“In South Africa there are two types of sheep: those bred for meat – the most famous being the Dorper, and those bred for meat and wool – of which the Merino is the best-known. Roughly a third of the lamb eaten in South Africa comes from the former, the rest from the latter. The type of sheep farmed depends on a number of factors, geographical location being the most important. ‘A’ grade meat from both types tastes great and is pretty similar, really.
Lamb meat comes from young animals. In the grading system used in South Africa lamb is ‘A’ grade, and to achieve that grading a lamb should have no real teeth yet. As soon as lambs get two real teeth they are classified ‘AB’ and are no longer lambs. B and C grades are definitely mutton. An average lamb carcass weighs between 16 and 24 kilograms.
Karoo Lamb is unique and distinct in flavour
Now what makes meat from Karoo sheep so unique and distinct in flavour?
The Karoo has a harsh climate, cold winters and hot summers with hardly any rainfall. The indigenous shrubs endure this harsh climate and grow year round, while grass only grows in rainy season. The Karoo sheep mainly feed on this indigenous flora, which is nutritious as well as palatable to the sheep. These shrubs have a very herby aroma, varying from rosemary, thyme, sage, eucalyptus and lavender. One can say that the sheep flavour their own meat while grazing.
Even when walking around in the fields you can smell the herbs of the bushes and shrubs. It almost feels like walking around in a spice market.
The Karoo lamb and mutton is famous for its unique herby aroma and taste and so only sheep that have been grazing on these bushes will acquire this distinctive flavour.
South African Merino Sheep
The breeding of fine-wool bearing sheep changed drastically in 1789 when merino sheep (two rams and four ewes ) arrived in South Africa from Holland.
Up till this time merino sheep had been jealously guarded by the Spanish. The sheep that arrived at the Cape were gifts to the Dutch from King William V from his flock of merinos. Merinos were not suited to the damp climate in Holland so a few of them were sent to South Africa as an experiment to see how they would fare in the drier climate. The sheep positively thrived in South Africa but there was to be a problem. The Cape government was advised by the Dutch that the merino sheep belonged to the Prince of Orange and had to be returned to Holland. Colonel Gordon, the Commander of the Cape Garrison, was very clever, and when the sheep were returned, he only sent the original six sheep back and kept their offspring. Unfortunately for Gordon the Cape was attacked and taken over by the British shortly afterwards and he was severely criticised for his actions regarding the offspring of the merinos that had been sent back to Holland. So much so that he committed suicide.
His wife who was so embittered by her husband’s death decided to leave South Africa and took two of the merinos with her on the ship Britannia back to Britain and the balance of twenty six merinos she sold to ship’s captains from Australia who were in Table Bay to buy produce. These sheep eventually arrived in Australia and became the backbone of the wool industry there.
Fortunately however Gordon, before his death had sold a number of merinos to his farmer friends so the merino breed was not lost to South Africa. The farmers who had bought the sheep continued their breeding programme and the wool industry went from strength to strength.