Sheep are among the most economically significant species on the
planet. They would be valued even if they were inedible and offered
only wool. But when 19th century food and “household
management” authority Isabella Beeton wrote that, “Of all
wild or domestic animals, the sheep is, without exception, the most
useful,” food topped her list of reasons to appreciate sheep. A
lot of people would agree with Mrs. Beeton, most especially those of
the Middle East, where the dominance of lamb started soon after sheep
were first domesticated. The nomad populations of Central Asia, where
sheep herding is one of the foundation stones of their entire way of
life, would also give her statement a nod. Of course, why stop at meat
and wool when there’s ewe’s milk, the basis for some of the
world’s finest fromages?
The wild sheep from which our current breeds descended once roamed
untended across the Middle East, Nepal, Tibet, and Central Asia.
Archaeological evidence indicates that sheep were likely first
domesticated in about 9000 BC at Zawi Chemi
Shanidar in present-day Iraq. Interestingly, most of the bones
discovered at the site were from sheep under one year of age—so
Stone Age peoples had already developed a preference for lamb over
Since domestication, sheep have spread worldwide, two things
contributing to their popularity: large herds of animals can be
maintained in a wide variety of environments at relatively low costs,
and a highly developed flocking instinct makes it possible for a single
shepherd to control large numbers of animals. Both of these make sheep
extremely cost effective.
Additional archaeological evidence of domestication has been unearthed
at sites in Libya dating to 4800 BC After that,
recorded evidence begins to increase, from paintings in Egyptian tombs
from 2500 BC to frequent mentions in the
earliest sections of the Old Testament. Sheep were in Mesopotamia by
2000 BC at the latest, and there were shepherds
in prehistoric Greece and Italy. While Italy’s taste for lamb
lasted only through the lifetime of the Roman Empire, switching later
to veal, lamb is still the favorite meat in Greece.
The spread of Islam had an effect on the spread of sheep. Lamb is
the meat of choice throughout the Arab world, and can be found in areas
that have been influenced by or ruled by Muslims, including North
Africa and southeastern Europe. Lamb is also important in the Muslim
areas of India, though it is also enjoyed by non-vegetarian Hindus.
France took a while to be convinced, and lamb fell into and out
of favor through the Middle Ages, but today, lamb is held in high
regard. Sheep seem to have leapt over Central and Northern Europe. It
is eaten there, but not much, and rarely with enthusiasm. However, the
British Isles are almost defined by fields of grazing sheep, warm wool
sweaters, and lamb or mutton chops down at the pub. Farther north
still, in Iceland and Greenland, if they say “meat” they
Though lamb traveled the world during the Age of Exploration, it
took off more in some places than it did in others. While most of South
America favors beef, Uruguay adopted lamb as its meat of choice. In the
United States, lamb comes in a distant fourth, after beef, pork, and
veal—though this might be a byproduct of the battle between
sheep ranchers and cattle ranchers in the 19th century, rather than
because of any real distaste for the meat. In the U.S., lamb is more
likely to be eaten in the East or Great Lakes region than in the West.
Also, U.S. consumption is increasing as the country’s ethnic
The recipe below is one I learned from my mom, who is a fabulous
cook. But as a “look at what I’m doing” recipe, it is
a little less exact than some. But trust me, you can’t ruin it,
unless you just forget it’s in the oven. Enjoy.
Agnello Arrosto (Italian-style Roast Leg of Lamb)
1 leg of lamb, approximately 5 lbs.
ground black pepper
1 can Hunt’s tomato sauce
2 cans artichoke hearts
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder evenly on all sides of
the leg of lamb, then rub the lamb with a generous handful of dried
oregano, pressing the herbs into the flesh.
Place the lamb on a rack in a roasting pan. Add ½ inch of
water to the pan.
Pour tomato sauce over the lamb, covering as completely as
possible. While cooking, baste frequently. Add a little water or
additional tomato sauce if it looks like the roast or the pan is
After 1½ hours (or 2 hours, if leg of lamb is larger or if
you like it well done—idea is to do this about ½ an hour
before lamb is done), add the two cans of artichoke hearts to the pan.
Baste at least one more time before done. Bake until a meat thermometer
shows that the lamb reached the degree of doneness you prefer.
You can just use the pan juices as they are, or you can add a
little flour to make a proper gravy. Serve artichoke hearts and gravy
with sliced lamb.
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