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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
James and Linda Gillmor join chef Robert Barker at Bambara, which serves Morgan Valley Lamb.

A good sheepherder always looks out for the strays, and that's what James Gillmor did the night a lost hiker stumbled onto his pastureland in Morgan Valley.

Justin Jacobsen was hiking in Farmington Canyon, got separated from his companion and ended up on the other side of the mountain after wandering several hours in the rough terrain.

"It was dark, and he was tired and cold," recalled Gillmor, who gave Jacobsen a ride back to the truck where his hiking partner was waiting. During the ride, Gillmor found out Jacobsen was a chef at Bambara restaurant in Salt Lake City. Gillmor refused payment for his help but mentioned that he and his wife raised natural, hormone-free lamb and would soon be contacting restaurants to buy it. "I asked him to put in a good word for me," Gillmor said.

When Bambara's executive chef Scott Blackerby tried Gillmor's meat products, he was impressed enough to put Morgan Valley Lamb on the menu. Robert Barker was told the hiking tale last year when he took over the reins as executive chef. But that's not why he chose to keep the lamb on the menu.

"I think it's more tender and flavorful than the regular lamb," he said. "It's such a great product that we've been getting rave reviews."

For Gillmor, of Delta, it was one more step in his goal to put more lamb on Utah dinner tables. He says Utahns eat less than one pound of lamb per capita per year — the national average is two pounds per year.

"But I look at it as an opportunity to grow the demand," he said. "And it's caught on because of the wonderful chefs who are using it."

Log Haven has the company's lamb chops on its menu, and leg of lamb is served there on Sundays. The Garden Cafe at the Grand America is featuring it in a nightly special all this week, spiked with flavorings like pomegranate syrup and a lemon grass marinade.

"Our American Spring Lamb Menu Tasting was so popular last year that we decided to bring it back again," said Tom Beaty, Grand America's food and beverage director.

Since Morgan Valley Lamb started selling meat two years ago, it has found its way to other restaurants, including Mazza, Au Bon Appetit, Blind Dog Grill, Bohemian Brewery, Butcher's Chop House, Em's Restaurant, Goldener Hirsh Inn, L'Avenue, Lugano's, Metropolitan, Sage Grill, the Cottage Restaurant, the Paris Bistro, the Aerie at Snowbird and Tuscany.

It's also sold at Emigration Market, Springville Meat, Majestic Meats, Tony Caputo Market & Deli, Broadway Market and Snider's Family Meats, or on the company's Web site, morganvalleylamb.com.

But, it's not cheap. Rack of lamb, rib chops or loin chops are around $11 per pound; ground lamb, boneless stew meat, ribs and shoulder steaks are between $3-$4.25 per pound; and a leg of lamb is $6.50 per pound. In comparison, generic rack of lamb at local supermarkets is in the neighborhood of $7.99 per pound, and the other generic cuts are $1 to $2 less per pound.

For ancient civilizations, sheep were valuable animals, according to "Cooking A to Z," by the California Culinary Academy. Their wool provided clothing; their meat and milk, a source of food. They were rugged animals that could survive extreme conditions. The importance of sheep is evident in their role in many early religions. Lamb was the traditional sacrificial offering, and you'll find roast lamb in celebrations for the Christian Easter, the Jewish Passover and the Muslim New Year. It's still one of the most-used meats in Greece, North Africa and the Middle East.

But lamb fell out of favor with most Americans because for many years it was raised primarily for wool. By the time the sheep were slaughtered, the meat was tough with a strong, gamy flavor. Gillmor said people from the World War II-era may remember being turned off by the tough mutton they had to eat, since the government pushed wool production for the war effort.

"I think people today still have a stigma about lamb, as being muttony and gamy," said Bambara's Barker.

But today's lamb is different, according to the California Culinary Academy. It's slaughtered an an earlier age — usually from six to nine months — so it's more mild-flavored and tender. (If the lamb is older than 24 months, it's called "mutton.")

Several generations of James Gillmor's family raised sheep. But James and his wife, Linda, faced the economic facts: Many farmers and ranchers, or their wives, had to hold second jobs to make ends meet. Most of the lamb was being shipped off to the West or East coasts, and the Gillmors wanted more of their product to stay in Utah.

So they came up with a plan to raise a high-end, "natural" lamb without using antibiotics or growth hormones. The lambs would be fed an all-vegetarian diet — no animal by-products are in the feed. The meat would have a brand name, in the same way that Tommy Hilfiger or Ben & Jerry's means something to consumers.

The sheep are raised around the Delta area in the winter and pastured in Morgan Valley during the summer, so they chose the name "because it's such as gorgeous valley, and 'Morgan Valley Lamb' just rolled off the tongue when we repeated it a few times," said Linda Gillmor.

James Gillmor said the company's "natural" requirements are similar to the criteria for raising organic meat, but the couple chose not to go to the extra expense of trying to become USDA-certified as organic. The term "natural" on a food label generally means it has no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

They began going to the back doors of restaurants, a bag of meat in hand. The timing was right, since "natural" and "local" are current buzzwords in fine dining.

"The consumer is changing, too," said Linda Gillmor. "We sell at the Pioneer Park Farmer's Market and talk to a lot of people who want to know where their food is coming from."

