by Jeannette Béranger
Sheep come in all shapes, sizes and colors, but among them the British long-wool breeds are considered kings. The Lincoln is the largest of the longwools, and over the years I have had the pleasure of visiting several herds in the United States and Canada. I still remember the first time I looked at one of their fleeces, so shiny it shone like foil in the sun. But fleece alone doesn’t make a sheep, and this old British breed offers some culinary delights as well. Good things can come in big packages, and the Lincoln seems to have it all, wrapped up in a versatile breed of sheep.
Long lasting wool
The history of British long wool dates back to the Roman occupation of Great Britain. Longwool sheep have been documented on the European mainland as early as the second century, and it is believed that the Romans brought them to Britain, although sheep persisted for centuries after the Romans left. They were famous depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, Lord of Irnham Manor in Lincolnshire in the 1300s.
In the 1700s, famous cattle breeder Robert Bakewell took an interest in Lincoln Longwools. Bakewell intended to create a new and improved Leicester breed of sheep, which we know today as the Leicester Longwool. He crossed Lincolns with other native animals to raise productive animals with amazingly bright coats. The new Leicester rams were then crossed with old Lincoln sheep to produce an improved Lincoln breed. More refinements and improvements have been made to the breed over time to produce today’s highly productive meat animals with glorious fleeces that have enriched many herd owners in Lincolnshire.
An imposing heritage breed
Lincoln Longwools are huge, with rams weighing 300 pounds and ewes weighing just over 200 pounds. Fortunately, despite their impressive size, they have a gentle temperament. Their wool grows rapidly, reaching lengths of around 12 inches per year, with each animal producing 12 to 16 pounds of wool per year, if handled properly. Proper nutrition and careful management of the fleece will produce strong, shiny fiber. Famous author and fiber artist Deborah Robson writes in The Polar and Fiber Source Book: “For the strength of a wool, for the length and for the coarse fleeces, it is difficult (dare we say, impossible?) To beat a Lincoln Longwool.
My first encounter with Lincolns was at Brian Larson’s farm in Michigan. Larson is a past president of the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association and a recognized master breeder. He described the Lincoln as a “big volume” sheep with a large rumen, a large body, strong and wide loins and good bone mass. The breed is available in white or natural colored fleece. Larson prefers white because it accepts dye beautifully and can be more versatile. For those who do not wish to use dye, natural colored sheep offer nice choices, some of which include silver, brown, and even black in the same fleece. The British do not recognize natural colored Lincolns, but luckily all colors are accepted in the United States and are managed separately in two studbooks for the breed.
“The Lincoln is a large breed, so you need to be prepared to handle animals of their size and have enough space to accommodate them properly,” Larson explains. They are easy keepers, he says, and lambs are born long and lean, which makes calving easier.
The fall of the sheep house
No discussion of Lincoln would be complete without exploring the culinary properties of its meat. Sheep are particularly famous for the hogget, which is most often defined as the meat of a 1 to 2 year old sheep. Larson was kind enough to share half thighs and a shoulder roast of his Lincoln hogget so I could experience the taste and aroma of this amazing meat. I did quite a bit of homework and came up with a cooking strategy based on the low-and-slow philosophy to bring out the best in this kind of grass-finished meat. The plan was to prepare the meat and then serve it to the staff at The Livestock Conservancy’s office so that we could have a group discussion about its qualities.
I decided to prepare the pieces of meat using two different methods, taking inspiration from one of my favorite books on mutton, Much ado for the sheep by Bob Kennard. This book is an amazing resource that expertly dispels the myths that emerged in the mid-20th century that pork and mutton were considered inferior to lamb. Before that, if you wanted to impress someone with a good dinner, you would serve a good piece of mutton. A quote from the book by Pierre des Essarts, an 18th century French actor, sums up the past feeling of the sheep: “The sheep is to the lamb what a millionaire uncle is to his miserable nephew.
