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The Lamb Slaughter

February 23, 2010

“The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.”

-Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

This weekend,  Alex and I were invited to a very special event. One of Alex’s dad’s acquaintances is a farmer, and when he heard that we were cooks, he generously invited us for dinner. Through the course of the conversation, we learned that he was planning to slaughter one of his 120-day old lambs for a dinner party with a medium-sized group of family and friends. Alex and I both jumped at the opportunity to go a day early to assist with the slaughter, and we volunteered to do the cooking as well.

Neither of us had ever done anything like this before. In fact, the first time I had actually seen an animal slaughtered was in a video made by one of our professors at the CIA,  Johann Sebold (one of the last remaining Master Butchers in the world). He shot and fully cleaned a calf in under 10 minutes – needless to say, we were all a little intimidated when we saw him in class. The more I read about food and food politics, the more I began to want to actually kill an animal myself – not in any sociopathic way, of course, but as a meat eater, I feel that we all have a moral responsibility to fully realize every consequence and every result of every decision we make, especially when it comes to sustaining ourselves. If you can’t bring yourself to look an animal in the eye before you eat it, then maybe you shouldn’t be eating meat. This also ties in with my main goal of this entire trip – I don’t want to mindlessly taste fruits and foods or buy little remnants of an animal at the supermarket and have them for dinner. I want to look at everything I do and learn from the inside out; from every angle.

The Farm

the farm in sobral

The farm - the sheep and lamb line up for dinner.

The farm lies on the outskirts of Sobral, and from the doors you’d never believe there was a city even remotely nearby. Our farmer started out as a dairy farmer. He went organic to up his profits, and then stopped producing dairy altogether because he could never take a day off (cows need to be milked, even if it’s Sunday or Christmas!). Afterward, he decided to start developing a particular breed of specialty lambs by breeding a local species with an European species to create a type of lamb whose meat could bring in high profits in the local restaurants. The lambs graze on the land all day long, drinking from the pond and playing in the sunshine. The farm is tended by the farmer’s children, one hired maid, and her children. It’s a really simple place with a ton of dogs and cats around, and the porch is lined with hammocks. The pasture is lined with olive and fruit trees, and the entrance has a breathtaking view of the sunset behind the mountains. It’s exactly what comes to mind if you think about an idyllic farm setting.

The Slaughter

We arrived at the farm shortly after noon on Saturday. The farmer’s son (about 17-18) was executing; the maid’s son (just 9 years old!) was assisting as his apprentice. We took a brief tour of the farm, sat and talked for a while before they brought the chosen lamb out. I have to admit – he was cute. Really cute. A 3-ft tall, 120-day old little black and white lamb. I petted him, and then they fastened his collar tightly and stunned him cleanly in the forehead with a wooden plank. He collapsed instantly, and you could see that he was not feeling anything.  I didn’t feel nauseated like I had expected to.

If you’re curious, view the slideshow that follows – if blood makes you sick, don’t click the arrow 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The boys tied a rope around his ankle and hoisted him up so that he was hanging from the rafter of the porch. The maid’s son got a bucket and placed it under the lamb’s head. The older boy made two small incisions in the neck to cut the main veins – a gory slash across the whole throat wasn’t necessary. The blood drained cleanly into the bowl, and the farmer’s son began removing the skin. He started by making incisions around the first joint of every leg, and then made a long cut from the groin to the neck. He carefully peeled it off (skinning the lamb took him at least 15 minutes), and then removed 3 of the legs (all except the one he was hanging from). Next, he cut the belly from the groin to the throat using a very dull, shallow cut – a sharper knife would have punctured the intestines and organs, causing an unpleasant taste in the meat. The innards (along with the head) were placed in a bowl, and the maid began diligently rinsing the intestines and cleaning the rest of the organs.

At this point, our lamb no longer looked like a lamb – he looked like a side of meat hanging from a store window, or a carcass in a movie freezer – ready for market. It was hard to believe we had looked him in the eye and physically felt his heart beating less than a half hour prior.

deboning the lamb

Heather & Alex deboning the lamb

The farmer’s son sawed the carcass in half, and then Alex and I went to work portioning and deboning the entire lamb. We each took a side, and since neither of us had ever broken down a whole lamb before, we kind of guessed at the cuts and learned from each other. We took out the obvious: the tenderloin (tiniest we have EVER seen!), the lollipop chops, the shoulder, and the legs. We decided to totally debone the legs (all our meat class information seemed totally inaccessible at first, but it came back to us pretty quickly), french all of the chops (maybe 1/4 oz each – super tiny!), and leave the shoulder whole. We soaked the shoulder and the legs in a very basic vinaigrette (salt, oil, vinegar, garlic, and some dried herbs) and left it in the refrigerator to marinate overnight. We cooked up the tenderloin and the chops for a light dinner that night – it was amazing how delicious the meat was with just a little salt, pepper, and a quick sear in the pan. The maid took the bones and meat scraps and made a delicious broth as well.

The Meal

The next day, we went to the market to get the finishing ingredients for our dinner. We couldn’t find butcher’s twine anywhere, so we took a few strands off of a new mop (it actually worked perfectly!), stuffed the legs with cilantro, garlic, butter, and an herb/spice rub, and tied it like a roast. We seared it until it was nicely browned, then put it on a makeshift aluminum foil rack, covered it, and roasted it for about an hour and a half, basting furiously every 15ish minutes. We seared the shoulder in a hot oven and then braised it in white wine, stock, garlic, and herbs for about 3-4 hours. Everything came out incredibly tender and all of the guests raved about our dishes.

The maid made a stew out of the stomach, and Alex said it was the best tripe he had ever eaten (I didn’t try it – the smell while it was cooking was so strong that it almost made me vomit). She also made a traditional dish called sarapatel using all of the offal and blood. Sarapatel is a Portuguese dish that uses all of the “nasty bits”, and since that was our goal – not to waste any part of this lamb – it worked perfectly. She first coagulated the blood into nice little cubes. She then par-boiled the heart, liver, tongue, etc. to remove most of the “off” flavors and then sauteed them in a hot pan with oil. Everything was combined into a pot and seasoned liberally with spices and vinegar (again, to make it more palatable) and cooked for several hours. The result was a spicy, vinegary stew that went over generally well with the guests.


All in all, it was a really enjoyable weekend. This is not something that everyone gets the opportunity to do – and it’s certainly not something that just anyone wants to do. Many people prefer to be as far removed from their food as possible, buying their skinless, boneless, genetically modified, corn-fattened Tyson chicken breasts in a neat little styrofoam container from the grocery store with absolutely no idea what a live chicken really looks like or how it lives its short life; that’s not me, and that’s not Alex.

Part of me thought I should be really uneasy about this experience – petting an animal and then eating it several hours later; however, I’m glad I didn’t get nauseated at any point. I was able to prove to myself that I am indeed capable of being a carnivore without any regrets. It didn’t feel barbaric at all – it felt natural, like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. As Michael Pollan describes, it’s wonderful to “eat in full consciousness of a meal.”

PETA’s slogan is “Does your food have a face?”

I think ours should beCan you face your food?”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob Verger permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:23 pm

    Great, fascinating post! An important subject tackled in a thoughtful way.

    And a great website, Alex and Heather!

    Makes me very hungry…

    🙂 Rob

  2. Ryan Edelman permalink
    June 12, 2010 1:25 pm

    This is Awsome! Heather. I was just telling Alex, that my dad bought a lamb from a local farmer, and I wanted to come home and slaughter it. I do believe that it is an important experience to see how the animal is treated while alive, and during its final moments.

    Bravo Heather and Alex, Bravo.
    Miss you guys!


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