Producing the Goods
Saltmarsh Lamb, Somerset
Leaving Stockland Bristol and heading north to Steart, the flat and increasingly featureless landscape in this corner of Somerset presents a striking contrast to the Quantocks which rise a few miles to the south west, or to the moors around Bridgwater, which are punctuated with their signature landmarks of willow-lined rhynes, small orchards and grazing fresian cattle. But then you climb the hump - a short incline in the flat landscape, like a ramp up to the plateau of the peninsula - and there really is nothing. No hedges, no trees, no sign of life except the few scattered farms and the odd broiler house. A huge Lloyd Maunder lorry met on a narrow corner momentarily jerks the visitor back to the 21st century, until it passes and the only sound is the wind and the curlews.
Henry and Hazel Fisher have been farming here for forty years, mainly sheep and beef but also some 'corn' over about 200 acres. Henry's speciality, salt marsh lamb, was awarded the Taste of the West Gold Award in 2005 via the company which markets it, The Thoroughly Wild Meat Company, and displays the Levels' Best marque devised by Somerset Food Links. Henry's sheep are Suffolk mules - lowland crosses - big sheep well suited to the productive land and happy to graze the marshes. He has tried other varieties such as Charollais with little success. The peninsula is a finger pointing north-east to Burnham, between the Bristol Channel and the Parrett estuary. Its tip is a nature reserve managed by English Nature, which supports waders including curlew, dunlin, oystercatchers and lapwings, as well as other species such as tawny and barn owls, which hunt in the pastures.
Between May and September English Nature let Henry turn his sheep out onto the 'salterns,' the marshes directly adjacent to the sea, where they love to graze on sea lavender, samphire and sparta grass. The salty ground and grass underfoot means that worming is not necessary and footrot is much less prevalent than with some inland herds. It seems odd that these animals can bear to graze such rough and salty grass which is regularly washed by the tide (in fact, Henry needs tide tables to hand at all times so that he is ready for any high tides racing in across the flat sands which could swamp his herd in no time). Actually they seem to love the grass and older animals which have grazed the marshes before remember their way to them, leading the lambs when the season comes, without needing to be herded.
So the large, lean Suffolks, the seasonal grazing of permanent pastures in the largely frost free winters (a local saying for when the wind whips in off the channel: 'there's an overcoat colder down at Steart') and the salterns in the summer, conspire to offer a deep-coloured meat, with little fat but good marbling and a distinctive taste and texture. Henry's lambs mature longer than many more intensively reared on improved grass. After tupping in October and winter grazing of the ewes over winter, the lambs are born in March and housed over night. At a week they are turned out on the pasture until
May, when the salterns are opened. Some animals may be killed from 14-15 weeks but in the main, the time for slaughter (which takes place 40 miles away in Chard) peaks in October/November. The carcasses hang for ten days between slaughter and cutting. The next plan is to market salt marsh mutton, which Henry and Andrew have already tested on neighbours and friends, to great acclaim. The next plan is market salt marsh mutton, which Henry and Andrew have already tested on neighbours and friends to sample, to great acclaim.
Henry Fisher, Steart farmer
Andrew Moore of Thoroughly Wild Meat Company, Wincanton +44(0)1963 824788.
Somerset Food Link "Levels Best" <www.levelsbest.co.uk>