An entire year has passed since our journey began. The garlic, that I planted last fall was harvested and cured. The onions, too, were harvested and waiting in the pantry. One last pint jar of mulberry juice, from the mulberries we had picked in the middle of the summer, remained unopened on the shelf. The carrots and Brussels sprouts were busy growing in the raised beds of our kitchen garden. And, of course, our lamb, Ferdinand, who was now fully grown at the age of five months and luckily did not suspect the fate that was awaiting him in a few weeks.
With the cooler temperatures that autumn was bringing us, I also finally started feeling like baking bread again. I’ve become a little bit of a bread-baking fanatic in the last couple of years, but I absolutely hate baking in the summer heat! As a result, my sourdough starter, which I store in the back of our fridge, always seems to go dormant this time of year. It is quite an undertaking to reawaken it: one must feed the dough twice daily for five consecutive days – it’s almost like having another pet in the house. I often forget to feed the dough because unlike our pets, it doesn’t look at me with big eyes and a wagging tail to remind me that it needs to be fed. Sometimes I remember in the middle of the night that the sourdough starter didn’t get its “dinner” and then I rush downstairs in panic to add a couple of tablespoons of flour and water to it. Once the sourdough has finally come back to life, I aim to bake between two and four loaves a week. We eat a lot of bread in this family!!
Despite our love for home-baked bread, we do end up with quite a bit of stale bread. I used to feed it to the chickens, but now I save it to make homemade breadcrumbs or on very special occasions such as this one I save it to make Semmelknödel, a Bavarian type of dumpling. And so, from September onward, I put every old slice of bread in a ziploc bag labeled “old bread” inside the freezer in anticipation for our special meal.
We got our first frost toward the end of October. I noticed that the grass had stopped growing, which meant, I had to start feeding more hay to the sheep again. Sadly, this was also our cue to call Joel the butcher. We had decided to put all three sheep down, because the ewes were getting too old to be bred again and we wanted to spare them the experience of another difficult birth. Knowing that we would not have any sheep over the winter, made it even more difficult for me to set a date for the culling. I procrastinated for a few weeks, until I finally gathered the courage to make the call.
We consider ourselves very lucky to have a local butcher that comes to the farm. Having the culling done on pasture reduces the stress level of the animal, which is not only more humane for the animal, but also better for the quality of the meat. I selected the old black cherry tree as the place that they were going to be put down, because I wanted them to enjoy their last moments of their lives. They had spent many hours lying under this tree, scratching their backs on the trunk and nibbling on its leaves. I surrounded the tree with electric fence netting and built a little corral within using hog panels.
Once Joel arrived, I put some feed out for the sheep and lured them into my little hog-panel corral. Joel very calmly entered the corral with his bolt-gun in his hand and knife on his belt and waited for a good moment to approach them. As soon as they were settled, he held his gun above Ferdinand’s head and pushed the trigger. He collapsed immediately. Both Helga and Frieda did not even flinch and kept eating. He took out his knife and slashed the lamb’s throat. He now had to act fast before the other two sheep realized what was happening. Again, very calmly he stood over the two ewes and pulled the trigger above both their heads. First Helga, then Frieda dropped onto the ground as they fell unconscious. He then proceeded to slash both their throats with his knife. While they were bleeding out in front of us, their bodies convulsing involuntarily, I couldn’t help but ask the same old question – “are you sure they’re dead?”. Joel reassured me that the tremendous force of the bolt gun cut off any communication between the brain and the rest of the body preventing the animal from feeling any kind of pain. Their brains were dead, but their nervous systems were still intact. This is essential during the slaughtering process, so that the heart can pump out most of the blood. It took a good ten minutes for the animals to stop convulsing. While we were waiting, Joel and I discussed what kind of cuts we wanted from the meat. We decided that the meat from the lamb should be mostly cut up in roast-size pieces, while the meat from the ewes was going to be ground or cubed up since it was going to be less tender than that of the lamb.
I helped load the carcasses onto Joel’s truck and waived him goodbye as he was leaving. I was pretty frazzled for the rest of the day and felt a little sad and empty. I was sitting on the porch steps with a glass of bourbon in my hand and couldn’t help but think of all this time I had spent caring for those sheep, feeding them, and the many hours I lied next to them on the pasture. Now, within only twenty minutes they no longer existed on this earth. But then I reminded myself that we gave them the best life possible, including a quick and painless death – and that made everything worth it!!
Braised lamb shanks in mulberry braise
Bavarian-style bread dumplings (Semmelknӧdel)
Roasted Brussels sprouts with caramelized onions
We chose to have our special lamb dinner on a chilly, rainy Sunday in November. There was no special occasion other than us celebrating the food that we worked so hard for. As Tim was browning the lamb shanks in goose fat in our big old le Creuset pot, I went out to the kitchen garden to harvest some vegetables. The Brussels sprouts were still a tad too small, but this meant that they were particularly sweet and tender. The carrots that I had planted in my concrete mix had turned out horrible, of course, but luckily the ones under the tomato plants were lovely and sweet as can be.
Tim cut up the carrots along with some onions and garlic from the root cellar and added them to the pot. Once they were nicely browned, he deglazed the pot with some red wine and a generous amount of our homemade mulberry juice. After it came to a boil, he turned the temperature down to a simmer and began braising the meat in the liquid.
While the meat was quietly bubbling in the pot, we decided to take a nice walk with the kids across the old sheep pasture and into the woods that lie behind it. It had only been four weeks since the sheep had been processed, but the change of seasons made it seem much further away. As we passed the old black cherry tree, I could still see white wool stuck to the trunk. The image of their fat woolly bodies rubbing against the tree made me smile and I thought once more what a nice life they had had. Just beyond the cherry tree is a small grove with wild juniper bushes. We thought the juniper berries would make a nice addition to the braising liquid and decided to gather a few of them. The kids also really liked the tiny little rose hips, that grow wild around here and wanted them to be added to the liquid as well. When we came home, I stopped in our herb garden for some thyme. We brought our forage inside and added it to the lamb, which was starting to look and smell amazing.
About an hour before the lamb was finished, I began making the bread dumplings or Semmelknödel. I put one pound of old bread from my special freezer stash in a large mixing bowl and let it soak in milk for about thirty minutes. When the bread was nice and gooey, I added two eggs and some salt. I mixed everything together by hand and formed eight plum-sized balls. Next, I put them in simmering water for about fifteen minutes.
While the Semmelknödel were simmering, Tim got started on the Brussels sprouts. He sauteed them in butter inside a cast-iron pan. After they had some nice color to them, he put them inside a preheated F 400 oven. Next, it was time to caramelize the onions. He cut them into very thin slices and sauteed them at very low heat on the stove top stirring frequently. Once the Brussels sprouts reached a nice al-dente texture he took them out of the oven and added some salt and the caramelized onions.
The lamb was now beautifully tender and ready to be taken out of the braising liquid. We wrapped it in tin foil and strained the braising liquid, which had turned into a gorgeous dark brown sauce.
I think both of us agree that this was probably the best meal of our lives. I’m not sure whether it was the hard work involved in growing the ingredients for this meal that made it so special, or the circumstances in which they were grown, but I am certain that food from the supermarket will never taste this good!