A Sheep Shearing Adventure

It was, indeed, a less than auspicious beginning to our adventure into the country. The morning was cold and grey, and the mix of rain and snow were making for a messy, if not slightly slippery, drive. Happily, however, without too much fuss, I managed to meet up with Marie Connell, fellow member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, Philadelphia, and co-committee member of our chapter’s Green Tables group, in a City Line Avenue parking lot. My sister, my 11-month-old daughter, and I piled into Marie’s van, and within minutes we were off to find High View Farm in North Hanover, New Jersey.

This was a special day on Dame Linda Geren’s farm. Once a year, Kevin Ford, renowned hand sheep shearer and author of Shearing Day: Sheep Handling, Wool Science, and Shearing with Blades, visits the farm to shear Linda’s forty sheep, and that day we were invited to participate in the event. Well, we weren’t actually going to shear the sheep. Marie and I, along with Green Table Co-Chairs, Pat Ward and Eileen Talanian, were helping host eight Martin Luther King High School students. They, along with their three chaperones, were visiting the farm that afternoon to observe the sheep shearing, and we were preparing supper and snacks for group.

These students participate in the Seeds for Learning Initiative, sponsored by the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology as well as Foundations, Inc. Throughout the year, they tend to the school’s urban farm and work at its farm stand, where they sell the produce they grow. They also take field trips and participate in classes outside of the school in order to gain further experience with farming, gardening, and cooking.

Soon after the group arrived, Linda took us all on a tour of the farm. We bundled up and braved our way through the rain and snow towards the outbuildings, where we visited the goats and horses, as well as the chickens and guinea hens that were roaming about and perching themselves in trees. My cosmopolitan sister did quite well, all things considered. I’m sure her pink elephant Lilly Pulitzer boots never saw so much muddy slush and ice. My baby’s furry pink jacket was working overtime, too, as I snuggled it around her neck to keep her as warm as possible. (Who would ever know we were from the suburbs?)

Once we all had a cup of Pat’s homemade steaming hot chocolate and marshmallows in hand, we convened in the barn to watch Mr. Ford begin shearing the sheep. A tall, slender man, he deftly and gently handled the slightly nervous 250-pound creatures, visibly putting them at ease and using hand shears to remove the fleece from each sheep in less than fifteen minutes. (Astoundingly, it still took him more than seven hours to shear all forty sheep.) Even at this pace, removing the wool by hand takes more time than with electric clippers. Linda explained to us, though, that hand shearing helps to maintain the integrity of the wool, allowing longer strands to be obtained from it. Each fleece will eventually be skirted by hand to remove debris and will yield up to fifteen pounds of wool.

Despite the bone-chilling cold, the group watched intently and asked questions for an hour as Mr. Ford sheared one sheep after another. Finally, though, it was time for supper, and, with growling stomachs and frozen toes, we made our way into Linda’s warm and welcoming house. A delicious array of comforting dishes awaited us. My fellow Dames and I had set out Eileen’s chicken and vegetable soup, as well as trays of egg salad sandwiches, goat cheese, caponata, and sun-dried tomato sandwiches, and Guinness-glazed ham sandwiches, all prepared with Linda’s farm-raised and home-grown ingredients. Giant chocolate chip cookies from Marie’s bakery, MyHouse Cookies, added a sweet finish to the meal, and we sent the students on their way with individually bagged, daintily decorated cut-out lamb cookies of my own creation.

It was, indeed, a wonderful afternoon at High View Farm. The students were surely not the only ones who learned a thing or two about farming and sheep shearing. We all left that day with a greater appreciation of, and gratitude for, the long hours and demanding physical labor farmers like Linda Geren and her husband, Mike McKay, devote to their land and to the animals they raise. For more information about High View Farm and the products available for sale, visit http://www.highview-farm.com.

All of the dishes we enjoyed that afternoon on the farm were delicious, but surely the grandest of them all was Linda’s Guinness-Glazed Ham. How we managed to refrain from eating all of it ourselves while assembling sandwiches for the students, I’m not really sure. The aroma of smoky-sweet ham wafted over us as soon as we entered Linda’s house, seducing us into the kitchen like a deliciously tempting Siren. We soon discovered the gorgeously caramelized, glistening roast resting, still warm, on the cutting board on Linda’s counter, and it didn’t take long before we began nibbling away at. We did succeed in preparing an abundant display of sandwiches, but only after much snacking ourselves. “I think I’ve eaten a pound of ham!” Marie announced at one point. Even my daughter enjoyed her share of what was, for her, a new culinary experience. She eagerly consumed tender, caramelized pieces of meat and of hunks of bread dipped in ham juices. Funny how she happily ignored the yogurt and peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had packed for her. No matter what else you serve with this ham, I’m sure that you, too, will find it the star of the menu.

High View Farm Guinness-Glazed Ham

Guinness Brine (recipe follows)

1 (12-pound) bone-in smoked ham, skin on

3 cups chopped root vegetables (parsnips, onions, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, leeks, etc.), roughly chopped

20 whole cloves

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup Dijon mustard

1 cup chicken stock or water, plus more as needed

Pour the brine into a large, heavy re-sealable plastic bag (you can also keep it in the bowl, but Linda prefers using a bag). Place the ham in the brine, turning to coat. Seal the bag (or cover the bowl with plastic wrap), and set the ham in the refrigerator to brine overnight, or even for a day or two.

When you are ready to proceed, preheat the oven to 375ºF and set the oven rack in the lower one-third of the oven.

Arrange the vegetables in the bottom of a large roasting pan. (You can also add fruit, such as apples or pears, to the mixture of vegetables.) Remove the ham from the brine, discarding the brine, and pat it dry completely with paper towels. (A dry ham will ensure proper browning in the oven.) Cut a crisscross pattern in the skin of the ham and stud it with the cloves. Set the ham on top of the vegetables. Stir together the brown sugar and mustard, and spread it evenly over the ham. Pour the 1 cup of chicken stock into the roasting pan and roast, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until the mustard glaze thickens and begins to form a crust. Cover the pan with foil and reduce the oven temperature to 325ºF. Continue to roast the ham, occasionally basting the meat with the pan juices, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the ham’s internal temperature reads 140ºF on a meat thermometer. Add additional chicken stock or water to the pan as needed to keep the vegetables moist and to prevent them from burning or sticking to the pan.

Remove the ham to a serving platter, loosely cover with foil, and allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing. If desired, spoon the vegetables and roasting juices into a separate serving bowl. (Alternatively, the roasting pan may be deglazed and the remaining cooking liquid used to make a pan-gravy with heavy cream, or with beurre manié, a paste prepared with equal parts of butter and flour. To make the gravy, remove the vegetables, and, while the pan is off the heat, add about 1 cup of white wine, chicken stock, or water to the drippings. Return the pan to low heat and gradually whisk in about 1 tablespoon of beurre manié, or about 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Gently simmer the sauce until it thickens. Pour the sauce into a sauceboat and serve with the ham.)

Guinness Brine

1 cup sugar

1 cup sea salt

1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

2 whole dried bay leaves

2 (12-ounce) bottles Guinness stout

Combine the sugar, salt, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, and Guinness in a non-reactive (glass or ceramic) bow, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.