A glass of bubbles, a serene lakeside view and a hacksaw was my introduction to this year’s Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, as I joined 35 foodies mingling expectantly at The Point in Albert Park, ogling a stage set frugally with a large chopping board and the macabre tools of butchery.
We weren’t waiting long before chef Scott Pickett strode out with a very healthy looking eight-week-old lamb slung over his shoulder, and in a charming and matter-of-fact way barrelled into the hour-long presentation about the complete breakdown of a carcass.
A brief intro allowed us questions at any point, then without further ado Pickett made the first incision. We grasped things very quickly when, with two slices of the boning knife and a couple of solid chops from the cleaver, he had the forequarter separated from the hindquarter. That is to say, in a couple of minutes he’d just chopped our lamb, in perfect meat-to-fat ratio, in a perpendicular half.
Pickett (or “chef” to get full points) knows a good deal about lamb, and talked us through every cut as he isolated it, from public perception to butcher negotiations and cooking advice.
Moving further down the beast from once-was-a-head to tail, next came the flaps, belly and saddle – all of which can be rolled and roasted, or confited and fried, with the exception of the delicate fillets located next to the spine. These tender babies are usually a reasonable size on the typical 22 to 24-week-old lamb found in butchers and supermarkets, but ours were richly pink and diminutive. Quickly grilled affairs, definitely! We had left, of course, chops. Our small but plump chops ranged from the forequarter chumps (a little tough and boney) down to the prime cutlets that Joe Dinnerparty craves. Both need to be quickly grilled, fried or roasted as a rack; real par-for-the-course stuff until you consider crispy frying the intercostals (the fleshy bits between the ribs. Doesn’t everyone know that?).
Ah, the joys of the forequarter.
As Pickett moved into the tail end of the proceedings he carefully sawed poor lamby’s back half in half, simultaneously removing the shanks, which need little introducing but plenty of braising. One side then for classic roasting – to be started hot or sealed then turned down slow please – and the other carved into its five primal sections of rump, topside, round, silverside and, of course, girello (of course). Each needs to be treated in its own way, excluding the girello, which tends to get banished to the stockpot.
And ... voila! One hour and one fully disassembled lamb.
At this point, having been welcomed to the stage to prod the bits and ask more pesky questions, we were invited upstairs to enjoy the fruits of Pickett’s labours in a six-course degustation. We nestled together in The Point’s chic dining room and were wooed, with almost all the cuts playing a part – from the gorgeous appetiser of lamb consommé with a crisp croustillant (braised shank closely entwined in strung potato and fried) and subtle potato foam flecked with sea salt to the 24-hour slow-roasted shoulder with parsnip charcoal and, finally, to the main event: an assiette of lamb that was a great showcase and climax for the evening. It starred the cutest rare cutlet, crumbed brain (having taken some 15 years to get over my last brainy experience, I was pleasantly surprised by its marrow-like tenderness), roasted rump and round, sweetly glazed fillet on fondant potato. Each piece was presented in sequence across the plate and all cooked to perfection, like following a little trail of discovery; one I was very glad to take, although some of those with smaller appetites were struggling by this fifth course.
We were all relaxed and happy in our conversations as the desserts were cleared, and I was left to ponder the evening’s lessons, not least of which is that lamb is a seasonal beast, and although available year round is best in spring when size and flavour align favourably. Be sure to visit your butcher for lamb, avoid vacuum-bagged meat and have a go at the secondary cuts – they’re brilliant and worth the research and patience in preparation. I ’m going to get a lamb shoulder, and I’m gonna roast it for hours, and when I’m easing it gently off the bone I’ll give thanks to Scotty Pickett, and his beast.