Sheep were the first domestic animals in the north, and are still of great importance in areas where the land is not arable – in the mountains and in wet regions. Scandinavian lamb & mutton have traditions back to the Iron age.
Sheep can live on very sparse vegetation, even on bad, stony ground or heathland, and thrive on a varied diet of weeds, grass and leaves. Formerly they were fed on dried young branches in winter, cut from fields with grass and trees grown to harvest the new growth. This tradition is the reason for the farmed landscapes of the middle of Sweden, now almost extinct.
Related: Norwegian Food Traditions – A Living Museum in Oslo
So, sheep have always been the food of the poor, as anybody could keep a few animals on whatever land they happened to have. For this very reason, lamb and mutton have been held in generally low esteem, and have fetched very bad prices.
Appearance and taste
While the taste and texture of lamb meat varies with each breed, it also has a unique way of reflecting the land and vegetation on which the sheep has fed. For example, the sparser and drier the vegetation, the leaner and spicier the meat will be: so, meat from mountain and heath lambs has a unique spiciness, while grass-fed lamb is mild tasting.
Related: Food and Drink in Norway
Lamb from the Nordic islands and Greenland is very sought after as it has a distinctive taste of its own.
Several robust Nordic breeds
The Scandinavians have been breeding sheep since the Iron Age, and there are several robust Nordic breeds of short-tail sheep. The best-known Nordic breeds include immensely hardy Spelsau (sau means sheep in Norwegian), which are found all over the north, including Iceland and the Faroe Islands. They have a layered fleece intended to keep the sheep warm in very bad weather; the distinctive long hairs were once used in the making of sails for Viking boats.
Black-faced Gotland-sheep, also short-tailed, are skinnier than their Spelsau cousins, with very good lean meat. Some of the offspring are horned, some even having two parts of horn. Their beautiful and extremely thick wool is made into carpets and whole sheepskin rugs.
In southern Scandinavia we have marsh lambs, whose meat has a special salinity because of the flat marshland is spayed with salt water from the sea, and this gives the meat a notable flavor, juiciness and color.
Related: Scandinavian Food & Drink
Scandinavian Lamb & Mutton
Many older people believe that lambs have a terrible taste, like chewing on a wet woolen mitten. This view stems from a time when the meat was often from old ewes, which does admittedly have s distinct wooly taste.
Mutton is very rare nowadays, and hard to come by, even if you want it – outside Norway, that is – as it is mostly made into sausages. Mutton is fattier than lamb, with a pronounced gamy taste.
November is traditionally the month in which lambs and older ewes are butchered and the meat then prepared to last during the winter. Pinnekjøtt and fenalår are two Norwegian methods of preserving the meat for winter. Fenalår is a salted (and sometime smoked), then dried leg of mutton that can last for several winters. Other than these old ways, lamb is prepared pretty much like it is in the rest of Europe – roasted as whole legs or chops, or made into light stews, often with dill.
Scandinavian Lamb & Mutton, written by Tor Kjolberg