Wednesday, August 8, 2007

In Iceland summers, the lambs roam free

When in Iceland with Primo several years ago we saw sheep and lambs everywhere. The way it was explained to us, since the growing season in Iceland is short and winter is long, farmers must make hay while the sun shines. To get their flocks through the winter, the farmers have to save everything they can grow in the summer for winter use. So, as soon as the growing season starts, they chase all the sheep off the farms. In summer, the sheep can go anywhere they like - as long as it's not a farm.

Now in Iceland, the prevailing wild forage is a unique mix of lichen, moss, scub, wild-flowers and so on. Iceland is volcanic and the earth there is very young. Between the soil conditions and the latitude (although moderated strongly by warm ocean currents) they don't have lush pasture to graze. And the land offers some dramatic topology - it's not unusual to see steep hills rising out of otherwise flat land - and to see sheep all over the slopes (and roads, and...)

Come fall, people all over Iceland round up all the roaming sheep into long-used round-up pens surrounded by rocks as I recall. Then they sort them out and get them sent back to wherever they belong by examining ear-marks. It's not unusual for sheep to be found a hundred miles or more from home. The young lambs are numerous at this point and some go home with their mothers - but many do not. The herd is culled and the cull is sold for meat. Really good meat. Icelandic lamb is, in my opinion, a terrific product. Leaner than other lamb on the market and with a unique flavor because of their peculiar diet. And while it's not provably organic since nobody's certifying the entire island where they roam, it is a free-range product and as good as organic as far as I'm concerned. To top it off, it is generally sold at very reasonable prices - or at least it was.

In the couple of years after that trip, I would look forward to fall when the Icelandic lamb would, for a brief season, become available here in the US. At that time, it sold for reasonable prices even here at my local Whole Foods. Now I don't know this next bit for sure, but it seems to me that Whole Foods may have an exclusive on this product in the US market now. But whether that's true or not, one thing is for sure - Somewhere along the way, Icelandic lamb at Whole Foods got much more expensive. The price last year was well more than double where it started - and maybe as much as triple. Not sure if this reflects Iceland having established higher prices, Whole Foods taking advantage, or both. But one thing's clear - while still a wonderful product - Iceland lamb sure isn't free around here.

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