Roast lamb of God

A simple, seasonal feast is best, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Eating In

I  have never seen monks slaver; but, under the altarpiece of the Charterhouse of Miraflores in Burgos (right), I can imagine them, licking their lips and yearning for forbidden food. The richly carved, late fifteenth-century relief shows a peculiarly appetising Last Supper. In the centre of the composition, Christ vies for attention with a platter, displayed against a tablecloth as white as the Holy Shroud. Carthusian monks are not allowed to eat meat, but Christ and His disciples sit down to the regional speciality: unweaned roast lamb.

The skin, wrinkled with crispness, stands out from the flesh, which promises unexcelled tenderness and delicacy of flavour. Pepper and salt flank the pièce de résistance, with barely leavened breads and menacingly big, sharp cutlery. The monks can only look on and feel the torture of self-denial, or congratulate themselves on sufferings which, at least in gustatory matters, exceed those of their crucified Lord. Paschal lamb seems obvious for Easter. Scriptural scholars have never agreed on why Christ ate the Passover meal on Holy Thursday, like the Samaritans, rather than on the following evening with the orthodox.

Christ’s choice from the menu was obviously of lamb rather than kid: He was, in the phrase John the Baptist coined, the Lamb of God

But like His fellow-rabbis, He would of course have followed the Mosaic recipe: a spotless young kid or lamb, freshly sacrificed and roasted — definitely not, the Book of Exodus enjoins, boiled or raw — with bitter herbs. Temptation is usually the devil’s indulgence, but the sculptor of Miraflores had perfect authority for tempting the monks.

Christ’s choice from the menu was obviously of lamb rather than kid: He was, in the phrase John the Baptist coined, the Lamb of God. His own self-sacrifice — unblemished flesh, innocent blood, unbroken bones — was imminent. For Christians, the Lamb of God is a routine meal, but you only eat the lower-case lamb of God at Easter.

The British never slaughter animals young enough for the delicious experience the Miraflores monks were made to crave. The nation of shopkeepers is too frugal or businesslike to forego abundant flesh, and prefers to give beasts time to grow and fatten. All Britons seem obedient to the Welsh bandits’ priorities in the war-song of Dinas Vawr:

The mountain sheep are sweeter

But the valley sheep are fatter.

We therefore deemed it meeter

To carry off the latter.

Ideally, lamb for Easter should be little more than a month old — well within Moses’s prescribed limit of one year. But English lambing is generally later than Spain’s and, even if the English were disposed for a quick kill, they might not, I suppose, always have had a young enough animal to hand.

Instead of bitter herbs, in consequence, they spoon jellies tinged with mint or redcurrant to cut the grease, which in old lamb and mutton tends to have a cloying texture and repellent odour. A lately-born lamb, by contrast, has so little fat that it needs olive oil for basting — enhancing crispness, adding unction.

Mosaic instructions make the herbs sound like an affliction: Jewish gastronomes usually speak of the bitterness as designed to recall the sour experience of slavery in Egypt.

Yet lamb and kid benefit from a sharp garnish. Traditional Jewish options are for horseradish — too strong to be justified except by piety — or endives, which make an excellent side-dish. For inclusion in the roasting tin, garlic and rosemary complement the meat perfectly, perhaps because of the intense aroma they yield when mixed with the juices the lamb exudes.

Most European languages derive names for the Paschal season from a Hebrew word that evokes Passover, but English recalls “Easter”, the spring festival of Teutonic pagans — the year’s rebirth after the deathliness of winter — when, in Britain, eggs abound, rabbits are at the height of their breeding season, peas are like tiny sweets, radishes are tender and tasty and morels break through the earth (though no longer, alas, “around the elm-tree bore” that made Browning yearn for England in April).

Whoever wakes in England in April now can still eat them all, simply cooked with as little contrivance as possible, as good ingredients deserve.

Postpone elaborate sauces and seasonings: April is the cruellest month only for Carthusian monks and for the lambs, kids and rabbits the rest of us eat. Some people model spring foods — especially eggs and bunnies — in chocolate. But one of chocolate’s great virtues is its indifference to seasons. It is a wonderful inner warmer in winter.

In spring discard it for fresher, bracing tastes. Chocolatey puddings invade Easter only because the feast sometimes — and in British latitudes always — occurs too early for fresh fruit, or because some pious souls renounce it in Lent.

A sweet omelette is a better choice: add last summer’s preserves, with the yolks, to stiff whites: if you’ve had the redcurrant jelly with your main course, brandy-steeped cherries make a fine filling.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover