Nor does the importance of sheep and goat's milk cheese in the Italian diet come as a surprise; it was a staple in Roman times and continues to be a staple even now. What does come as a surprise, perhaps, is the relatively minor role that sheep and goat meat play in the Italian diet; though lamb is very popular, especially in spring, and especially in the south, one rarely encounters mutton in any form in much of the Peninsula.
Italian lamb can be divided into two categories.
- Truly young milk-fed lamb, animals that are 20-30 days old at the time of butchering and weigh between 10 and 20 pounds (5-10 k). The Romans call this kind of lamb abbacchio, from abbacchiare (a Roman distortion of abbattere, to butcher), and by now the term has spread throughout the Peninsula.
Abbacchi are often sold whole, though one can also buy them cut in half or quartered (if you do buy abbacchio in pieces, remember that the animal should be small; if it's too large it's no longer abbacchio).
The meat is light colored, very tender, and delicately flavored, while there isn't much in the way of fat. Because of its delicacy abbacchio is best cooked simply, and with mild seasonings.
In the English-speaking world abbacchio is called baby lamb or hothouse lamb.
- Older lambs are weaned, and can be up to a year old. With respect to abbacchio they are larger and their meat is darker.
In selecting lamb prefer animals with relatively broad backs that have quite a bit of meat on them, make sure that the flesh of the thighs is firm and not soft, and make sure it has abundant, firm, white-to-pale-pink kidney fat.
If the lamb is small (what's known as a spring lamb) an Italian butcher may cut it up as if it were an abbacchio, but if it's larger it will be cut into the traditional cuts, which include chops, leg of lamb, shoulder, saddle, and loin; the neck, breast, and forelegs are often cut up and used to make spiedini, stews, ground lamb, and even sausage.
Though abbacchio is unique, kid and older lamb are interchangeable, and the recipes that call for one will work equally well with the other.
A Final, Very Important Thing: Cooking Times
While you may encounter rare lamb in an Italian restaurant, traditional home cooks tend to cook it until it's well done, with the juices running clear. Not just chops, but also roasts, for example leg of lamb. I find that I prefer it this way, and if you are nonplussed by rare lamb do by all means try cooking it longer. Several readers have written to tell me how much better they liked better done lamb.