The reputation of this once highly regarded meat was destroyed by a cruel act of fate during World War II. Sheep were hastily slaughtered, prepared and canned for shipment to the troops, regardless of the suspension time. In the end, the taste of the meat was spoiled, making it barely edible for the starving soldiers, who then had nothing else to eat. Subsequently, the mere mention of mutton was an unpleasant reminder of canned meat of war. Mutton quickly fell out of favor as tastes shifted to the much milder flavor of lamb.
The keys to a good pig or sheep are said to be breed, feed, and time spent hanging out. Lincoln has long been known as an excellent hogget producer. Corn-based diets can ruin even the best breeds and will tend to make meat taste like game. For ideal flavor, animals should be raised entirely on grass and natural forages – with little or no corn – to ensure the highest quality. After that, it’s a matter of hanging time for the carcass at the slaughterhouse. Ideally, a hanging time of 1 to 2 weeks is perfect for sheep and piglets. (Older sheep require longer aging times in the refrigerator. Many butchers don’t like hanging that long, as the meat takes up space for the incoming product.) We bought a large cooler to finish off. aging the meat at home and a quality vacuum sealer so that the meat can be packaged and stored in a freezer for up to a year without the risk of freezer burn.
A bewitching aroma
I made the 2-pound shoulder roast using a modified version of a recipe I found in Much ado for the sheep for the slowly cooked mutton shoulder. I started by lightly browning three thickly sliced onions in a little olive oil in a cast iron Dutch oven. I took them out, then rubbed the meat with salt and pepper and browned it on all sides in the same pan. Once browned, I added garlic, white wine, and broth (you can use lamb or chicken). I then baked the roast, covered, in the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 2 hours, and basked it every 30 minutes. When finished, I made sure the juices in the meat were clear enough. Then, while the meat was resting, I took the remaining liquid, along with the onions, and used a hand blender to mix it into a light, velvety velvety sauce to accompany the meat.
For the 3-pound leg roast, I opted for one of my favorite coatings for anything mutton-related: Julia Child’s recipe for mustard marinade for lamb. The mixture includes Dijon mustard, soy sauce, ginger, rosemary and olive oil. I coated the meat with this marinade and placed it, uncovered, on a rack over a pot with broth to keep the roast moist. Since the basting process, cooking time, and oven temperature were the same for the leg and shoulder, I was able to cook them at the same time. This produced a well cooked shoulder and a medium rare thigh, both chewy and perfectly cooked. I also made a sauce for the leg with the remaining liquid. I decided to make it a bit heavier than the shoulder sauce, so I mixed some flour and water together and then poured it into the boiling liquid to make a thick sauce.
I let the meat sit for about 30 minutes as I made my way to the office filled with impatient tasters awaiting its arrival. The first thing everyone noticed about the meat was its rich aroma, which filled the room almost immediately after I took out the meat. The sculpture made more than two mouths salivate in anticipation. When we started to taste each roast it was clear that they had very different flavors. Of the two cuts, the shoulder had the stronger flavor. One person noted that the shoulder meat was similar to steak and very flavorful, while others commented on the milder yet delicious leg roast. Both cuts had excellent texture. One taster commented, “I would be proud to have either of these roasts on my table! In the end, the group was equally divided but equally satisfied.
The Lincoln breed is fortunate to be supported by the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association. This active group works to market the breed and cultivate the next generation of breeders, with members who can help mentor newcomers to the breed and put them on the path to success. The best advice I can offer is to take the time to visit a Lincoln breeder and get to know this majestic sheep up close. They are beautiful and useful creatures that will not disappoint you.
Long wool ties
For more information on Lincoln Longwools and working with pork or mutton, visit:
Lincoln National Association of Sheep Breeders
Much ado for the sheep
Jeannette Béranger is the Senior Program Manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She raises rare breeds on her farm in North Carolina and is the co-author of An introduction to heritage breeds.
Posted on February 12, 2020
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