by Charlie Leck
"Anne Leck is the woman behind Sheepy Hollow, which produces the best lamb around in my opinion." [Trout & Caviar Blog]
In blogs on January 28th and February 2nd the bloggers at Trout & Caviar, a local and highly respected blog about haut cuisine dining and cooking, really gave Sheepy Hollow a lot of complimentary publicity.
Brett Laidlaw is the creative genius behind Trout & Caviar and one of the real food geniuses in Minnesota. He’s also the baker over there at Real Bread, which produces the best bread around in my opinion (if I may steal and remanufacture a line, please).
First, I’ll tell you what he wrote about my terrific wife and then I’ll tell you “the rest of the story!” Here’s what he wrote about Anne:
“Mary had a little lamb. I had some, too. Tranche de gigot "La Boutarde," pan-fried leg of lamb slices the way they cook it at that Parisian bistro. It looks like Mary and I will be having a little more lamb in future: That's our half a Sheepy Hollow lamb (photo below), dressed weight around 26 pounds. Sheepy Hollow is our Midtown Farmers Market lamb vendor. Anne Leck is the woman behind Sheepy Hollow, which produces the best lamb around, in my opinion. Our friend Lynne arranged our lamb buy, and took the other half. She kindly let us have the offal: heart, liver, kidneys, and tongue. I am not at all sure what I'm going to do with that stuff. I'm excited about the opportunity to work with offal that's this fresh and lovely. And I am filled with trepidation, at the same time: I want to really like it, but I'm not sure I will; I want to do it justice, but I have almost no experience cooking this sort of thing. I think I'll let Fergus be my guide.
Another part of me, the Joycean part, is inclined to take this passage from Ulysses about Leopold Bloom's gustatory preferences, and just wing it:'Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.'
“The lamb leg cutlets were fantastic. The recipe, from Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking, adapted from La Boutarde in Paris, is simplicity itself. That was exactly what I was looking for, because 1) I didn't want to go to a lot of trouble, and 2) I wanted our first taste of this lamb to highlight the flavor of the lamb, rather than showy cooking technique. The accompaniments were equally simple, a mixed mash--potatoes, carrot, celery root, and parsnip--a slice of fresh bread, a glass of red wine (the bargain brouilly we opened was halfway to vinegar; a four-dollar Argentine Syrah saved the day).
"This meat was simply wonderful. It was dense and a bit chewy, but supremely juicy, with a depth of flavor that's rare to find in meat these days. Mary and I agreed that the flavor was almost more like that of grass-fed beef than run-of-the-mill lamb.”
The whole story of Sheepy Hollow really begins with Garrison Keillor.
That’s right, Garrison Keillor, many, many years ago -- I think it was probably early in 1979, when I was driving across the city and heading for my office early in the morning. Back in those days, Keillor was doing the Prairie Home Companion Show on only a local basis – going out only to the Minnesota Public Radio Network. A farmer from up in the northern part of the state, Ron Parker, called in (or maybe it was his wife, Teresa). The years dim one’s memory. They raised black sheep. One of them told Keillor that they’d had an unusual number of triplets born that late winter and they were trying to come up with creative triplet names for the newborns.
“You know,” the caller said, “like Good, Bad and Indifferent; or Faith, Hope and Charity.”
Well, I got a good laugh out of that and continued the giggling as I drove along while Keillor’s listeners called in their remarkable and unremarkable ideas.
"How about Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry?"
"I think Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato is good!"
"Why not Gold, Silver and Bronze?"
Again well, over dinner that evening, I shared the story of my drive and the cute names that were called in to the radio show. I even remembered the names of the farmers who called-in – Ron and Teresa Parker – and the town in which they lived. From across the dinner table I could see my wife’s eyes brighten and I saw that look she gets when a wild idea is about to be turned into reality.
Within a couple of days, Good, Bad and Indifferent were living with us. Soon after, a ram was purchased from someone (perhaps the Parkers) and then there were dozens of sheep pasturing on our farm. It wasn’t very long before there were hundreds.
Anne set about studying lamb production. The American Lamb Producers Association was immensely helpful. She experimented with breeds and hybrid crosses and eventually settled on a cross-breeding process that became her great secret.
The key to her lamb is our land. We control everything that is put on the land and grown here. That allows us to control everything the critters eat. We can tell our customers that our lambs are free-ranging on land where no pesticides have been introduced and their food is pure and free of chemicals.
Listen to me! I keep saying “we.” Change that. It is “her” or “she” and not “me!”
Somewhere during that first year or two of study, Anne came up with the idea of calling the operation Sheepy Hollow. I had business cards made for her and designed a few signs and a letterhead. Then we created a web page. We soon found out that the name was already trademarked and owned by someone else – an operation in Australia. Thinking it was another lamb producer, I called down under and found out it was really a manufacturer of motorcycle seat-covers made of sheep’s wool. Gracious, what a surprise! I also found out that the owner was a cheery fellow and we arrived at an agreement, which he soon put in writing for me, that we could use the term “Sheepy Hollow” if it was always used as a connection to our farm name. So, we legally became “Sheepy Hollow at Native Oaks Farm.”
Anne sells by the side or whole lamb. Its popularity has spread all over our region and her list of regular customers continues to grow and grow. At farmers markets she sells individual cuts or folks may order sides cut to their specifications.
Every Saturday Anne sets up at the Midtown Farmers Market in south Minneapolis (Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue). She’s made an awful lot of good friends there. One of them is Brett Laidlaw, who sits across the way at the Real Bread booth. Brett makes the finest bread I’ve ever tasted. He’s traveled all over France (and many other parts of the world) learning about bread baking techniques. He’s usually sold out half way through each Saturday's market and that leaves him time to wander around and get acquainted with other vendors. Brett is also a remarkable chef.
We also set up at the Excelsior Farmers Market on Thursday, from 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM.
Thanks, Brett, for all the wonderful photos.
We can’t thank Brett enough for his good comments. If you love to cook and eat scrumptious food, you should become a regular reader of Trout & Caviar.