Isabella Beeton's "Book of Household Management," published in 1861, enjoyed almost scriptural authority in the English-speaking world for half a century. In it she wrote the lamb was "of all wild or domesticated animals, without exception, the most useful to man as food." This may seem somewhat astonishing from a kingdom traditionally associated with beef, but she would not be contradicted by the Arabs. When they speak of meat without specifying any particular kind, it may safely be assumed they are thinking of lamb or mutton.
The Arabs' Middle East, with its gastronomic extensions into North Africa and southeastern Europe is, indeed, the world's most concentrated are of sheep eating.
"Towards the end of Ramadan, the Moslem feast," Donald Aspinwall Allan wrote in an article, Flavors of Lebanon in Gourment Magazine, August 1974, "live sheep may even be seen on the balconies of Beirut apartments. Families with traditions rooted in the desert fatten and slaughter at home. Forget all you've heard about the honored guest being offered an eye. The honored guest wants the tenderest pieces of leg, like everyone else."
The dominance of lamb in the Middle East started early. The oldest find of domesticated sheep's bones, which dates from 9,000 B.C., was made in Iraq, where the majority of them came from sheep which had been killed before reaching the age of one year. Prehistoric man, gross creature though we imagine him to be, was eating lamb rather than mutton. Similar finds have been made in Libya, where they are dated at 4,800 B.C. Sheep were present in Mesopotamia by 2,000 B.C. at the latest, and probably much earlier. Sheep were also raised in prehistoric Greece, where lamb is still the favorite meat and suckling lamb, or kid, roasted whole, is the traditional dish of Easter.
The Middle East has been working for centuries on the development of tasty breeds of sheep with results which unfairingly attract the attention of American visitors comparing the taste of lamb there with the taste of what they have eaten at home. Iranian lamb is sweeter than American lamb, Harry G. Nickles reported in Middle Eastern Cooking. George Papashvily, sampling the flesh of the famous fattailed sheep (already known to the Sumerians) at a little distance from their native ground at Uzbek, wrote in Russian Cooking. "I had never before tasted such delicious meat, super lamb, as much superior to a well-finished Southdown as that aristocrat of sheep is to a middle-aged billy goat."
In India, lamb is important, too. This is true especially in Moslem areas where beef and veal are ruled out by the climate and port by religion. But it is also favored by those Hindus who have not gone vegetarian. The Hindus of Kashmir, for instance have been eating lamb since early Vedic times and still are, largely because they were isolated from their coreligionaries by their high mountains at a time when many Hindus were giving up meat. So they failed to fall in with this new tendency. For the Kashmiri Hindus, the traditional meal for occasions of rejoicing is "The Seven Dishes," all of lamb.
In china, the "Book of Songs," 600 B.C. contains a description of the propitiatory spring sacrifice of a lamb, so carefully seasoned that we may suspect the priests of participating in the enjoyment of the sactifice, as they so often did at many times and in many countries.
In France, lamb has had its ups and downs. In the Middle Ages, the French did not care for the meat of young animals, but they made an exception for lamb. It declined in relative popularity when veal was accepted and suckling pig began to replace suckling lamb. However, the custom of blessing a lamb at Easter kept the tradition of serving a whole lamb on this holiday alive into the time of Louis XV. He then gave a new fillip to the consumption of lamb by importing Merinos from Spain and carrying out what seems to have been the first hybridization of sheep in France. The Merinos, valuable first of all for wood, were converted into Rambouillets, valuable first of all for meat.
These monarchistic associations of lamb may have made it suspect for the Republic, and it seems still to have been in bad odor under Napoleon because a minor scandal was provoked when the Count de Bausset, a high palace official, served a leg of lamb at a formal dinner, "a menu so vulgar," wrote a disapproving critic, "that the reputation of the imperial family suffered greatly in public opinion."
Today, lamb is held in high esteem in France, especially in the classic form of the gigot, a leg of lamb usually flavoured with garlic and accompanied with white beans. This is especially so if it comes from an animal with built-in seasoning, either because it had grazed on the salt meadows which lie under the shadow of Mont St. Michel or the estuary of the Gironde at Pauillac, or alternatively on the plateaux or mountains of the lower Alps or Provence, where the animals feed on pungent wild herbs.
A Spanish opinion that lamb is the best of all meats has given rise to a Valencian saying, De la mar el mero y del monte el cordero (The sea gives cod and the mountain gives lamb). Suckling lamb, preferably spitroasted out of doors, is the traditional Easter dish of Rome. This animal, represented sometimes by its humblest morsels, is enjoyed everywhere throughout Italy.
Central Europe is standoffish about it. Austria pays scant attention to lamb, but in Germany, where it was little eaten until very recently, it has acquired a certain popularity. Nevertheless, it is still found only in the larger butcher shops.
Holland is proud of its Texal lamb, another grazer in salt meadows, in this case those of the Frisiam islands. In Scandinavia, it is Norway which eats the most lamb (imported).
Finland has a specialty of sauna-cured lamb which from the outside looks shriveled and dry, but from the moist heat in which it was cured remains tender and juicy inside. Greenland maintains that it produces the finest lambs in the world because they browse on Arctic willow and juniper.
The pampas of Latin America are beef country, but Uruguay raises, and consequently eats, more lamb than its neighbors. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption