By Julia Moskin, The New York Times, April 19, 2011. This article is syndicated from The New York Times, click here for a copy of the original article.
Antonio Manzanares and flock by Mark Holm of The New York Times
ANTONIO MANZANARES was not supposed to be a rancher. Growing up here in the Chama River Valley in the 1960s, the goal for his generation of rural New Mexicans was education: enough, his parents hoped, for him to avoid the hard work of raising animals.
In this high, empty country — green with pasture and mostly populated by pine, aspen and juniper trees — many families like the Manzanareses are descended from Spanish settlers who began ranching here in the 1600s. Even the characteristic sheep of the region, the light-boned, longhaired Navajo-Churros, are said to have arrived here with the forces of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who claimed this region for the Spanish crown in 1540 on a doomed sweep through the Southwest looking for the Seven Cities of Gold.
“People here still consider themselves ranchers, but they can’t make a living at it,” Mr. Manzanares said at his 200-acre ranch, overlooked by the Tusas Mountains.
Mr. Manzanares and his wife, Molly, 51, are trying to change that. They “run a band” — the local term for raising a flock —of about 900 ewes, both the Navajo-Churros and the fatter Rambouillet breed. Under the label “Shepherd’s Lamb,” the Manzanareses are the only producers of certified-organic lamb in New Mexico, and among the only ranchers in the United States who still graze sheep on wild land, moving from low country to mountains and back to pasture according to the season.
Navajo/Churro Sheep by Mark Holm of The New York Times
Last week all the sheep had to be sheared, and the lambs needed vaccinations. Almost all the ewes are heavily pregnant, and are expected to give birth to about 1,100 lambs that will be raised for four to nine months, until they reach about 110 pounds. The lambing will begin the day after Easter, though a few little outliers have already been born.
“Easter always seems to come at a difficult time for us,” said Mr. Manzanares, 59.
He grew up here, went south to the desert flats of Albuquerque for college and graduated from the University of New Mexico with a master’s degree in psychology in 1973. But when he came back to figure out the rest of his life, he met his wife whose family has been ranching cattle in the area since the early 1900s.
Using a combination of education, love for animals and the land, and sheer bullheadedness, the Manzanareses have spent the last 30 years trying to figure out what a modern, sustainable family ranch might look like. Of their four children, the one who may be likeliest to come back to ranching is their daughter Luisa, 23, who is in her second year of veterinary school at Colorado State University.
Although far-flung, the family is very close. (“It might have something to do with how we threw away the TV set when they were little,” Mr. Manzanares said.) Their son Agustin, 28, is stationed with his Army unit in nearby Fort Carson, Colo.; Lara, 27, is in San Francisco, studying for a master’s degree in design. One afternoon last month, Raquel, 25, called from her dorm in Greenwich Village, where she attends New York University Law School, disappointed because she couldn’t get a decent bowl of pinto beans anywhere in New York City. Mrs. Manzanares talked her through making a pot in a slow cooker, reminding her that the family trick, a good one, is to add two tablespoons of vinegar to the soaking water.
Costillitas or Lamb Ribs, Mark Holm for The New York Times
Most of the extended family will gather for Easter dinner, with at least one leg of lamb as the centerpiece of the meal. But costillitas, the small ribs that form the breast, are the family’s favorite cut. They will be roasted slowly so the fat renders out and bathes the meat in succulence. “I like to cook them almost forever,” Mrs. Manzanares said.
Dessert will be the province of Antonio’s mother, Natividad, an excellent and prolific baker. She is also the president of the local V.F.W. Ladies Auxiliary (Antonio’s father, Tony, served in the Philippines in World War II) and a pillar of the local Catholic church, St. Joseph’s. Using lard for baking, as has long been traditional here, she will make melting, anise-scented bizcochitos; pastelitos, a traditional slab pie filled with dried fruit; and likely arroz dulce, a traditional Easter dessert of rice pudding lightened with beaten egg whites.
At 79, Natividad Manzanares remembers when many Catholic fiestas in Los Ojos included the ritual slaughter of a lamb, and the town would feast on sangrecita, lamb’s blood mixed with onions, oregano, lard and chile caribe, the crunchy, toasty local chili powder. When she was growing up, it was her daily task to turn whole dried chilies into a smooth brick-red sauce. “I would roast and soak and mix them until my eyes and hands burned,” she said recently, sitting at her kitchen table in Los Ojos.
She observes Lent every year, abstaining from meat on Fridays in favor of the vegetarian dishes she grew up with: panocha, a pudding made from sprouted wheat flour and brown sugar; egg patties in red chili sauce; and chicos, roasted corn kernels. In New Mexican tradition, chicos are roasted on the cob in hornos, ubiquitous beehive-shaped mud-brick outdoor ovens.
Mr. Manzanares that he saves some of his less marketable cuts for the local Navajo. Over centuries, the tribe have incorporated the Churro sheep into their theology and their daily life, using the long, soft belly fibers for blankets. The meat is especially flavorful and lean, he said.
