When it first began in 1997, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival was less about eating lamb and more about appreciating where it comes from: namely, the fields and mountain ranges surrounding Sun Valley, which has a history of shepherding that dates back to the 1860s. In recent years, though, the festival's emphasis has shifted. This year, lamb-focused events for foodies, including farm-to-table dinners, a Taste & Craft food and drink event, cooking classes and a "For the Love of Lamb" cross-town tasting scramble, filled the festival's five-day calendar.
- Lex Nelson
"Certainly the focus on food has grown over the years," said festival Advisory Council Member Carol Waller, citing an increase in food tourism as a motivating factor. "Food was always integral, but there are more options now."
That spike has mirrored a major push by the Denver, Colorado-based American Lamb Board to "demystify" lamb—particularly American-raised lamb—as an alternative to beef for the dinner table.
"It's really festivals like this that are helping us do that," Lamb Board Executive Director Megan Wortman told a group of reporters at Sun Valley's Limelight Hotel, where the 2018 Trailing of the Sheep Festival was headquartered. "...We are a premium-priced protein in the meat case, but the industry has come leaps and bounds in the last 10 years in terms of the versatility and variety of cuts at grocery stores."
Though newly available ground lamb is starting to make strides with mainstream customers, it's still considered a gourmet meat, and Wortman said her organization sells most of its supply directly to high-end grocery stores and the chefs of five-star restaurants.
Chef Sean Temple, who heads the kitchen at Warfield Distillery & Brewery in Ketchum, counts himself among that number. On Oct. 12, he tied on his apron and put his lamb expertise on display for a cooking class at Warfield.
"We work with our ranchers and try to get the cuts that no one else does, like neck and belly," Temple told the group, which included festival-goers from New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Colorado and New Mexico, along with Idahoans. As he spoke, he started to prep ingredients for the dish he was making: spinach ricotta gnocchi with braised lamb shoulder and preserved Meyer lemon.
- Lex Nelson
Assisted by a volunteer, Temple stood at a high table in the center of Warfield's bar space to saute garlic and onions, sear a whole 3-pound lamb shoulder and mix, roll and cut nuggets of flour-based gnocchi, dyed green with spinach powder (he dehydrated the leaves, then ground them himself) and blended with fresh house-made ricotta. As he did, the stockbroker-turned-chef let the crowd in on a secret.
"I like braising lamb with white wine [instead of the typical red]," he said. "I think the white is more subtle and really lets the lamb flavor come out."
To get the same rich color in the braising liquid, he advised searing half of an onion jet black and adding it to the dish before it goes into the oven, a trick he'd learned cooking with a French-Haitian chef years ago, who'd offered him an onion, then held up his palm and instructed, "Make it blacker than my hand."
- Lex Nelson
Temple also advised serving the lamb with a glass of white, and the Warfield bar poured a crisp, fruity Ruffino Lumina Pinot Grigio 2017 that paired beautifully with the final dish: tender, fork-shredded lamb, which served as the perfect counterpoint to herbaceous gnocchi; creamy, barely-there ricotta; just-wilted spinach and the sour-sweet punch of house-preserved Meyer lemon.
If dishes of that caliber start to appear on American tables, there's no doubt Wortman's hopes for lamb will bear out.
"We really think American lamb is positioned to have a real renaissance ... a real revolution," she said. "People are finally discovering lamb again."See related PDF