Agnello & Abbacchio: Lamb

A Whole Lamb in an Italian Market

A Whole Lamb in an Italian Market

Large sections of Italy, both in the mountainous north and the highlands of the south and the islands, are much better suited to sheep and goats than they are to cattle, and it therefore comes as no surprise that Italians have been tending flocks for thousands of years, or indeed that the flocks governed people’s lives, with the men leaving their families in late spring to take their animals to graze the richer mountain meadows, and returning home in the fall laden with cheeses and wool.

Nor does the importance of sheep and goat’s milk cheese in the Italian diet come as a surprise; it was a staple in Roman times and continues to be a staple even now. What does come as a surprise, perhaps, is the relatively minor role that sheep and goat meat play in the Italian diet; though lamb is very popular, especially in spring, and especially in the south, mutton is much less common.

Italian lamb can be divided into two categories.

  • Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

    Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

    Truly young milk-fed lamb, animals that are 20-30 days old at the time of butchering and weigh between 10 and 20 pounds (5-10 k). The Romans call this kind of lamb abbacchio, from abbacchiare (a Roman distortion of abbattere, to butcher), and by now the term has spread throughout the Peninsula. Abbacchi are often sold whole, though one can also buy them cut in half or quartered (if you do buy abbacchio in pieces, remember that the animal should be small; if it’s too large it’s no longer abbacchio). The meat is light colored, very tender, and delicately flavored, while there isn’t much in the way of fat. Because of its delicacy abbacchio is best cooked simply, and with mild seasonings. In the English-speaking world abbacchio is called baby lamb or hothouse lamb.

  • Older lambs are weaned, and can be up to a year old. With respect to abbacchi they are larger and their meat is darker; in selecting lamb prefer animals with relatively broad backs that have quite a bit of meat on them, make sure that the flesh of the thighs is firm and not soft, and make sure it has abundant, firm, white-to-pale-pink kidney fat. If the lamb is small (what’s known as a spring lamb) an Italian butcher may cut it up as if it were an abbacchio, but if it’s larger it will be cut into the traditional cuts, which include chops, leg of lamb, shoulder, saddle, and loin; the neck, breast, and forelegs are often cut up and used to make spiedini, stews, ground lamb, and even sausage.

One important thing to note about larger cuts of lamb is that they are covered by a papery white membrane called the fell, which you should remove if the butcher hasn’t already when you buy the meat. Not only does the Joy of Cooking say it’s indigestible, but also that it keeps seasonings and even heat from penetrating the meat. To remove the fell from a piece of lamb, find a place where the layer of fell and fat will come free, exposing the meat, if you slip a knife under it (for example, the wide end of a leg), and pull the fell up at this point, cutting it away with the blade and being careful to keep the blade to the side of the fell rather than the meat, lest you score the meat. When you have removed the fell you can trim away more fat if you want, though you should keep in mind that a little fat will help keep the meat moist as it cooks.


Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

Legs of Lamb in an Italian Market

Another observation: though abbacchio is unique, kid and older lamb are interchangeable, and the recipes that call for one will work equally well with the other.

And finally, a word on doneness. Outside of more modern restaurants, I have almost never encountered rare lamb in Italy, and certainly not in homes where those who are cooking are more elderly. Rather, the lamb served at home is generally well done, if it’s not people generally return it to the heat source until it is.

I remarked on this years ago, and an American reader replied that a chefly cousin of his had prepared an almost raw leg of lamb for a family dinner at his house, at which point he demanded it go back into the oven. His house, his rules, and the cousin complied most unhappily. But the well done lamb that eventually emerged was, my correspondent told me, the best he had ever had. So if you find rare lamb offputting, do try it well done. I much prefer it that way.

A Few Recipes:


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Categories: Italian Ingredients, Italian Meats - Piatti di Carne

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.


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