I was tracing my love affair with lamb and realised it went all the way back to my boyhood and our annual holiday, when we would leave the confines of the strange town in which I was brought up and tour far and wide, stopping at towns small and large along the way.
Oranjemund was a strange place to be born in and an even stranger town to live in. When you’re born anywhere it’s just what you know, and you presume that the whole world is like that. But this was a diamond mining town like no other, locked within the ‘sperrgebiet”, where you needed a permit to get in and an X-ray to get out to ensure you hadn’t concealed diamonds anywhere.
This was Consolidated Diamond Mines, reached over the Ernest Oppenheimer Bridge which crossed the mouth of the Orange River. At the Namibian (then South West African) end was a huge fenced compound that looked like a concentration camp – long rows of garages storing residents’ vehicles. A bus took you to the low-slung village of expatriates and sundry money-seekers prepared to live in obscurity in order to make a good wage and have hardly any expenses. It is not a choice I would have made, but you don’t choose what you’re born into.
You were given a company vehicle, house, furniture and fittings, free phone, electricity and water, and when your car was out of petrol you filled it up and even that was not paid for. All you did spend your money on was food, liquor and household goods, drinks at the Recreation Club and your annual holiday. With hindsight, I can understand why there was always quality meat in the house and why we never seemed to skimp on that annual holiday.
Roast legs of lamb were quite normal, and I always loved that meat near the lower part of the leg which I now know to be the part that can be sawed off to become the hind shank. Odd, really, that in rural communities this was always thought to be the inferior part of the beast, and yet it has so much flavour and the most wondeful texture.
In Oranjemund, in the mid-Sixties, it seemed normal to stop at the X-ray centre en route to the garages where the cars were kept. At the garage my dad would tentatively insert the key, his frown suggesting he’d be surprised if it started after months of standing idle. But it started, the tank would be filled, oil, water and tyres checked, and we’d be off over the bridge to freedom for three or four weeks.
In 1964 my dad had bought a Ford Cortina GT, white with a flash of red along each side, and off we went. It was the small town hotels that I loved, in places like Springbok and Kuruman, Citrusdal and Bethelehem, Beaufort West and Aliwal North. For we traversed the entire country, and always the night stop, my sister and I each in our own hotel bedrooms, hearing the dinner gong as a man in a uniform wandered up and down the corridors tinkling a xylophone. I’d have to wear a white shirt, tie and jacket and we’d go down for the first sitting, soup – consommé, cream of tomato or celery – then poached fish with sauce, and more ofen than not roast leg of lamb or beef with three veg and gravy.
There is something profoundly satisfying about the old dining rooms, from the single rose in a glass vase on the table to the swinging doors between dining room and kitchen and the waiters with plates stacked from palm to shoulder, and never the expected mishap.
But times change and you rarely find roast lamb in a restaurant any more. It’s always rack, or shank, occasionally shoulder. And there is something about the meat on a lamb shank that is like no other, and today the humble shank has achieved a proud place in the kitchen. The shank in the picture was slow-cooked for four hours at about 150º to 170º, after having been marinated for 24 hours in lemon juice, lemon zest, olive oil, fresh rosemary, honey, garlic and black pepper. This is my favourite combination for shanks – the zestiness of the lemon cut by a hint of honey, a pleasing herbiness from the rosemary (or thyme or oregano), a fine quintet for a cut of meat that can take lots of flavour.
Lamb shanks with lemon, honey, rosemary and garlic
4 shanks person
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Butter for browning
3 Tbs olive oil
Lots of fresh rosemary
3 Tbs honey
3 fat garlic cloves, crushed
Combine all the ingredients except the butter and salt, give the shanks a good dousng and put it in a covered bowl in the fridge for 24 hours. Once in a while, toss it around to coat the shanks. Bring to room temperature before cooking. Brown the shanks on all sides well, then place in an oven dish, with the marinade, and cook in a 220º oven for 20 minutes. Salt well, turn the heat down to 150º or slightly higher and cook for three to four hours. You can cook it for even longer, but lower the temperature accordingly once it’s been blasted at a high heat for 20 minutes. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.
Be generous when choosing shanks – people love a plate-filler, and even if they say at first, “Ooh gosh, I could never eat all that” – they end up licking the bones clean, trust me.