They now sell an average of 40 lambs a week. But it's a tough sell in some farming communities like Heber, where people who like lamb raise their own, said Linda Gillmor. When they dine out, they prefer to order something they can't get at home.

"I wish I could sell more of their lamb, I personally think it's the best-tasting lamb on the planet, but the local dining population in Heber doesn't like lamb," said Barbara Hill, owner of Snake Creek Grill in Heber. "I run it usually on Sunday when I get out-of-state people and more of the Park City crowd."

James Gillmor says he's convinced that Utah grows the best lamb in the world because of the climate, topography and variety of feed. Niman Ranch, a California meat producer that raises its animals without antibiotics or hormones, gets some of its lamb from three different Utah ranches — Pine Valley Sheep Ranch in Hyrum, Clark Willis of Logan and Goring's Ranch in Deweyville.

If you haven't cooked lamb before, the Gillmors have this advice: Don't cover the leg of lamb when you roast it. Uncovered, the fat becomes seared and crispy on the outside. Use a meat thermometer, because if you overcook the meat it becomes more dry and tough.

Although many youths aren't familiar with lamb, that may be changing. Several teams of students in a state high school culinary competition last month chose lamb as an entree. The Park City High School team took third place with its Slope-Style Lamb Chops. "We spiced it with a marinade of mint and lemon zest and a little sugar," said student Nick Siemon. "Cook them slow in olive oil, and don't burn it."

Dave Jones of Log Haven says the biggest secret is to trim off as much of the fat as possible before cooking.

First-time lamb cooks can also borrow ideas from global cuisines: In Greece, it's spiced with oregano. In the Middle East, ground lamb is stuffed into eggplant or grape leaves. In Iran, lamb is marinated and grilled on skewers. North African cooks braise lamb shoulder with vegetables and couscous. In India, it's curried. There's also Irish lamb stew and shepherd's pie from England.


MORGAN VALLEY LEG OF LAMB

Note: Prepare Leg of Lamb 8-24 hours before cooking.

1 leg of lamb

1/2 cup Dijon mustard

6 garlic cloves, chopped

3 sprigs rosemary, picked and chopped

4 sprigs thyme, picked and chopped

Salt and pepper

Combine mustard, garlic and herbs. Rub liberally over the lamb. Season with salt and pepper. Allow to stand, refrigerated, 8-24 hours before roasting.

Bake leg of lamb, uncovered, at 300 degrees for 1 1/2 hours or until thermometer temperature reaches 130-135 degrees (medium rare). Let roast rest at least 15 minutes before carving. Serve by laying slices of lamb on a bed of Shiitake-Asparagus Relish and Home Fries. Garnish with Whole Grain Mustard Sauce drizzled across the plate. Serves 8-12 people. — Robert Barker, Bambara restaurant


SHIITAKE-ASPARAGUS RELISH

Note: Mushroom mix can be made a day ahead and held over. Reheat in saucepan before serving.

1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 cups sliced shallots

2 1/2 cups shiitake mushrooms, sliced

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 ounce rice wine vinegar

12-15 asparagus spears, partially cooked and cut in 1/2-inch pieces

Heat oils and add shallots. Cook until shallots start to caramelize. Add mushrooms and cook for 5-8 minutes. Add sugar, soy sauce and vinegar, and cook until sauce forms and is absorbed by the mushrooms. Just before serving, add asparagus and pepper to taste. — Robert Barker, Bambara restaurant


HOME FRIES

Saute 2-3 pounds of fingerling potatoes that have been partially cooked and quartered lengthwise. Salt and pepper to taste. — Robert Barker, Bambara restaurant


WHOLE GRAIN MUSTARD SAUCE

3 cups red wine (optional)

6 cups veal stock or low-sodium beef broth

1 tablespoon honey

1/2 cup whole-grain mustard

Heat wine to reduce to 1 1/2 cups. Add stock or broth and reduce by 2/3. Add honey and mustard. Serve with lamb. — Robert Barker, Bambara restaurant


MOROCCAN SPICED MORGAN VALLEY LAMB KEBOBS

One 4-5 pound boneless leg of Morgan Valley Lamb

1 red onion, large dice ( 3/4-inch)

1 red bell pepper, large dice

1 yellow bell pepper, large dice

1 poblano chili, large dice

Marinade:

1 tablespoon coarse black pepper

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon cardamom, chopped fresh thyme, chopped fresh oregano

1 tablespoon paprika

2 tablespoon Dijon mustard

4 tablespoons chopped fresh garlic

4 tablespoons grated onion

1 cup yogurt

Mint Yogurt Sauce:

1 cup yogurt

1 tablespoon fresh ginger

1/2 tablespoon fresh garlic

1/2 tablespoon cumin

2 tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves

Dash salt & pepper

Dice lamb into 1-inch chunks following the natural pockets of the leg (trim any sinew and cut against the grain).

Combine all marinade ingredients in a large mixing bowl, add lamb and allow to marinate in the refrigerator up to 24 hours.

Remove lamb from marinade, skewer the kabob ingredients, alternating the peppers, onions and lamb. Combine all lamb sauce ingredients.

Preheat gas/charcoal grill or broiler. Lightly brush skewers with extra virgin olive oil. Grill over high heat. Top with Mint Yogurt Sauce. — Barbara Hill, Snake Creek Grill


E-mail: vphillips@desnews.com