There must have been a moment when it seemed like a daring and radical idea to flavour a leg of lamb with garlic and rosemary. The habit probably started in Britain a mere 50 years ago. Before then lamb was not especially popular – it was not regarded as highly as mutton, for example – and was usually plainly roasted. It could be argued that a roast leg of lamb served with both redcurrant jelly and mint sauce needs little more in the way of flavouring, but that does not stop most of us having these sacred condiments alongside our garlic and rosemary.
Far from appearing daring,to spike a leg of lamb with shards of garlic and a few leaves of rosemary now seems to be rather a cliché. By the same token, of course, beef with horseradish, Parma ham and melon, and pork with apple sauce are clichés. However, one man’s cliché is just another’s well-worn path. Cooks are rarely criticised for employing clichés, although perhaps the next time they pair scallops with black pudding or beetroot with goats’ cheese, a moment’s hesitation might not be a bad idea.
A cliché is not a cliché if it seems as though one is doing it for the very first time. “Make it new” is the modernist’s dictat, and it is perfectly possible to make garlic and rosemary feel new. One way is to try them with other things. A roast loin of pork with slivers of garlic and some rosemary leaves inserted between the ribs is very good. Similarly, cooking a leg of lamb in a different fashion – with anchovies and thyme, or rolled in cumin seeds, for example – is a way of breaking habits. I am not sure if my mother’s idea of rolling a leg of lamb in ground coffee was entirely successful, but at least she was up there with Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià as a pioneer ahead of her time.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Barbecued and butterflied leg of lamb
1 leg of lamb, weighing 3kg-4kg
6 cloves garlic
Several sprigs of rosemary
4 tbsp olive oil
A large bunch of mint
1 tbsp soft brown caster sugar
½ tsp sea salt
100ml wine or cider vinegar
● To butterfly the leg – if you wish to do it yourself – place it on a chopping board with the cut, inside part facing you. At the top of the leg – if it is cut long, “continental” style – will be the aitchbone, which is connected to the central leg bone by a ball-and-socket joint. With a small, sharp knife, work your way around this bone, cutting towards the bone and scraping the meat off it to leave it on the joint. Once the aitchbone is removed, slide the knife down the central bone and cut the meat away from either side of it, removing the bone at the base where it connects with the shank. Open out the joint, separating the muscles slightly so that the meat is laid out, kite fashion, into a piece some 40cm by 25cm and about 10cm thick.
● Peel and slice the garlic into slivers. Insert some of these into the meat on the fat side, with the rosemary leaves, and rub with a little olive oil. Place the meat in a tray, sprinkle with more garlic, rosemary and the remaining olive oil and allow to marinate at room temperature for a couple of hours.
● Make a mint sauce by chopping the mint quite fine and mixing in the salt and the sugar. Bring the vinegar to the boil and pour over the mint. Leave to steep for at least half an hour.
● Light the barbecue with at least 4kg of coals and burn for 20 minutes until the coals are radiant and no longer smoking. Season the fat side of the meat and place on the grill about 25cm-30cm from the flame. Cook for 20 minutes on the fat side, taking care not to burn it, then turn and cook for another 10 minutes on the meat side, having seasoned this first. For medium rare, a skewer should emerge from the centre of the meat lukewarm. Stand for 10 minutes before carving.
Potato, tomato and anchovy gratin
Equally good with meat or fish, I have found this to be a useful thing to have in the oven while battling with the barbecue. Serves six.
1kg large potatoes
8 large tomatoes
4 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic
16 salted anchovy fillets
A few sprigs of rosemary
● Peel the potatoes and cut them into slices the thickness of a pound coin, then rinse in cold water. Remove the skins from the tomatoes (first drop in boiling water for 10 seconds, then plunge into cold water), and cut them slightly thicker than the potatoes.
● Sprinkle some olive oil over the base of a round, ovenproof dish, 25cm-30cm in diameter. Arrange a third of the potatoes, lightly seasoned, in the bottom, with a layer of tomatoes on top. Chop the garlic coarsely and sprinkle half over the tomatoes, with half the anchovies and a few rosemary leaves. Cover with another layer of potatoes, another layer of tomatoes, the rest of the garlic, anchovies and rosemary, and a final layer of potatoes on top.
● Spoon a good three tablespoons of oil over the potatoes and place in a hottish oven (180C) for 30 minutes. Cover with a plate and push down a little; remove the plate and cook for a further 15 minutes until the potatoes are completely cooked and golden brown on top. It will keep in a warm oven for at least half an hour or can be reheated.