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New Zealand or American?

By Naomi Kooker
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2009

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Thirty years ago, Charles Silva fell in love with Bessie Bentas over lamb dinners at her family's table. Her father would roast a leg of lamb, always American-raised meat.

Not only did Silva get the girl, he married into the family business - New England Meat Market. Even though lamb from New Zealand and other countries, such as Australia, has made in-roads in the US food industry over the years, Silva is committed to selling only American lamb through the company's two retail locations in Peabody and Cambridge. "If you put [American and New Zealand lamb] side by side, the person who knows lamb, has good taste buds, will choose the American lamb 10 times over 10," says Silva, now the company's owner.

Silva, a native of Portugal, is not alone. A handful of butchers, particularly upscale butchers, favor domestically grown lamb. But maybe that's because Americans have fallen in love with fat.

"They're two different animals, two different sizes, and two different flavor profiles," says John Dewar of T.F. Kinnealey & Co., a meat purveyor based in Brockton, and founder of his own specialty meat stores in Newton and Wellesley. New Zealand is the largest exporter of lamb in the world and its neighbor Australia has become the second largest exporter.

Kinnealey's general manager of retail says that chefs buy New Zealand lamb because of the price. Frank Kennedy compares American lamb racks at $30 per pound retail to New Zealand's at $12 to $15 per pound.

It isn't just price that influences restaurateur Azita Bina-Seibel. She prefers New Zealand lamb for the flavor. "It's more of a delicate flavor," says Bina-Seibel, who serves shanks and braised lamb on her Lala Rokh menu. She imports the lamb fresh (it is also shipped frozen). "I know people who refer to it as gamey, but I don't agree with that."

Kennedy is one who does think it's stronger than American lamb. "It is gamier," he says of the New Zealand meat. "But for foodies and an older generation . . . that's what lamb is."

Dewar agrees with the gamey description, adding that New Zealand taste is also "grassy." The livestock graze on the island's ubiquitous green terrain. American lamb, by and large, are fed vegetable-based grains, not unlike how cattle is fed. Even if American lamb graze on grass, they're often " 'finished' on feed consisting of corn, barley, soy and/or wheat supplemented with vitamins and minerals," according to Rae Maestas of the American Lamb Board.

Dewar prizes American lamb for what he calls its "steak quality." The cuts are larger. The animals weigh 134 pounds when they reach market; their New Zealand counterparts are a lean 84 pounds. Robert Grant, sous chef of the Butcher Shop in the South End, likes beefy American lamb. He buys his from Vermont and Colorado, where the sheep are often grass-fed. "Colorado is much fattier in a good way," says Grant. "More marble, and the lambs are a little bit larger."

Carlos Corco, meat manager at Foodie's Urban Market, buys his lamb whole from Colorado and butchers them for customers on the spot so they know what they're getting. This time of year, customers want leg of lamb for the holidays; in the winter they buy rack of lamb; in summer they favor chops for the grill.

If you choose American, you have to pay the price. The high cost of feeding lamb and the smaller economies-of-scale push domestic meat prices higher than in New Zealand. Production volume and the available natural feed - grass - there bring the price down to sometimes half the cost of American lamb. New Zealand lamb sells in a wide range of grocers, including Sam's Club and Whole Foods Markets.

Silva, the butcher, did once try New Zealand lamb, but didn't fall in love. "I thought it tasted like fish, a strong muttony flavor," he says. "It just doesn't have the spring delicate flavor the American lamb carries."