Cafe Society

Mint condition: Why does lamb go so well with a certain jelly?

Three hours south of Denver, a husband-and-wife team of ranchers are working hard to help reintroduce Colorado lamb to the meat-devouring public. As detailed in this week's cover story, "Counting Sheep," the Triple M Bar Ranch in Manzanola ships lamb to over a dozen restaurants and caterers, who use it in a dazzling variety of ways: grilling it, broiling it, braising it, slow-cooking it.

But as lamb's popularity has risen and fallen and risen again over the past century, one thing has remained a constant -- mint.

See also: - Counting Sheep: Triple M Bar's flock is raising hopes for a Colorado lamb comeback - Panzano chef Elise Wiggins makes the most of Colorado lamb - Chef Elise Wiggins wants you to feel good about food

No one quite knows when mint became so associated with lamb. According to menus unearthed in the collection of the Denver Public Library's Western History and Genealogy Department, lamb chops with mint and even mutton with mint were mainstays for hole-in-the-wall saloons and fine china eateries alike in the old West.

The Palace Arms at the unsinkable Brown Palace was serving "Spring lamb" with mint sauce on New Year's Day 1883 -- less than five months after the hotel opened for business. The Colorado restaurant in Boulder was roasting leg of lamb and offering it with mint jelly to that town's elite five years after the turn of the last century. And before World War I, seemingly every eatery in the West worth its salt offered mutton or lamb with mint jelly.

Why has this combination survived so long? "It's the perfect pairing," says Elise Wiggins, executive chef of Panzano inside the Hotel Monaco. "Not just because it tastes good, but because it cleanses your palate."

Wiggins makes lamb polpettes -- that's fancy-speak for little meatballs -- with a portion of potato gnocchi, a drizzle of reduced balsamic and a rich, fatty mint pesto. Subtle though it is, the mint with the polpettes hits soaring high notes, floating above the heavy gnocchi and the salty punch of Jumpin' Good Goat Cheese from Buena Vista. And the combination proves that mint and lamb have a solid marriage.

One thing you won't find Wiggins cooking at Panzano is mutton, usually defined as meat from a sheep more than two years old. Strong, intensely gamey mutton is a sore spot with many lamb ranchers, who believe a taste of mutton mislabeled as lamb has turned more than a few people off the meat altogether. "The capabilities of chefs nowadays, it'd be awesome to see someone take mutton and make it that thing to eat, because the flavor is so incredibly strong," Wiggins says.

Still, in some countries, mutton is considered a delicacy. "There's a lot of Mexican workers and migrants who come into the valley about now and work through the summer, and they'll come up and ask us for old ewes. Because that's what they like," says David Miller of Triple M Bar. "There's a physiological change in lamb. Until one year, the knees are just two bones meeting.... After one year, they develop a regular structure... The meat changes, becomes much redder."

Triple M usually sends its lambs off to be processed at around six months. "That's why people taste the difference," he says. "Because there is a difference."

With or without mint.