Thinking about my favourite food smells, at the summit just above fried onions and really fresh shellfish is the smell of lamb grilling over charcoal. There's alchemy as soon as the first drop of fat hits the glowing embers, producing an intensely sweet, smoky perfume that brings happy memories of summer holidays and heaving plates of meat in Dalston ocakbasi restaurants.
When it comes to the romance between lamb and lumpwood, Turkish and Middle Eastern cuisine is famous, the glorious kebab in particular. One theory being that the cooking method of grilling small pieces of meat on skewers developed as a way of minimising the use of precious fire wood in barren landscapes. Us Brits on the other hand, in our green and pleasant land, were more inclined to roast bloody great big chunks of beef. It wasn't until fairly recently though that I discovered that Italy, specifically the Abruzzo region, has its own version of the lamb kebab, arrosticini.
I say lamb, arrosticini strictly speaking should be made from hogget a young castrated male sheep, although due to availability lamb or mutton is increasingly common. I was introduced to the delights of these small skewers by my Aunt and Uncle who live in Abruzzo and have fallen in love with the region, which has been one of the most isolated and untouched in Italy. Situated on the east side of Italy, with Rome to its West and an Adriatic coastline, Abruzzo's rugged, mountainous landscape meant that shepherding was traditionally the region's most important economic activity. Each spring saw the Transumanza, where shepherds would move millions of sheep to greener summer pastureland high in the Gran Sasso mountain range. Arrosticini developed as part of the cuisine of this nomadic shepherds' lifestyle.
I was lucky enough to get one of the long trough like grills arrosticini are cooked on (called a fornacella) as a birthday present and every once in a while (as I did last Saturday), I indulge in a surfeit of ovine goodness. The beauty of them is that the pieces of lamb are fairly small so they're only a few mouthfuls (you just eat lots of them). Making them in quantity is a time consuming process but well worth the effort. In Abruzzo they make a distinction between the more expensive handmade arrosticini (fatti a mano) and mass produced arrosticini made with a machine which have a square like more uniform appearance. In the butcher's in my Uncle's village it's apparently quite a common sight to see the women of the family sat dwarfed by mountains of lamb pieces, patiently threading them on to bamboo skewers.
Here's a rough recipe for them:
It's very simple, what makes this taste amazing is fat and lots of salt...
Round bamboo skewers (2 packs of 100 will definitely do)
2kg boneless lamb (or hogget) shoulder
Plenty of sea salt
• Soak the skewers in water for at least an hour so they don't burn.
• Cut the lamb into small pieces (see photo for an idea - don't worry about them being too uniform). Don't worry about the fat! In Abruzzo they intersperse the meat on the skewer with disks of fat so you can either do that with any fat you trim off or you can just leave it on the meat. Most of it will melt into the meat during the cooking adding flavour or crisp up beautifully.
• Place in a bowl and season the lamb pieces with a generous handful of salt (don't be scared).
• Thread the meat onto the skewers (be patient!).
• Grill over glowing charcoal embers turning every minute or so for about 4-5 minutes.
Ideally the meat should rest on the skewer above the charcoal but you can cook it directly on a grill also.
It's a very sociable meal and they taste best straight off the grill, so it's a case of eating as you go with everyone stood around the grill, cooking and eating, cooking and eating (which is admittedly much better suited to July than January). Accompany with a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and bread and olive oil. Anything else is apparently frowned upon. My Uncle witnessed a man being yelled at by the hostess of a restaurant that specialises in arrosticini for asking for a green salad....