More roast lamb will be eaten in Spain this weekend than at any other time of the year. | Archive

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Easter is a moveable feast and no matter how early or late it is, we can never be sure of what the weather will be like in Mallorca — or anywhere in Europe. It’s the time of the equinox, when the sun crosses the celestial equator and day and night are of almost equal length — and the weather can go a bit haywire.

I’ve known Easter Sundays and Mondays when the Mallorcan sun was as hot as in mid-July, and others when it was as rainy and cold as in mid-winter.

But regardless of the kind of weather we are experiencing, Easter brings all kinds of treats that ensure we’ll have a happy time. And one of them is leg of lamb.

I don’t have any current statistics, but more roast lamb will be eaten in Spain this weekend than at any other time of the year. Although I know a few Britons, Americans and Spaniards who don’t like lamb and never eat it, they are very much a minority.

For many of us, roast leg of lamb is a delight and especially on Sundays. For these people, lamb is the favourite choice at Easter.

Mallorcans are particularly fond of lamb and you find it in all kinds of local dishes. During Easter, it’s quite common to see lamb making a triple appearance on Mallorcan tables. Lamb lights are used in frito Mallorquín as a starter, and you’ll find diced shoulder or leg of lamb in the obligatory empanadas de cordero, the lamb pie that is an essential Easter treat in most households. And for many Mallorcans, roast shoulder or leg of lamb is the favourite main course for Easter weekend.

Easter roast lamb also appears on tables all over Spain as well as in Britain, France, Italy and many other countries. All nationalities, however, have their own way of cooking lamb — at any time of the year, not just for Easter.

Lamb empanadasEmpanadas de cordero.

Lamb is different from most other meats in that it can be cooked rare, medium or very well done — and it will still be a delish dish for many.

The French like their lamb extremely rare, Britons and Americans favour medium done and Spaniards go in for lamb that has been roasted for a very long time in a low heat.
But lamb is so versatile it can survive an immensely wide range of roasting times — so everyone can end up eating lamb that is roasted just as they prefer it.

The only people I know who like their lamb well and truly underdone are the French and lovers of French food. But unlike the entrecôte steak in France, which is usually served semi-raw, there is never any raw meat on a rare leg of lamb: the high oven heat always penetrates the flesh and leaves it of an all over pink colour.

Lamb chops

Britons tell you they prefer lamb medium done —but that means of a greyish colour. Most Britons I know don’t want to see even slight tinges of pink.

The Spanish way of roasting a leg of lamb is to leave it in a low oven heat for a couple of hours with, at most, some basting from time to time. Its destiny is to be well and truly overdone — but still most enjoyable.

The French high heat roast for a short time is the only way of getting an all-pink finish. But for most people it takes an act of faith to roast a leg of lamb for a short time no matter how high the heat is.

The roasting time for a leg of lamb in France is 10 minutes per pound, meaning that a 1.5 kilo leg (a biggish one in Mallorca) is in the oven for only 30 minutes. It could hardly be less than very pink. That’s how I prefer it, but the friends I would eat a leg of lamb with don’t want it as underdone as that — so I seldom have it the French way.

When I roast a leg of lamb I have to take into account others’ preferences and on only one occasion did we all want really rare lamb. I got the meat to the exact French taste and it was the best and juiciest lamb I have ever eaten.

On the other hand, there was a time several years ago when I was having British style lamb medium done for lunch every Sunday —and it was one of the most memorable meals of the week. I never tired of it.

I never order leg of lamb in Spanish restaurants because it will always be too overdone for my taste — and perhaps reheated, which is even worse.

But at least twice a year I eat Spanish style roast lamb when I go to my daughter’s for dinner on Christmas Eve and lunch on Easter Sunday. She reckons roast lamb is one of the year’s easiest meals. She simply seasons two 1.5 kilo legs of lamb with olive oil, salt and pepper. They then go into a slow oven and she leaves them there for just over two hours.
During that time she completely forgets about the lamb and doesn’t even baste it occasionally. She opens the oven door only once: to turn the legs at the halfway stage.
Yet at the end of the roasting time she has produced a most enjoyable leg of lamb that everyone loves so much they ask for seconds. Lamb really is the most versatile of all the meats.

All over Spain this weekend the great majority of cook will be slow roasting lamb for just over two hours, sometimes in wood-fired brick ovens.

But unlike my daughter, most of these cooks do not leave their legs of lamb abandoned in the oven for over two hours.

They mollycoddle them during that time by basting them at least every 10 minutes or so. The basting isn’t done with the pan juices but with a special herby concoction the cooks make up to their own particular (and secret) formula.

Spanish cooks may tell you the basics of what they do to roast a leg or a quarter of lamb, but they’ll never reveal the ingredients of their secret basting mix. But there’s no real secret to this magic potion. It’s called a ‘brebaje’ in Spanish and it consists of wine (red or white), a good dash of vinegar, olive oil and the herbs of one’s choice.

The herbs can be fresh, dry or a mix. It’s the choice and quantities of herbs that make each ‘brebaje’ special. Making your own magical brew is easy enough but you have to experiment to achieve the herby balance that appeals to your palate.

Start with 200 mls of wine (most people prefer red) of a reasonable quality — one that you’ll be drinking with the lamb is ideal.

Use a tablespoon of vinegar, but not one of the cheap aggressive ones. Look for one at El Corte Inglés made by big winery such as Torres.

You should also use virgen extra olive oil because it has so much more flavour. Start off with three tablespoons.

Now comes the highly personal bit: the herbs of your choice and their amounts. Most cooks use some mint and rosemary, two herbs very much associated with lamb.
But after that the herb garden is your limit and you can let your imagination (and tastebuds) run wild. And you needn’t stick to herbs, because some of the spices pair nicely with lamb.

Some coriander seeds roughly crushed in a mortar will give your lamb a very special taste few people will be able to recognise. A scraping of nutmeg can also work wonders.

You should write down what you are adding to each new ‘brebaje’ and when you hit on the one that pleases you most you’ll know exactly what went into it.

On the other hand, you can do as I do and play it like a jazz musician: improvising on basic themes and chords and getting different and fresh results every time. Cooking is often at its most interesting when a bit of the unknown is involved.

If you don’t already have a butcher who supplies you with top quality legs of lamb, two of the best places at the Mercat d’Olivar are Comas and Vera. Both are easy to find. As you go into the market at the main entrance, Comas is the big stall facing you, slightly to your left. They have a nice selection of meats and quality is good.

To get to Vera, go left a you do through the main door until you come to the second aisle.Vera is on the corner.

The market will be open tomorrow until about 2pm and again on Saturday. There’s plenty of time to get a leg of lamb for Easter Sunday or Monday.

The best way to shop at the Mercat d’Olivar, especially at Easter, Christmas and the New Year, is to get there by 8am.

You’ll get served almost immediately at most stalls and at this time of the year you’ll get the first choice of the available legs of lamb. The best legs are always snapped up quickly and latecomers have to make do with what’s left.

If you’re cooking for only two and want a small leg of milk-fed lamb, your best bet is El Corte Inglés where they always have a good selection. But get there at 9am when they open.

At El Corte Inglés you’ll also find a varied choice of fresh and dried herbs for making the ‘brebaje’.