There’s a whole lot of stuff that gran’s generation knew how to do that we have forgotten. For some of them I don’t have much use – how to turn animal fat into soap, for instance. Or crocheting covers for clothes hangers. But when it comes to food, boy did they get it right. Gran knew that beef ‘drippings’ kept in a jug next to the stove made for the best lacy fried eggs and super crisp roast potatoes. She knew for the butter to be extra creamy, it had to be churned patiently and slowly by hand, sitting on the back stoep, thinking pleasant thoughts. But above all she knew what to do with meat. She may have stood a mere 5 feet in her socks, but she could process a carcass that outweighed her by a hundred kilograms faster than anybody else. (I know using words like ‘carcass’ may be a bit much for modern sensibilities, but on the farm we knew where food came from, and we weren’t weird about it.) But above all, she knew what to do with meat once she’d butchered it. Whole and low and slow was her preference, and lamb neck a great favourite.
These days lamb neck is invariably presented to us cut up, ready to be dunked into a stew along with chunks of knuckle. But it really is worthwhile asking your butcher to give you a whole lamb neck. Because roasting it whole transforms this seemingly humble cut into a dinnertime showstopper. Gran just dusted it with salt, browned it – yes, in those beef drippings! – and popped it in the oven. It was stupendous. I go one step further, by placing it on a bed of carrots, baby onions and plenty of fresh herbs. At the end I go a bit continental and smash butterbeans into the heavenly lamb and veggie flavoured cooking juices. And then I sprinkle it with gremolata, and serve it with wild rocket kissed with lemon.
All you need is…
1 medium-sized whole lamb neck
4 large carrots, peeled and sliced in to quite large chunks
6-8 pickling onions, peeled and sliced in half lengthways
2 whole cloves of garlic, unpeeled
2 sprigs thyme
1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves (fresh, not dried)
½ cup water
salt and black pepper
extra virgin olive oil
1 tin butter beans, drained
large handful of parsley, leaves only
wild rocket, for serving
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius (on normal setting, not thermo fan). Put the carrots and onions in a large roasting dish with a lid. Add the sprigs of thyme, rosemary, bay leaves and garlic and give the lot a light drizzle of olive oil and a few turns of sea salt and black pepper. Heat a thick-base frying pan and add some olive oil. Salt the lamb neck and brown it in the frying pan. Place the lamb neck on its cozy vegetable bed, add the water, cover it and slow roast it for four hours.
The lamb neck should be melt-in-the-mouth tender after four hours. Now stir in the butter beans (squash a few of them with a fork) and roast uncovered for a further half an hour to give that awesome fat layer time to crisp up. It is simply deeevine! Then squeeze the garlic pulp into the veggies, give it a squirt of lemon juice and taste to see if it needs salt and pepper. Serve the whole lamb neck on the beans and sprinkle over some finely chopped parsley mixed with finely grated lemon zest. A few wild rocket leaves kissed with lemon juice and a splash of olive oil is the perfect peppery foil for this dish. Back on the farm folks were big and hungry, one neck per person was considered normal. But I find it quite rich, so in my house a 15cm neck will serve two adults very handsomely.