Spring: bright yellow daffodils, the fragrance of blooming daphnes, lambs gamboling in verdant fields... The acrid stench of wool burning on a rickety barbecue appears as welcome on that list as a knife-fight in church. However, spring is the time when the cooking of lamb tails occurs and not having had them in ages, it seemed the perfect excuse to give them a go. Fortunately for me, a workmate (many thanks, Joe!) had just finished a week docking lambs. A dozen beer later, the supermarket bag of tails I requested turned up having changed into a very large fertiliser sack full of the things - time to get to work (just a quick note - click on the photos if you want a closer look - if you dare!).
First, some background: lamb tails vary from 20 to 30 cm in length and 4 to 6 cm in width (before grilling). They're removed to prevent the build up of faecal matter around the lamb's backside. Left intact, the mess attracts flies which lay eggs, resulting in maggots which can cause pain as they eat the lamb's flesh.
Once removed, the tails are kept aside until the end of the working day, whereupon they were either cooked on the spot or divided up amongst those docking to be taken home. Given the large number of tails that eventuate, it is fortunate that they lend themselves to freezing.
The tail isn't particularly meaty (in the same way that a petrol station mince pie isn't particularly meaty, although for slightly different reasons). Fortunately, this is compensated for by the sheer number of tails foisted upon you at a grilling. The tails are grilled until the wool is burnt off and the meat cooked; to eat, the blackened skin is removed revealing flesh which is gnawed off the thin tail bone. The taste is slight, but is enhanced by salt; growing up in a rural area, every lamb tail session seemed to be accompanied by the obligatory ice cream container chock full of salt, speckled with the ash from dipped tails.
On to the cooking: having bought a bag of charcoal, I went to find my old barbecue, not having used it since the previous summer. Imagine my surprise at discovering the three legs of my trusty Weber had fallen off because of rust, turning our barbecue into a glorified metallic garden feature. No matter; one cinder block later, it was good to go!
With the fire burning steadily, it was time to add the tails. At this point, the wind picked up and decided to shift from blowing in the direction of the empty miles of farmland next door, moving instead towards the houses across the road. Delivering billowing clouds of foul-smelling smoke to your neighbors is never desirable; spare a thought for them (and anything hanging on the clothesline) before embarking on this sort of project. The wind suddenly dropped - on went the tails!
There's a lot of smoke, accompanied by what closely resembles the sound of a thousand blowflies reacting excitedly to the prospect of a troop of horses trotting through town - this is the moisture in the wool reacting to the heat. The smell of burning wool is quite strong but the wind dealt to that rather quickly. Burnt wool makes a frightful mess of your grill, too - I wouldn't recommend grilling tails on your fancy-schmancy, twenty-burner, platinum-coated gas barbecue nonsense.
The tails were nearly done, both sides charred beyond belief. It was time to drag out the condiments: salt and (rather fancy for such rustic fare) soy sauce.
Eating tails is somewhat like eating ribs, without the benefit of being able to lick your fingers (or indeed anyone else's), covered as they are in black, gritty ash. With the coals still glowing red, we plucked a tail each off the grill - hot hot hot! - and proceeded to rip the skin off. My brother possessed the wit to realise that the tongs would allow him to both hold the tail and retain his fingerprints.
So how did they taste? Ok. The flavour was subtle, faintly lamb-like, not to mention quite smoky. The salt certainly helped; the soy sauce turned out to be the perfect accompaniment. Some of the tails were surprisingly fatty. The thick, meaty tails were obviously a little more flavoursome while the thin ones were bony and not worth bothering with. Eating lamb tails as I remember from my youth was a largely social activity; standing with a tail in one hand and a beer in the other, gossiping about the activities of the town. The hands-on experience of eating such fiddly food was quite jolly. I haven't had tails in years and cooking them myself was a lot of fun (growing up, the job was left to older, larger, gumbooted cousins).
And there we have it! Lamb tails - my first major post. Time to research my next one...
PS. While the tails were enjoyable, we were still peckish:
UPDATE: Rangi sent me a link to a recipe on the Kai Time website. I give you: Lamb Tail Curry Soup with Fried Mountain Oysters