The Mysterious Origins of Easter Lamb with Mint Sauce
When I was young, my family would gather every Easter for a dinner of lamb, scalloped potatoes and hot cross buns. The lamb was always served with this strange green jelly that only ever made an appearance on Easter and would never be seen again until next year. I can distinctly remember my reaction to tasting it for the first time; it tasted like “toothpaste jelly.” I couldn’t fathom why anyone would want mint with meat. Mint was for sweets, holiday deserts and tooth care, not savory meats. Little did I know that there has been a long culinary tradition of pairing lamb with mint, to which mint jelly does a great disservice. The true minty condiment to add to lamb chops is mint sauce. It’s sweet. It’s sour. It’s delicious! Satisfied that mint could be used for savory dishes, I began to wonder why specifically mint and lamb had become such a common flavor combination.
There are three competing theories on how this culinary combination came to be so popular in Western European cuisine. The first, as indicated by my childhood, comes from Jewish and Christian tradition. The Christian holiday of Easter is tied to the Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Jewish freedom from Egypt in the book of Exodus. It is started with a dinner called the Seder, where lamb is eaten with “bitter herbs” to symbolize the bitterness of slavery that the ancient Jews endured. The famous Last Supper was a Seder dinner celebrated by Jesus and his disciples the night before he was crucified. Some Christian sects adopted the Seder dinner as part of their holy week leading up to Easter while others combined the Seder and Easter dinner into one event. The exact meaning of “bitter herbs” has been a topic of religious and historical debate. Mint has been used as a “bitter herb” for Seder, but most rabbinical scholars suggest that it would not have been used by ancient Jews. Chicory, romaine lettuce and horseradish are recommended instead.
The reference to eating lamb with “bitter herbs” can curiously be found in a much more recent story. Queen Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558 just after a century of rising wool prices and exports. The English economy was largely dependent on their sheep. Therefore, each eaten lamb was seen as one less sheep contributing to the wool trade. To curb the English appetite, Elizabeth I decreed that no one could eat mutton or lamb without “bitter herbs.” Supposedly, English cooks took this as a challenge and developed recipes and blends that were both legal and delicious. One would think that such a decree would have some documentation, but no such official document can be found. As humorous as the story is, it is likely a myth.
The third theory isn’t based on any particular story, but rather culinary science. Mutton, or sheep’s meat, is a pungent meat with a high amount of fat. Most people find the flavor of mutton to be unappetizing, which is why it has largely fallen out of favor in modern cuisine. Instead, we prefer to eat tender lamb. But the poor throughout history did not have the luxury of eating lamb or other meats regularly, so they devised recipes to mask the flavor. In addition to masking flavor, mint can aid in the digestion of rich meals especially when paired with an acid. Meat is frequently paired with acidic fruits such as ham with pineapple or fish with lemon. A quick look at most mint sauce recipes would seem to follow this trend, as vinegar is a common ingredient. Here’s a simple recipe you can try at home.
2 tablespoons of dried mint leaves (peppermint is the most commonly used)
1 cup of white wine vinegar (or a nice champagne vinegar)
5- 6 tablespoons of sugar
Salt and Pepper to taste(Optional)
Bring the sugar and vinegar to boil in a small sauce pan and then let simmer until the mixture reduces by half and becomes syrupy (~5 to 10 minutes.) Remove from heat and mix in the mint leaves, then let it cool and steep for at least an hour before serving. This simple recipe leaves a lot of room for variations. If it’s too strong, dilute the mixture with water and add more of any of the three ingredients to tune the flavors to your palate.
A simple mint sauce can be a showstopper when added to lamb, but this sauce can be served with fresh fruit, as a salad dressing, or spread on toast. It’s also a fantastic way to get to know your mint and how its flavor can accent different dishes. With a recipe this easy, there is no reason to hold on to that old jar of mint jelly.
(Peppermint Leaves are available on our website store @ www.marketspice.com)