Merino Country

By Michael McHugh

The word merino is often associated with wool, but now New Zealand farmers are 
putting a new spin on this well-known breed of sheep – as a top-quality meat.

The farmers of New Zealand’s high country have always known that merino sheep have more to offer than just a fine grade of wool. Free to graze on the natural tussock grasses and wild herbs of these stunning mountains, these well-cared-for sheep yield a silky-smooth, distinctive grade of meat that chefs are calling a “culinary sensation.

Just as Wagyu beef has made a name for itself on menus around the world, the naturally lean Silere alpine-origin merino is becoming known for its creamy texture and unique taste. Now that the secret is out, demand is growing fast. Silere is Latin for “to be silent,” reflecting the space, stillness, and silence of New Zealand’s pristine alpine area.

Producing consistently good lamb means that farmers do things differently. Instead of aiming for high-volume sales, producers are pursuing premium opportunities in higher-value micromarkets and focusing on maintaining quality. These days, customers are also showing a much greater interest in finding out where their food comes from and how it is being produced, so ethically produced food and animal welfare have never been so important.

Respecting the Animal

Steve and Mary Satterthwaite have been running sheep since taking over the 100,000-acre Muller Station in Awatere Valley, Marlborough, in 1980. Producing Silere lamb is a change for the pair, who have traditionally focused on wool production. The Satterthwaites know they are part of a new breed of artisans producing Silere lamb, with its focus on quality, ethics, and animal welfare. The lambs are allowed to live in harmony with the seasons 

and because they are taken to 18 months instead of the usual 12, the meat’s flavour is allowed to develop, and the animals can be shorn twice.

“Animal welfare is a huge priority for us, because without excellent animal husbandry, our animals wouldn’t survive or produce the product we love at the high level that we and other end users require,” Steve says.

The fundamentals of getting on with life are very important to Mary and Steve. Better roads may have reduced the property’s isolation, but the nearest town is still a two-hour drive. The children – Alice, 14, and Ben, 12 – go to boarding school in Christchurch, but when they come home, they are keen to work on the land. When the postman arrives every Tuesday, he brings not just the mail, but also boxes of requested supplies from the supermarket. The family tries to live as sustainably as possible, despite the short growing season. They keep a cow for milking and hens, and they grow their own vegetables and, of course, raise their own meat. Every four months, the Satterthwaites travel to the local warehouse for bulk nonperishables, such as 35kg bags of sugar and 20kg bags of flour.

Love of the Land

Steve and Mary work the station and its 14,500 merinos with four full-time shepherds. With such large stock numbers and the moutainous terrain, it’s all hands on deck at mustering time. Shepherds work on foot with a team of six to eight dogs each and herd 3,000 to 4,000 acres a day. Merino sheep are habitual creatures. They camp high in the hills at night and graze in the valleys during the day. 

“As you get older, the hills get taller,” jokes Steve, who says the hardest parts about living here are the long winters and summer drought. But being able to do a job in a place he and Mary love makes it all worthwhile. “There is no place we would rather be.”

Taming this wild country is difficult, and farmers have made mistakes attempting to do so in the past. Mary says she and Steve are aiming to hand the land on to the new generation in a better condition than when they took it on. “It’s not about ownership; it’s about stewardship,” she says.

Alpine Kitchen

The Satterthwaites invited two renowned chefs, Jean-Michel Poulot and Sean Connolly, to Muller Station’s alpine kitchen to experience the magic of the high country and to showcase the use of Silere lamb. Poulot, of Edesia restaurant in Christchurch, says Silere is unique and, with its hint of wild game, cooks beautifully. Connolly, owner and chef of The Grill in Auckland and the first to offer Silere lamb on his menu, calls it the “Rolls-Royce” of meat. “It’s so rich in flavour and texture; it’s how I remember lamb tasting as a young boy in Yorkshire,” Connolly says. While in the alpine kitchen, Poulot created four seasons of lamb, while Connolly presented barbecued Silere lamb leg with chimichurri sauce and lamb rack with star-anise sauce.

Free-range Silere lamb is now on the menus of 15 New Zealand restaurants, and expansion into Australia and other countries is imminent.

 Connolly, who takes a less-is-more approach to cooking, says customers now want to know the story behind the foods they eat. “It’s very exciting for me as a chef  to be able to share my stories of provenance. Everyone needs to know where their food comes from,” he says.


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