Sorry if I’m about to offend any vegetarians or vegans reading this, but Hebridean hogget is delicious. The animal itself may look peculiar when compared with the white woolly breeds so ubiquitous today: it is tiny, has black wool and can have as many as eight horns. But it’s arguably the kind of “lamb” we should be eating and demanding more frequently instead of the sometimes bland, often imported, kind sold in supermarkets - and offered up on restaurant menus.
Hebridean sheep are direct descendants of the hardy ancient North European breed that came to Scotland 8000 years ago. Originally known as Scottish Dunface, they had the useful ability to survive in the wild, steep, barren habitats of the Western Isles - which was just as well, since that was where they were banished to after the Clearances saw the introduction of new, larger-boned, faster-growing, more lucrative breeds on the mainland.
On a recent visit to Jack and Morna Cuthbert in Kinross-shire, farmers of the largest commercial Hebridean flock in Scotland, I’ve seen how extremely nimble they are, even on stick-thin legs, and how they thrive on low-nutrition grazing to this day. Yet they’re on the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST)’s register and were in danger of extinction not that long ago. In 1974 there were only 288 left in just 40 flocks, and none in their homelands across the West of Scotland. The establishing in 1994 of the Hebridean Sheep Society (HSS), a spin-off from the RBST whose aim is to preserve and promote the breed, saw registered numbers of breeding sheep to 2018 swell to an estimated 45,000 in the UK (mostly in the North of England) and come off the critical list - though Jack Cuthbert, a trustee of HSS, reckons there are currently around 12,000 registered Hebridean sheep currently living, 2000 of which are breeding sheep, in 200 flocks.
I understand they are once again being reared in some crofts in the Hebrides too.
Hebrideans have also recently made it onto Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, so are further protected and supported internationally. (For once we can be thankful that they are not on the European Protected Names Scheme, and are therefore immune to worries of what might happen to foods with PGI or PDO status in the case of a No-Deal Brexit.) Interestingly, they have just begun to be farmed in Holland and Belgium, though at the moment only for conservation breeding.
So, given the relatively healthy numbers, are we witnessing a consumer revival? Well, yes and no. More farmers are breeding them, though many do it for conservation grazing on behalf of the Forestry Commission (the sheep’s delicate mouths are good at chomping the jaggy seedlings of self-seeded Silver Birches). But very few restaurants serve their meat. This is most likely because Hebridean sheep grow very slowly, so they’re best killed at hogget age (ie, between 18-24 months) as the lambs don’t have enough meat on them. And given their small frames, they’re not exactly available in great quantities. The upside of this “slow-cooking” is that their meat is exceptionally tasty and very lean - and its rarity surely automatically makes it a must-have for serious foodies.
However, as far as I know Fred Berkmiller of the l’Escargot Bleu and l’Escarbot Blanc restaurants in Edinburgh is the only chef-patron in Scotland to put Hebridean Hogget on his menus. He sources it from Jack and Morna Cuthbert of Ardoch in Kinross-shire. Their flock has gone from 50 when they started out in 2011 to 90 this year to cope with increasing demand in online sales to home cooks. Jack says they are expecting around 135 lambs come March/April. The Cuthberts also cross-breed with Southdowns and have kept Borerary sheep (the most endangered breed in the UK). As you can see, the meat is very dark and lean (with the exception of the Southdown Cross, pictured bottom left on the plate, alongside Boreray rolled shoulder, top, and Hebridean Hogget gigot, right ):
The three types all cook extremely easily and well, yet they all have subtly different flavour and mouthfeel. The Boreray was the deepest in colour and flavour, the Southdown Cross Barnsley chop fine-grained and deliciously fatty; yet the Hebridean Hogget gigot chop was the hands-down favourite at a tasting in my household.
Chef Fred Berkmiller, from Tours in France, rather delightfully describes the flavour of the Hebridean Hogget as “moutony”. He explains: “By ‘moutony’ I mean it is a lamb with flavour and character compared to the commercial lamb we can buy sometimes that are bland and hardly any taste or flavour.
He adds: “The flavour is sweet, enjoyable , rounded and long in the palate. The structure of the meat is consistent and has a certain bite that is very enjoyable and which gives it its own character.
“Unique Scottish produce like this is part of our world-class larder that increasing numbers of consumers are looking for. I’ve noticed that millennials and younger Gen Z diners in my restaurants are actively seeking out traditional foods and want to know their back-story. Hebridean Hogget has that in handfuls.
“Hebridean Hoggets’ smaller carcass means smaller portions. But their uniqueness, flavour, history and heritage makes them a dish to be cherished and championed,” he says. “It is certainly worth keeping them going into the future.”
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust’s CEO Tom Beeston says: “We want more people to eat rare breed meat to drive demand for the animals.”
So lett’s hear it for the Hebridean Hogget, so it’s no longer the black sheep of the foodie world.