LONDON, Ont. - Lamb is a staple for millions of families around the world and is as traditional for Easter, other religious celebrations and special occasions as turkey is at Thanksgiving for many Canadians.
But here, it's almost the forgotten meat.
Per capita consumption of lamb in 2011 was only 1.04 kilograms, according to Statistics Canada, compared to 37.7 kilograms for poultry, 27.5 kilograms for beef, and 20.8 kilograms for pork. In New Zealand, the average consumption of lamb is about 26 kilograms.
One of the reasons for lamb's low standing may be a legacy of the Second World War. Jenn MacTavish, executive director of the Canadian Sheep Federation, located in Guelph, Ont., and Jeff Suddaby, a chef and restaurant owner in Huntsville, Ont., both say that when their grandfathers were stationed in Britain during the war, they were fed a steady diet of boiled mutton and when they came home, they vowed never to eat sheep products again.
But it's also a factor of supply and demand. Low demand and the financial return are too low to encourage most federally inspected facilities to process lamb. Meat processed at provincially inspected abattoirs can't cross provincial lines.
Canadian lamb is also very expensive, says Suddaby, about double the price of lamb imported from New Zealand or Australia. That's another reason you seldom see Canadian lamb at grocery stores. So consumers who might want Canadian lamb have to search it out at butcher shops, farmers' markets or directly from farmers.
Lamb sales are strongest in Toronto, Montreal and British Columbia, MacTavish says, particularly among ethnic populations and at restaurants. But consumption is increasing in general, she says, albeit slowly.
"We are seeing a demand for lamb increasing overall because we're exposed more to ethnic cuisine now than we were previously. We travel more. We see that demand growing in the restaurant trade first because if somebody in the family doesn't like lamb, it's less likely that it will be consumed at home."
Suddaby, a former television and radio food show host, concurs. He's a huge fan of Canadian lamb and often features it at his 3 Guys and a Stove restaurant. But he says his biggest challenge is getting people who think they don't like lamb just to try it. He calls it a "love-hate" situation: "People who really enjoy lamb rave about it, such as myself. And the people who don't like it really have a dislike for it."
Too often, he believes, this is because they have had a previous bad experience with it. But if you can get those naysayers to try properly cooked and seasoned lamb, they often walk away singing a different tune, he says.
MacTavish says lamb has a "bold flavour, so it tends to do really well when you use bold spices, such as from the Caribbean or in a curry."
Suddaby defines Canadian, corn-fed lamb as "clean-tasting" and says imported lamb, more often grass-fed, has a more "distinctive flavour," although "certainly not a bad taste."
Is it more difficult to cook than other red meats? "Absolutely not," he says. As with beef or pork, "cooking temperature depends on your cuts." A strip loin of lamb cooked at high on a barbecue is "dynamite" and just as good as a beef strip loin cooked the same way. Lamb shanks, which are a little tougher, with quite a bit of fat through them, should be slow-roasted.
He strongly advises people who are new to lamb to start with ground lamb, partly because it's relatively economical. "Anything you use ground beef for, you can substitute with ground lamb." He loves lamb meatballs with spaghetti and tomato sauce, lasagna with lamb, shepherd's pie and lamb meatloaf.
Ground lamb "really opens up the market to the general household because of the dollars and cents. But it's difficult to buy in the grocery store. Most people don't even know it's available. But it's a cheaper cut of the meat and that's a great way to introduce people to lamb."
He suggests going to a butcher shop or even talking to the butcher at your grocery store. "They can get it but it's tough for them to sell it."
There are a variety of websites that offer information on cooking with Canadian lamb, including http://www.freshcanadianlamb.ca, operated by the Canadian Sheep Federation, and http://www.sksheep.com, from the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board. One of the best is from the Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency, at http://www.lambrecipes.ca, which offers a wealth of advice about lamb cuts, what to look for when buying lamb, cooking charts, recipes and a "lamb locator" to help consumers find local suppliers.