Herd the latest?
Linda Duffin meets a producer making charcuterie from lamb
MOST animal lovers get themselves a cat or a dog, perhaps a horse if they have the space, or a gerbil if they don’t. Not Victoria Lea. A childhood spent holidaying in the Lake District gave her an abiding love of Herdwick sheep and once she had finished her degree at Writtle College in Essex and got back from a year’s travelling, she bought her first flock of six.
“I like Herdwicks. I think they have friendly faces,” Vicki confides. Huddled on a freezing day by a rented field holding part of her flock, I give her truculent-looking ram the squint-eye, but I can see what she means. They are handsome beasts and the ewes, at least, look placid.
“I like their temperament and I like to try to keep that connection with Cumbria,” says Vicki, who originally came from Cheshire but now makes her home in Stoke-by-Clare. “They are hill sheep and they do really well here. In fact, we’re trying to get some cull ewes down from the fell. You can get a few more years out of them down here because the environment is kinder.” I pull my jacket tighter and try to stop my teeth chattering, but I can imagine that the soft, green fields of Suffolk are like a holiday camp for sheep used to the bleak winters of the Lake District.
Vicki is made of sterner stuff, which is just as well because she takes care of her flock, now 50-strong, on top of her day job as an IT specialist for the National Health Service. The 32-year-old is out in the fields, come rain or shine, at every spare moment and she doesn’t have too many of those. Her partner, Sam, who also works in farming, helps out, but most of the work she does single-handed.
“I work flexi-time with the NHS, four days of nine-and-a-half to 10 hours. I’m less busy with the sheep in winter but at lambing time, when I’m trimming [shearing], or moving them to new pastures, and with general husbandry, I don’t have much spare time. I do farmers’ markets most Saturdays and one Sunday, and I’m booked into a lot of food festivals this year,” she says. She really loves those sheep. So much so, in fact, that she would like to turn them into a full-time job. But with no land of her own it is not easy to make that a paying proposition.
Vicki has always sold lamb boxes of a half or whole sheep. She slaughters them as hoggets at between one and two years of age, and says she’s got good feedback in terms of quality and flavour. “That was plodding along nicely but it wasn’t really going anywhere as
‘They are hill sheep and they do really well here. In fact, we’re trying to get some cull ewes down from the fell ’
such, we haven’t got the amount of grazing land that we need to keep the amount of sheep we need to turn it into a full-time business. So I was looking for something else to do with it. I wanted a stand-alone business to support myself and was looking for ways to make the meat more profitable. In Europe they make charcuterie with these meats so I thought, why not?” And so The Lamb Charcuterie Company was born.
Vicki was introduced to Jackie and Sarah Kennedy, from Marsh Pig Charcuterie in Norfolk, who, in addition to their own range, make salami and other cured meats for clients. “They advised me to come up with recipe combinations and I came up with our first four flavours, which I gave out to friends and family and got lots of feedback. Originally we had four salamis, then we did a very hot Habanero salami for Christmas and we’re working on new flavours this year.”
The current range of salamis is delicious – rosemary and garlic, smoked mint, fennel and orange, and cracked black pepper, all of which marry well with the lamb. They are good as they are but Vicki cooks with them too, mixing her chorizo into Bolognese sauce and lasagne and serving the peppered salami with scallops.
“Eventually I’d like to take over making the charcuterie myself but I have already made a big investment to get to where I am now,” she says. “We have a building in the garden we want to convert and we’re looking at various local grants to help us with that. We should be slicing and packaging at home from March and the next step will be processing it on site.” I believe her. It’s clear this hardy northern lass has transplanted to Suffolk quite as successfully as her sheep.
‘Originally we had four salamis, then we did a very hot Habanero salami for Christmas and we’re working on new flavours this year.’
Victoria Lea of Herdwick Charcuterie for Suffolk Magazine.