Helping to preserve sustainable ranching

This Churro Lamb provides an income for tribes of the Four Corners.

This Churro Lamb provides an income for tribes of the Four Corners.

Through our involvement with the Verde Valley Community Supported Agriculture we were given the opportunity of purchasing a locally raised lamb through a program sponsored by the Navajo-Churro Sheep Presidium.

In 2006, a loosely connected group of Diné sheepherders, hand-spinners and weavers who live on western and northern “chapters” of the Navajo Indian reservation, banded together to develop direct marketing strategies for this sustainably grown lamb, targeting chefs and organic buying groups (CSA’s) as well as outlets on the reservation.

Today many restaurants serve this lamb and The Dunnery has benefitted as well.

We became familiar with the hardy Churra sheep breed with its multi-colored double fleece when we were sightseeing around Chama, N.M. We stopped in a weaving studio (one that had made Robert Redford a coat!) and noticed that in addition to the beautiful rugs, vests, coats and skeins of wool for sale there was a freezer full of lamb meat.

Shocked at the $10 plus/pound cost and uncertain of its taste, we declined the offer to purchase. Back at our B&B, our host told us the meat was delicious -- the opportunity passed us by.

Spaniards are said to have brought this Churra breed to North America in 1540 and into Northern New Mexico by 1598. Now called Navajo-Churro, the multi-purpose breed has been grazed on the sagebrush steppe and pinyon-juniper woodlands of the Colorado Plateau for 400 years by Diné, Pueblo and Hispanic people.

The breed almost became extinct: in 1863, when Kit Carson, acting on U.S. Government orders, subdued the Navajos by slaughtering their food source (including their sheep herds) and then, in the 1890s and 1930s when the government forced stock reductions.

Forgetting the value of Churro fleece, the government wanted Churro only for cross breeding to produce a heavier, meatier sheep. That experiment failed, as the new breed of sheep was less hardy and had greasy, short-staple fleece.

By the 1970s, less than 400 Churro sheep remained. Things changed in the 1980s. The forces that joined, as mentioned above, brought the herds of registered Churro to more than 5,000 by 2006.

Today sheepherding continues to be a viable occupation in the Four Corners area.

This past fall we purchased half a lamb from the Presidium and received 15 lbs. 3 oz. of butchered, packaged, and frozen meat in cuts to our specification: boned leg; loin and shoulder chops; shanks; ground meat.

We paid $9.75/pound. That’s only a little more than we would have spent at the supermarket. The knowledge and good feeling we have knowing we are supporting family farmers who uses nature as their guide and practice sustainable approaches that conserve resources and enhance the ecosystem far outweighs the difference in cost. Admittedly, each bite was a treat!

How does Churro lamb meat taste? Sage-y? Dry? Muttony? No! Absolutely wonderful! The range-fed, antibiotic-free and parasite-free meat has a light, herbal fragrance and a complex, grassy flavor reflecting the unique terroir.

The fat of this breed is said to be concentrated around the organs rather than being spread throughout the body. Our lamb chops had just enough fat cover for flavor. The meaty chops seasoned with lemon pepper and broiled on each side for a total of less than 5 minutes, truly melted in our mouths.

If any of our readers are interested in knowing more about the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association or in purchasing a 2012 lamb, contact Gay Chanler.

Gay has been involved in the direct marketing aspect for the Navajo-Churro Presidium. Telephone 1-928-226-2891 (Flagstaff) or mchanler@cybertrails.com

* With permission, we gleaned much of the historical information for this article from The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity.

The following recipe

is a favorite of ours:

Lamb Stew with Couscous (Betty Crocker with variation)

1½ pounds boneless lamb (if precooked, add towards end of recipe)

1 T. oil

1 Cup water

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon coriander

¼ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon turmeric

1 Cup carrot chunks

2 Cloves garlic, minced

1 Cup green pepper cut into strips

(Couscous Recipe below)

Trim and cut lamb into 1 inch pieces. Heat oil and brown lamb. Add water and every ingredient except peppers. Heat to boiling, reduce heat, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Add green pepper and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Serve over couscous.

Couscous

(wheat grain semolina)

2 Teaspoons oil

1 cup couscous (wheat-grain semonlina)

3 Cups water or mixture of water and broth

½ teaspoon salt

½ Teaspoon fresh grated ginger

¼ Teaspoon ground turmeric

1 medium tomato, chopped

Heat oil in saucepan. Stir in couscous and toast. Add water/broth, remove from heat, cover and wait three minutes. Return over low heat, stirring in spices and tomato. Serve 4-6

To your health and happiness, Jeff and Suzie @ The Dunnery

Bites and Sips:

• Up the Creek Grill has opened in the former Page Springs Restaurant (west of the wineries!) Owners Greg and Dawn Koss aim to make it a customer friendly place serving “territorial cuisine” and local wine. Our friends, Audrey and Bill Bladt joined us for a bowl of delicious Creek Moss Soup-a thin cream soup incorporating potato, sausage and kale. The restaurant is open 11-9 and closed on Monday and Tuesday. Telephone 928-634-9954

• Suzie attended the Sedona Great Chili Cookoff and agreed with the popular and judges choices. Bodacious Burger’s chili won second place in both categories. We tried it at the restaurant and liked it, both open face on a angus burger and in a bowl. We continue to be impressed by this establishment.

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