It starts with a birth. Of course it does. In a dark barn in the springtime, around Easter, or Passover — that time of year, time of births and rebirths, there is a ewe. It happens at night, like it most often does for humans, as if there is a greater openness in the universe for that kind of thing when the sun is under. There is struggling, there is pain, I am sure, there is a human watching, ready to assist if necessary, and then there is new life. One, two, maybe three curly-haired little lambs. Complete cuteness, although there was blood. And pain, but that is soon forgotten.
This lamb, this cliché of cuteness, is lucky enough to grow up outdoors. When May comes around and it is big enough to handle itself with some certainty, it gets to go out, with its mother and the rest of the herd. This could have been an Irish specimen, a New Zealand one; anywhere where rain is plentiful and the grass is green and juicy, really, but this one happens to have been born on the west coast of Norway. The mountains are high and steep, but not normally dangerously so, and there is an abundance of grass, and there are few predators, so the sheep are pretty safe. The sheep are let out for summer pasture, they roam around by themselves from May to September. There is still some snow up high when they are let out in the spring, in fact, the slow melting snow ensures the growth of fresh grass into the summer months; and when they are collected in fall, the first snow is not far off. They have had their summer of freedom, of fresh air and good food.
When I was about twelve years old I spent a few weeks in the summer at my uncle’s, who was a sheep farmer in Østbødalen, a side valley to Surnadal in Norway. Most of the herd was out on pasture, but they had two lambs who’d been rejected by their mother ewe, so were kept in a pen by the house and bottlefed. To my twelve year old self it was a complete wonder to be allowed to feed the hungry lambs who could empty their bottle in two minutes flat. Or less. I didn’t give much thought to how they missed out on the freedom of roaming the mountain because there was no mother to look after them. They were housebound, they were taken care of, and they were cute. But I don’t know what became of these two later. Rejected lambs don’t make good mothers, so they are all destined for early slaughter, and I assume that is what happened to them. Like most of the free roaming lambs, too. They have their season outdoors, but that is it.
And this is the necessary precursor to the centerpiece of many a western Norwegian Christmas lunch table: A cold-smoked leg of lamb, in my native tongue called Røkt lammelår. The Norwegian people is small as populations go – about 5 million these days. The region where this lamb is traditionally eaten, is even smaller; mainly it is the coastal part of Norway with the shortest distance to Iceland, from Haugesund to Kristiansund or thereabouts, which would house less than 1 million people. Across the sea, in Iceland (total population 320.000), they have a similar dish, but with a harsher flavor. Theirs is called Hangikjöt, and one of the main differences is that it is smoked over dried sheep droppings, imparting that special something.
The Norwegian one has a softer character. The meat itself takes on a dark pink, almost purple color, and when it is cooked right, it has a salty and intensely juicy flavor. In my family, this was the flavor that brought Christmas into the house. On “little Christmas Eve”, the night before Christmas Eve, which is the main day of the celebration in Norway, we’d slowly bake the leg of lamb on low heat in the oven and make a simple dinner with it: Just the meat and a mash from rutabaga and potatoes. Beer and aquavit for the grownups. Pure bliss. And the leftovers (a substantial chunk of meat still) would be eaten cold throughout the rest of the holidays – for breakfast, for lunch, as an evening snack. On a slice of bread or by itself. By New Year it would be all gone.
So, yes, it is the Norwegian version I love and crave come Christmas-time, but as I live in the US, this craving is not easy to still. Meat is generally not imported here, and considering the small native population that eats this specialty, any US market for it would be miniscule, if at all existent. No wonder, therefore, that no one has bothered trying to get an import license for it. Or learn how to produce it commercially. I have looked far and wide, into every little corner of the Internet, to try and locate some, but have not come up with anything yet. One year the craving was so bad I set out to make my own.
