Mouthwatering merino meat rich, silky, tender - well worth the hunt

Hot off the barbecue: Two Silere  chops, from the leg and saddle. Tasty eating.
Hot off the barbecue: Two Silere chops, from the leg and saddle. Tasty eating.

Vegetarians look away now. In a long career as a trencherman I've enjoyed meat from sheep, cattle, pigs, deer, alpacas, rabbits, goats, kangaroos, all the larger birds including ostriches, all types of creatures that live in the sea and on the beaches, and snails.

As Sarah Palin famously once said (copied from someone else): "If God didn't intend us to eat animals he wouldn't have made them of meat."

To my list I can now add Silere. Few of you will have heard of it, but it is the fancy new name for meat from merino sheep.

Using the innovative thinking that has seen merino wool become the clothing of choice for outdoor adventurers around the world, the farmer-owned New Zealand Merino Company is marketing its meat to top-end restaurants.

It's early days but I wish it every success. Because if it is successful, it will show the way for other breeds of sheep to follow. And this can only be good for the sheep industry.

Silere differs from other sheepmeat in that it includes both lamb and hogget meat. And, as many foodies will tell you, hoggets provide the tastiest cuts of all. The meat is slightly older and has gained more flavour.

The reason we distinguish lamb from hogget is because of European market regulations. They define lamb as meat from sheep less than a year old and not showing two adult teeth. Anything older is a hogget until it grows more teeth, usually by two years.

Most merinos graze the South Island high country, foraging on tussock and wild herbs, and can be slow-maturing. By the time they reach market weights of 17 to 19 kilograms carcass weight they are often classed as hoggets and devalued.

Before you go rushing off to your butcher demanding hogget meat, be warned: hogget may have a stronger flavour than lamb, which may not be to your taste, and it may not be as tender.

But not the Silere I tasted at a special degustation dinner at Hummingbird restaurant in Wellington recently.

Chef Glen Taylor and his helpers produced a variety of dishes featuring cuts from the saddle, rack, belly, shoulder and shortrib, as well as sweetbreads. Adding to the flavour were ingenious spicy garnishes and each dish was washed down with a different year of Nautilus pinot noir.

I have had the good fortune to taste two new brands of sheepmeat in recent weeks. One was Coastal Spring Lamb, meat from lambs 12 weeks old when killed. The pale pink meat is delicious - succulent, tender and with a slight herbal flavour, attributed by the chefs to the salt-blown pastures the lambs grazed on.

The Silere is also delicious, but different. It is older, the meat is darker in colour and has a rich meaty, strongly herbal taste, also put down to the pastures. Unlike other lamb, it is finely grained and has a silky mouth feel. This means it is more tender than other hogget.

If you are eating lamb tonight the chances are it came from a romney, the most common sheep in New Zealand.

It might also have come from a merino, texel, southdown, suffolk, poll dorset or one of the many other breeds, crossbreds and composites that roam the hills.

You will never know. They all disappear into the meat industry's anonymous system.

The care farmers, processors, butchers and packers take to ensure that, first, the animal is not overly stressed, and second, that its meat is properly cut and packaged means a nasty experience is unlikely. But I would like to see greater opportunity for us to try the different breeds, or their blends, and know what we're eating. Then we can choose which we like best.

And over time, the most appreciated breeds will emerge. They may earn a higher price tag and this reward will spur farmers to produce more of them.

Meat companies have the technology to determine which breeds consistently have the most meat in the most valuable parts of their carcasses. To that important information could be added diners' preferences so that New Zealand's top sheep breed can be found.

I suspect it will be the texel.

My apologies to all the farmers working hard to produce coopworths, perendales, highlanders, kelsos and other refinements of the basic romney. These each have their attributes. And because they have been developed by farmers or scientists working for farmers, they are based on ease of production - such traits as fertility, survivability, good milk and fast growth.

But in the few - too few - taste competitions held it is the texel, or a texel-cross, that is more often than not found to be the best. The recent Mint Lamb competition, won by a romney, was a rare exception.

Texel fans put its tender taste down to its easygoing nature, which they say is because it has an extra-long intestine - it takes longer to digest food. Sounds reasonable.

Its meat can be found in a few specialist food stores, but it is a rarity.

Now it has company in the Coastal Spring Lamb, not breed-specific but still worth differentiating, which is in lower North Island New World stores and on the menus of many top restaurants, and the Silere, also in restaurants now.

My advice is to get them while you can. You won't be disappointed.