At this time of year, he also does a brisk trade in lamb shank bones.
“I guess people celebrating Passover want the best organic lamb bones for the Seder plate,” he said. Many Christian churches in the area, as well as the small Jewish community in Santa Fe, now hold annual Seders, he said.
Tending the flock by Mark Holm of The New York Times
Like his ancestors, Mr. Manzanares tends his sheep daily, breeds them annually and worries about them constantly. The long views are spectacular, but close up, at 7,200 feet above sea level, Los Ojos is a hard place: once a robust agricultural town, now lined with sagging porches and fallow fields. The logs that Mr. Manzanares’s grandfather split to build the barn (you can still see the ax marks) are falling in on themselves behind the small house.
He and Mrs. Manzanares tend the sheep themselves all the way from birth to slaughter, and as organic farmers, their options for healing a sick sheep or feeding a hungry one in winter aren’t much different from those of their grandparents: no antibiotics, careful nursing and a little organic grain.
The ewes are bred in the fall and give birth in spring, in time for their mothers to begin eating the new grass and buds. (Any “spring lamb” in butcher shops now was most likely born last spring.)
To eke out a profit from them, Mr. Manzanares also spends much time on the road and online: driving to farmers’ markets in Los Alamos and Santa Fe, delivering shoulders and shanks to restaurants, doing paperwork for organic certification and nagging his Web masters to streamline the ordering system.
At one time, says local lore, this county shipped more lamb than anywhere else in the world, along a narrow-gauge railway nicknamed the Chili Line that ran up the Chama to Denver with animals, beans, corn, wheat and chilies. (It is now the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.)
These days the flocks in the Chama are counted in the hundreds rather than the thousands, and New Mexico is only the sixth-largest producer of lamb in the United States. In January, the United States Department of Agriculture released figures showing that domestic lamb production is at an all-time low, down 13 percent over just one year. On the ranch and on the plate, beef cattle are elbowing out sheep by a little more each year. The average American now eats over 60 pounds of beef annually, but consumption of lamb is just over 1 pound per person.
The competition to supply that lamb is stiff, especially from Australia and New Zealand, where inexpensive lamb racks are essentially a byproduct of the vast and profitable wool industry. The lambs are slaughtered young so that the flavor of the meat does not get too strong, but many cooks find the texture limp and the fat too wet to roast. Typically wet-aged in Cryovac on its journey to American markets, the lamb tends to be soft and spongy.
“We will never be able to compete with them on price,” said Brent Walter, an owner of Fox Fire Farm who raises about 2,000 lambs each year on a family-run ranch just across the border in Ignacio, Colo.
The taste of pasture-grazed lamb is clean and meaty, with a firm texture. The fat of a healthy, mature lamb is white and crystalline when raw, light-textured and delicious when grilled or roasted. In many parts of the world, lambs are bred with an eye to getting the most fat loaded onto their tails, considered the most sublime morsel of all.
Brian Knox, the chef and owner of Aqua Santa in Santa Fe, cures the lamb he buys from Mr. Manzanares overnight in salt, juniper and cumin before braising it for six hours and mixing the big chunks of shoulder with wilted rapini, chicken stock and crisp leeks. Smaller nuggets go into a concentrated ragù with lamb broth and fresh chanterelles, all tossed with whole-wheat spaghetti and a dusting of pecorino, aged sheep’s milk cheese. Mr. Knox said that only this meat matches an ideal for lamb that he carries around in his mind: herbal, earthy yet ethereal. “The terroir of what the animal eats really comes through in this meat,” he said.
In the spring, the Manzanareses’ sheep eat shoots of wheat, grass and sand dropseed. Later, on the summer range, the lambs eat plumajillo (yarrow), palo rosario (snowberry), Arizona fescue and mountain mahogany. They are browsers, not grazers: not only grass but also buds and many leaves, especially aspen, are tasty to them. All the shrubs around the ranch are nibbled down to chin height.
Next week, the Manzanareses will escort the bred ewes, horses, dogs and assorted equipment to the lambing grounds west of Taos. During June, the ewes and lambs make their way about 30 miles cross country to summer pasture in the mountains above Canjilon, part of Carson National Forest, where they live all summer with guard dogs and a full-time shepherd, who stays in a small trailer.
At the end of the summer, the whole band is trailed back to low country, where the lambs are weaned. After a couple of months the ewes are bred, and the cycle begins again.
“I just hope we can keep it going, you know?” Mr. Manzanares said.
By Julia Moskin, April 19, 2011, The New York Times.
Try Molly Manzanares’ lamb rib recipe, and if you can, use Shepherd’s lamb. For the past 2 years, I have ordered a whole lamb from Shepherd’s Lamb. It is the most delicious lamb I have ever tasted. For a description of what I received when I ordered my first lamb, click on the link to my Santa Fe Railyard article. Most Saturday mornings Antonio and Molly Manzanares can be found selling their wonderful produce at the Santa Fe Railyard.