Not really knowing where to start, I started with a call to my mother, who talked to her butcher (who produces the lamb we’d normally have for the holidays), who then called me back with instructions. The meat needed to be brined for three days in a water/salt/saltpeter solution. (That is what makes it “lettsaltet”, or lightly salted. Norwegians tend to really like salt.) Then the smoking, which should happen “overnight” (but is that 8 hours? 12? I still don’t really know), at a temperature not to exceed 30 degrees C, about 80 degrees F. Thankfully Pennsylvania nights tend to be cool in December, so at least I wasn’t competing with high outside temperatures in trying to keep it cool.
This is what I needed:
- A smoker. You don’t necessarily need a very fancy smoker, but you need one that can be used for cold smoking. I bought a simple cabinet-style Brinkmann as a starting point, figuring I would also use it for other things eventually. (I never did. When I moved to another state this summer, I gave it away for scrap metal.)
- The Brinkmann is however not equipped with a tray for cold-smoking. On eBay I found this guy who welded and sold special trays for that kind of use; a small maze of channels that you fill with fine woodchips and light in one end. The idea is that the flame will slowly burn its way through the maze and produce smoke, but very little heat in the 8 hours or so it takes for it to come to the end. 8 hours is a little on the short side for a whole leg of lamb, but it was the option I found. It would have to do.
- The leg of lamb was the easiest part to procure, as there is excellent lamb available in regular supermarkets. It might not be Norwegian mountain lamb, but most likely it is at least a happy Australian camper. At the supermarket pharmacy section I could buy saltpeter, which needs to be added to the brine when preparing the lamb. You won’t find it on the shelf; for some reason this is a special item kept under lock in the back. But they do have it.
And so I started. I scored the skin and mixed my brine and immersed the leg for three days and three nights. Had a cool basement, which was great, as there wasn’t really room for it in my fridge. I did a little test run with the cold-smoke tray, but wasn’t entirely convinced it would work. Figured this would be a make or break situation regardless, so skipped the dress rehearsal and went straight for the real thing. Went outside late at night one dark December evening, lit my tray and put it in the smoker, placed my brined leg of lamb inside, closed the door and went inside to go to bed, crossing my fingers that the smoke would keep any raccoons or other potential meat-thieves away.
The next morning I came outside, and the first hurdle was passed: No thief in the night, the meat was still there. The smoker was cold, but the flame had burned all the way through the maze, so I was hopeful that it had kept going long enough to do its job. But I wouldn’t know that until the time came to eat it. So far, so good, though, and I was still hopeful.
The next step was cooking it. The meat needs to wrapped in foil and baked on low heat over a steaming pan of water in the oven. Some people put a variety of cut-up vegetables in the foil for added flavor, but we always did it the simplest of ways at my house, so that is how I wanted it. Just the lamb in foil, water in the pan underneath, 3 hours of waiting, and voilà!
I have probably never invested more in a meal, ever. The time to research and plan, first to see if I could buy it, then to see if I could make it; then the equipment; and the work. The meat itself is also not cheap, but in the context of all this, it was less important.
And how was it? Of course (alas!) it was a huge disappointment. It bore very little resemblance to the holiday dish of my formative years. The meat was gray and too salty. The outer crust had a distinct taste of cold fire, but even as little as an inch in there was no hint of smoke left. Major, major fail.
Somehow, though, in the larger view of things, it was all still worth it. I had certainly learned a whole lot about how this distinctly flavorful meat is produced, and thereby this tradition came alive for me. Now I knew, theoretically, how it was made, and I also gained a new respect for the difficulty of making something so seemingly basic and simple. Partly one can blame the equipment, sure, but when the first people smoked their leg of lamb to make it last, they didn’t have temperature controlled, high-tech smoking rooms either. But they understood the relationship between the smoke and the temperature, and they knew how to treat the meat. Furthermore, I have a vivid memory of myself these December nights in Pennsylvania, testing out a traditional preservation method from far away and feeling connected with my history; feeling excited and very much alive.
The next time I have this dish, it will be in Norway. I can’t foresee under which circumstances that will be, but I know I will savor it all the more. Whenever I see a nice, chunky leg of lamb in the meat section at the supermarket I feel a small urge to try a second time, but I manage to stop myself. I just don’t want another disappointment, and I also think the lamb deserves better. Sometimes it is better to wait, however long, for the real thing.