 4kg leg is a kitchen challenge, and guests have been invited to help us gorge. General advice seemed to be insertion of some flavours and a slowish roasting. Rosemary is duly picked and poked into holes, along with garlic and a dribbling of lime to counteract memories of greasyness of grandma’s well meant lardy roasts. Then to slide in the oven and wait – nervously peeping as the garnish chars and smoke seeps out, clouding the house with whiffs of charring flesh. Distraction comes in the form of mint sauce. Remembering cloyingly sickly stuff from a jar, is home made any better? Boiling sugar and vinegar signifies not but mashing garden mint is nice and it’s crushed to make the condiment.
At last – judgement time has come. Despite unpromising outward appearance, carving reveals meat cooked to pinky perfection – just like the pictures in a celebrity cheffing book! Surrounded by the safety of vegetables, and mint sauce that tastes like mint sauce only mintier…. its time to sample our share. The verdict is the sheep have done a jolly good job of turning downland greens into a shearly delightlful dinner.
Thank ewe Sheepshare – and sheep.