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Loving a lamb from tail to ear (in a potjie)

Lamb necks cooked in a potjie over hot coals

It’s in the old farmhouses with their wide stoeps and kitchens full of history and piety that you’ll find all the best lamb recipes, and where it’s not all about ribs, chops and leg roasts.

Souties – English-speaking South Africans – tend to eat all the obvious parts of a sheep, cow or pig. Afrikaners with any kind of farming background know their way around the entire beast, from tail to ear. Pig’s cheeks can be utterly sublime. The trotters of any of these animals are worth putting into a good meaty soup. Lambs’ tails make a superb stew thanks to the gelatinous bits that insinuate themselves into the broth. And lamb neck is one of the best parts of a fledgling sheep of all because it has plenty of meat, enough bone to give it a whack of flavour, and still enough of the marrowy good stuff to ooze its unctuous way into the sauce that develops while it cooks for hours.

I first cooked whole lamb neck when I found myself in a writers’ house in Calvinia a few years ago, busy by day with a writing project and by night left to my own solitary ends. Alone and far from home, I dwelt in the kitchen of the late Victorian Boekehuis where Erwin and Alta Coetzee allow writers the solitude to get on with whatever they’ve been procrastinating about for the past year. And it works: I arrived there with thoughts in my head. I left, eight days later, with 17000 words of a full-length play. There’s been a lot of work on it since then, but the structure and most of the meat was there, thanks only to generosity and the right kind of space to work in.

But writing builds up an appetite for food and wine. You’re immersed from dawn to sunset in words and in the mad things that occupy your mind. Then you put the figurative pen down, look around you, and remember where you are, what day it is … and it hits you like a smack in the face: you need a drink like a condemned man needs a reprieve.

The whole necks ready for the coals

I would head for the kitchen, pour myself a glass of red wine, and light the fire in the old range that I had set at breakfast time. Once the heat had built I’d get my dinner going, knowing that I’d only be eating about 9pm. In the meantime, with a whole lamb’s neck, guinea fowl or farm-reared chicken gently cooking in a cast-iron pot, I’d prowl the old house and garden, counting pomegranates, smelling the rosemary from the bush near the kitchen door, and imagining the presences of the old people who once lived there, kuiering over coffee with neighbours popping by with the town gossip, calling the kids in for supper, sitting down at the endless kitchen table to a thousand family meals.

I’ve seldom had occasion to cook whole lamb’s neck since. But last weekend, keen to feed my visiting daughter and her discus thrower fiancé one last time before they took the 22-hour flight back to London (madness – the long detour being the price you pay for a cheaper flight), I popped into my butcher to see what looked good, having decided to do a potjie.

Other than the usual cuts, including shoulder of lamb which looked as if it would be too big for the pot, there were five whole lamb necks. I decided to do the lot. They fit snugly into the pot, so I decided to treat it as a pot roast rather than a conventional potjie packed with vegetables. I did sweet potatoes separately in foil, and whole elephant garlic doused in olive oil and black pepper, and also cooked in foil in the hot coals. Keep an eye on the potatoes and garlic. The former should be tender in an hour, cooked directly in foil on the coals, whereas the garlic shouldn’t take more than half an hour, turning now and then so that they don’t burn. They can be kept warm in a warmer drawer or in a covered pot at the side of the braai. You may need to explain to your British guests that it is not necessary to eat the garlic husks, just suck out the luscious flesh.

Whole garlic roasted in foil in the hot coals

The lamb necks cooked for all of four hours at a gentle simmer. I browned them first in peanut oil in the hot potjie over coals. Then I made a braising sauce of peanut oil, dark soy sauce (not too much), balsamic vinegar, lime juice, honey, and finely chopped fresh ginger and garlic, with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and sloshed the browned necks around in this sauce in the potjie until everything was covered. Lid on, coals on top, and leave to simmer, adding more coals beneath the pot and on the lid as necessary for four hours.

The only thing left to do once the meat is fall-apart tender is to use a ladle to spoon off all of the excess oil and fat that has risen to the surface. For the rest, there will be plenty of lovely sauce ready to pour over the lamb meat on the plate. By far the most delicious meat potjie I’ve ever made. Got to try it.

But yes, there was meat left over. Rather that than have the lamb run out for lack of the host’s generiosity. That’s my philosophy at any rate.

First published in Weekend Argus February 2011

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Alex Chang says:

    Really a delicious food! I looking forward to having a chance to enjoy it!

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