Whole Story

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The Delicious Story of Icelandic Lamb

By Melissa Traverse, October 13, 2011  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Melissa Traverse
After working a variety of jobs (fish cutter, line cook, caviar grader, organic farmer and pastry cook to name a few), Melissa’s found her home with Whole Foods Market where she’s been for 5 years — happily surrounded with other like-minded people who are obsessed with food! Besides changing leaves and all things pumpkin, October also brings us the season of Icelandic lamb and its availability in Whole Foods Market stores. Recently I had the opportunity to visit Iceland to learn a little bit more about Iceland and what makes their lamb so special. It’s a pristine country remarkably untouched by the pollution of industry. The air is clean, tap water tastes like it’s straight from a mountain spring and the sparsely populated countryside is far thicker with animals than with people. In fact, while matching England in size, Iceland has over 50 million fewer people, making it the least densely populated country in Europe. On a crisp mid-September evening, 15 Whole Foods Market team members (me included) watched Icelandic men and women ride on horseback into a small town outside of Borgarfjordur, Iceland to prepare for the next day’s annual sheep round up (réttir). The Icelandic farmers had just finished collecting their sheep, which entails a 4-day stint traveling the countryside with sheepdogs, staying in scattered mountain huts to bring in the animals before winter hits. The mood was light with relief at finally being home and, soon after, all the sheep were herded into one giant area for the next day’s sorting process. As Whole Foods Market is the exclusive US retailer of Icelandic lamb, our contingent was lucky enough to participate in this annual ritual that dates back to the Vikings. The next day, we helped 20 or so different families sort the sheep, identified by a unique family tag on the sheep’s ear. For each family, typically four generations were present for this festive affair, dressed in patterned wool sweaters and rain gear: young children, their parents, grandparents and young adults arriving back from University to help out. We were thigh deep in sheep, the air thick with loud bleating and the heavy smell of wet wool as it rained intermittently. A bit hesitant at first, our group soon learned to steer the sheep into the appropriate pen according to their earmarks. After five months of roaming the countryside followed by ten hours of wrangling, all the sheep were back with their owners, ready to be processed. Sheep farming is a significant player in Icelandic heritage and culture – it’s as old as the very settlement of the country. Lambs wander the mountainsides, which make up most of the island. They live in wild, untamed land (no need for pesticides there!) and are free to roam as they please. As Iceland doesn’t allow crossbreeding with other imported species, the sheep themselves are direct descendants from those brought to the island by Viking settlers thousands of years ago. Over the course of the trip, we traveled a good part of the country and ate myriad varieties of lamb: in aromatic farmhouse soups with rich, fragrant broths; smoked and sliced right off the leg; and chops seared rare with wild berry sauce. Along our amazing journey, we dined with the President of Iceland himself, toured the abattoir (processing facility) that processes all the lamb coming to our stores, and met numerous restaurant owners, craftsmen and many others. We were impressed by the Icelanders’ intense pride of their heritage, natural resources, history and solid work ethic. In Iceland, how you do something seems to be just as important as the end result – they’re not always trying to figure out how to do things bigger, better and faster. Nature is a prominent force that shapes their future, and it gives them what they need to make a living. Instead of trying to force their lifestyle upon the land, they harness and shape what naturally exists into something livable and profitable. You’ll taste this in the Icelandic lamb: if you’ve never tried it or haven’t liked lamb in the past, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its incredibly mild and delicate flavor. This grass-fed lamb requires minimal seasoning – you might even notice a subtle difference in flavor depending on whether the lamb was by the seashore eating seaweed and grass or up in the mountains chewing herbs and wild berries. It’s truly an artisanal product (though nature has more to do with the craftsmanship than any human hand), unique to Iceland and an exclusive product for Whole Foods Market. We are the only US retailers to sell it, and the only importer that receives the product fresh, never frozen. You’ll find it at many of our stores from October through November. In my family, I’m planning on making a tradition of enjoying it as much as possible while it’s around!
Category: Meat




Linda Logan says ...
In this article, Melissa Traverse mentioned Icelandic smoked lamb. I grew up eating it and haven't found a source in the US to purchase it. Do you know of any place to buy this smoked lamb? I appreciate any help. Thank you.
10/13/2011 7:31:52 PM CDT
janejohnson says ...
@Linda Your very own community Whole Foods Market may serve the Icelandic Lamb smoked. The best way to get the most accurate information about the variations of lamb offered at your store is to reach out to them directly. The link below will help you identify the contact information for your store. A Team Member there will be happy to discuss your options for the Icelandic Lamb. http://wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/
10/17/2011 4:54:48 PM CDT
Nese says ...
I'll be traveling over 100 miles to the nearest Whole Foods store for this and trying to call several stores long distance for information is proving challenging at best, so it would be so helpful if you could provide some of the basic info here: -Is this the milder/newer version of smoked Icelandic lamb ? -or is the tvíreykt ("twice smoked") that's more like the original old country style available ? -Is the whole leg on the bone available ? -If other cuts/forms are available what are they ? -How long will it last ? thanks so much for your help! Nese
10/20/2011 2:50:16 PM CDT
laura hartman says ...
I love all things Icelandic and can't wait to get me some lamb! :)
10/20/2011 5:14:15 PM CDT
Doug Reasonet says ...
This brochure is discusting! It's bad enough these lambs are butchered for human consumption. But you have to publish a special brochure to promote it? I am very disappointed with Whole Foods for doing this. I'm sure Whole Foods can sell enough meat without these types of promotions. How about a brochure showing a baby steer ( veal ) in a crampted cage for its entire life until it is butchered. I'm sure the veal connoisseurs will be happy the meat will not be tough.
10/24/2011 6:43:09 PM CDT
Amy says ...
This was lovely!
10/24/2011 9:39:16 PM CDT
Katrín Jónsdóttir says ...
I'm from Iceland, just moved here to the States and I'm so happy that I can buy the Icelandic lamb here. I always eat smoked lamb on the December 23 and now I can continue to do that. Thank you.
10/25/2011 12:06:10 PM CDT
janejohnson says ...
@Doug Thank you for your comments.
10/25/2011 2:58:09 PM CDT
Ella says ...
Great article Melissa. Every year when I visited my parents in Iceland i would bring Lamb back with me in my suitcase, but now I don't need to I just get it from WFM. Thank you.
10/27/2011 6:56:56 PM CDT
janejohnson says ...
@Nese I'm so sorry to report that the Icelandic lamb is a seasonal product and limited for us. It sells rather quickly for this reason. Next season, feel free to call the stores right away and have them hold some product for you. Again, our sincerest apologies to hype the Lamb and then not be able to provide you with the product. Thanks for your loyalty.
11/04/2011 9:02:25 AM CDT
Regina Blider says ...
Since you receive this Icelandic, grass fed, lamb, fresh, can it be frozen? If it can be frozen, how long is the freezer able to keep this lamb? Thanks, Regina
11/13/2011 11:55:33 AM CST
janejohnson says ...
@Regina The Icelandic lamb can be frozen 6-12 months if kept at proper freezing temperatures and wrapped correctly.
11/17/2011 12:47:26 PM CST
Solrun says ...
I love Icelandic Lamb. I am Icelandic living in USA and Married to a Retired Navy Man. It is many of us (Icelanders) Living in USA and they love when we find out WFM is selling Icelandic product. