Porteño chef and co-owner Ben Milgate speaks to us about his approach to our 5-week dry aged Merino lamb.
“Before Haddon Rig approached us with their 5-week dry-aged whole Merino, I’d never cooked with the breed before, we’ve always used cross-breed Dorper lambs at Porteño. I thought they were really only used for wool! I didn’t quite know how to approach it at first, but as soon I started breaking down the carcass and cut into it I found the most incredible meat under its dry-aged exterior.
Seeing dual purpose use for a specialty breed like Merino shows a lot of respect for the animal. We’re seeing the same start to emerge with dairy cows or retired breeding cows at the moment, and they’ve become a real specialty item. They’ve had a longer life and thus have a different flavour profile, and that’s something to celebrate, not hide. Instead of turning these beautiful, hard-working animals into pet food, they’ve found another purpose.
Whole carcasses are ideal for us because we break it all down – which we chefs love. We get to work with tiny, obscure cuts you could never order from a supplier, and there’s greater control over the cuts you can process – we can leave two cuts together, say, in a way they can’t manage at a big processing warehouse.
When working with Haddon Rig Merino, we started with the legs. Thanks to 5 weeks of dry ageing, which brings an incredibly nutty, heightened umami flavour to the meat’s exterior, the legs were quite dry on the outside, so we decided to trim them right back, and ground down the meat for a tartare amped with allspice, piquillo pepper paste and an onion flatbread – that was an absolutely smashing dish. Serving lamb raw brings the full flavour of the meat to the fore, so it’s not hidden behind smoke or the flavour of char. When you have a sheep that’s been around a while, the flavour just grows in intensity, so we really wanted to showcase that with this dish.
Onto the backstraps, which were just beautiful and an absolute hit. They showed a true, intense lamby flavour with an amazing, super juicy texture. We cooked them really slowly over coals so the cap of fat melted through completely, serving them up with smoky eggplant.
The dry-aged shoulders were the richest part of the meat and we were mindful that you don’t want to push meat that’s been dry-aged any more than it already has been with fast intense cooking as you would with fresh lamb, you want to keep it as moist as possible. To us it was obvious we should slow-roast them and so we did for a full four hours, almost a metre high above the heat of the coals on resting racks, so the fat we left on could gently render its way throughout the meat, serving it with potato mash and a lemon-garlic clam sauce. Lamb and clam – you might not see this combo everywhere, but it works! Acidity is key when working with highly marbled, intensely flavoured meat such as Merino, you want to keep it light rather than add extra richness with a jus or heavy sauce.
We never lock ourselves down to one producer or supplier at Porteño, we’re constantly changing who we buy things off to see what’s new and changing in the industry, especially when it comes to meat, which is central to what we offer here. Family run producers such as Haddon Rig run things like we do at Porteño. As a family, you can tell the dedication they show and that they’re in it for the long haul, they truly care about their product, which is always important to us. Sourcing meat direct from the producer, where you know it’s been looked after and sustainable produced, is key. They also care a lot about well-aged Port in this family – which I wholeheartedly support!”