A cutlet above the rest
Happy Saint David's Day. Today is the feast day of the patron saint of Wales and a fitting time to write about Welsh lamb - revered in Britain and gaining the same status in Hong Kong.
Respected chefs in Britain including Jamie Oliver, Richard Corrigan and Mark Hix are all fans, and Welsh lamb is cropping up on menus all over the city.
Bicky Wong, at Rice Pro Essential in Sheung Wan, began sourcing lamb from Graig Farm in the Brecon Beacons after sending staff to visit the farm. As well as rack of lamb, Wong stocks roasting joints such as leg of lamb and the cheaper but equally tasty shoulder. Wong is a convert: 'I cooked a leg of lamb for Christmas this year. It was great.'
So what's so special about it?
'Compared with lamb from other countries, Welsh lamb is less fatty and has a sweeter flavour. The taste is not overly strong,' says Alain Hui, the Langham Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui's executive sous chef. The sentiment is echoed by others - a strong flavour is not to the taste of the local market. The hotel serves Welsh lamb every day at The Bostonian restaurant and on the buffet in L'Eclipse.
Generous rainfall makes the green, green grass of Wales a nirvana for raising sheep, which roam from its hills to the coast grazing on rich pastures and wild plants.
Many of the 15,000 sheep farms in Wales have been family-run for several generations. And every lamb born there (the country's stock of sheep is about 8.5 million) is logged and traced all the way to slaughter to ensure standards are kept high, according to industry body Meat Promotion Wales.
Every chef I spoke to in Hong Kong cited the sympathetic husbandry as the main reason for stocking Welsh lamb.
'I've visited the farm in Wales [where we source our lamb] quite a few times and have seen how they raise their lambs. I believe it's the best in the world,' says Uwe Opocensky, executive chef at the Mandarin Grill. 'They put the same effort and passion into raising their animals that I put into my dishes.'
Mike Boyle, chef at Ava Restaurant Slash Bar, says: 'Seeing and handling the product on a daily basis, I can tell they care about it. I know this lamb was looked after so I will do the same when I prepare it.'
Hugo's at the Hyatt Regency Hong Kong in Tsim Sha Tsui has Welsh lamb (pictured) as a permanent fixture after a trial before Christmas. 'We know it's a good product,' says executive sous chef Richard Sawyer. 'All the lamb comes from the same farm and is fed 100 per cent organically, which produces a very good meat.'
From Monday, the Steak House at the InterContinental Hong Kong will also offer Welsh lamb. Chef Calvin Choi says: 'Lamb from other countries can be a little tough, but the Welsh lamb we will be serving is very tender. As it's about 19 months old, it's more mature so it's darker in colour, juicier and tastier.'
Choi will be char-grilling racks of lamb - in a charcoal oven - to medium or medium rare.
Most chefs in Hong Kong are opting for the rack of lamb, a dainty and sophisticated cut which appeals to the local market. 'There isn't a demand for the less popular cuts but we are also serving short loin on the bone which gives a nice double chop that's good for grilling,' says Sawyer.
The Mandarin Grill serves the more adventurous shank (the top of the leg which is delicious when slow-cooked), while Boyle at Ava cooks the loin and leg of foodie favourite, salt marsh lamb. The lambs roam the coast, foraging for marsh grasses and coastal plants samphire and sea lavender, which results in a highly tender meat, and not the salty taste you might expect.
Boyle eschews grilling for sous vide, cooking in airtight plastic bags in water baths. 'It's a fail-safe way of cooking. You won't cover the natural flavour like with grilling.'
If sous vide is not in your repertoire, you could do worse than roast a whole leg of lamb in the oven on a low heat for a couple of hours, studded with rosemary and garlic and rubbed with olive oil.
Several high-end supermarkets and organic stores in Hong Kong are selling a selection of cuts including neck fillets ( for stews), neck chops for slow roasting) and leg steaks (to be fried, grilled or barbecued).