Classic Cuisine - French Lamb

No meat is more synonymous with spring than lamb, the traditional centrepiece of the Easter meal...

Yet I appreciate it all year round, enjoying the way its herbal flavour grows more full and grassy later in the season. Cooked quickly to preserve its juices or slowly braised until it collapses under the fork, this is also one of the most versatile meats, capable of standing up to bold flavours such as rosemary, chilli pepper and mustard. Several French regions produce lamb of remarkable quality, which is increasingly protected by labels guaranteeing its origin. Sometimes even these labels can be confusing: agneau de Sisteron, named after a town in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence d�partement, can legally come from a broad area that stretches as far as the Var and the Alpes-Maritimes. Before the producers obtained this label, a lamb from Sisteron' might have been born in one country, raised in another and finally slaughtered in Provence. To be sure that the animal was born in France and raised close to its mother, look for the Label Rouge, IGP (Indication G�ographique Prot�g�e) or AOP (Appellation d'Origine Prot�g�e). Star butcher Hugo Desnoyer sells lamb from the Loz�re region in central France, where the animals graze on the wild flowers and herbs that grow abundantly in this rocky landscape. Having spent some time in this region where cows and sheep easily outnumber people I agree that the meat is hard to equal; it's no wonder that vegetables often seem an afterthought in the local cuisine (unless aligot, a stringy potato-and-cheese concoction, can be considered a vegetable). Another exceptional lamb is l'agneau de pr� sal�, animals that have fed on the salt marshes of the Baie du Mont Saint-Michel. Mainly sold within the region, it sometimes makes its way into good restaurants in Paris. Before Easter, the butchers in my neighbourhood proudly display their agneau de lait, suckling lambs slaughtered when they are around 30 to 40 days old,  weighing just ten kilos. Their pale meat is considered a delicacy, but I would rather let the animals live a little longer and savour the more robust flavour that comes from a diet of fresh grass. Later in the year, when dry feed supplements this fresh diet, I use the stronger-tasting meat to make slow-cooked stews and tagines with Moroccan spices. If impressing others is one of the reasons you like to cook, there are few better ways to do it than with a rack of lamb. Butchers in Paris like to scrape the bones clean – a process known as 'Frenching' – for visual effect, while in Provence nothing is wasted and people are happy to nibble the succulent bits of meat and fat off the bones. Most often, I precook the lamb before brushing it with Dijon mustard, coating it with fresh herbs and breadcrumbs, and finishing it off in the oven. In winter, when I can find local grapefruit in the market, I dry the zests in a low oven and bash them with peppercorns in my mortar before rubbing them over the racks and roasting them. The shoulder is an underappreciated part of the lamb that I also take pleasure in cooking. I might open it up and spread it with a filling of Swiss chard, onion and lemon zest before rolling it up and roasting it, or cut it into cubes and make a classic navarin d'agneau, brimming with sweet spring vegetables (for me, there can be no navarin without fresh garden peas). This cut also lends itself well to Moroccan tagines or Indian biryani, soaking up richly flavoured spices as it softens. A leg of lamb is one of the simplest ways to make a crowd of people very happy. I might marinate it in yoghurt and harissa and serve it with an array of Middle Eastern salads, or rub it with oregano and roast some potatoes with plenty of olive oil and lemon wedges. Savoury, thyme and rosemary also make natural partners for lamb, and garlic never goes amiss. The only thing to avoid if you want to win friends in France is mint jelly, whose lurid green colour is the most vivid image many have retained from childhood visits to England. And don't forget that the French like to eat their roasted lamb ros� – pink in the middle. Navarin d'agneau Serves 6 Take advantage of all the spring vegetables at the markets to make this colourful stew. • 1 lamb shoulder, deboned • Salt and pepper • 1tbsp grapeseed or other neutral-tasting oil • 2 cloves garlic  • � cup white wine • 2 tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and diced, 1 cup chopped canned tomatoes or 2tbsp tomato paste • 4 cups lamb stock, chicken stock or water (1 litre) • A handful of thyme or savoury sprigs • 16 new potatoes • 12 young carrots • 8 young turnips • 1lb fresh peas in their pods 1. Cut the lamb shoulder into large cubes, about 2ins (5cm) and season. Heat the oil in an enamelled cast-iron pot or a large, heavy saucepan. Brown the lamb, in two batches if necessary. Slice the garlic thinly and, when the meat is nearly browned, add to the fat and let it colour lightly. Drain the fat. 2. Still over medium heat, deglaze the pot with white wine, scraping the bottom – all the delicious caramelised juices, known as sucs, should dissolve. Let the wine bubble for a minute, then add the tomato and cook for a minute or two. Add the lamb and stir to coat with the tomato, then add the stock and bring to a boil. Cover the pot and simmer for 40 mins, on the stove over very low heat or in the oven at 350�F (160�C). 3. Peel or scrub the new potatoes, scrub the carrots and cut into diagonal chunks, trim the turnips without peeling them and cut into quarters, and shell the peas. Of these vegetables, only the turnips need to be cooked separately since they could fall apart in the sauce. Cook these in boiling, salted water for 10 mins, or just until tender. When the lamb has cooked for 40 mins, add the potatoes and carrots to the liquid. Let these cook for 30 mins. The lamb should now be tender and the potatoes and carrots cooked – if not , return to the oven for a few minutes longer. The dish can be prepared ahead up to this point. 4. Before serving the stew, add the cooked turnips and fresh peas and cook at a simmer until the peas are bright green but cooked. You can thicken the juice or serve as is.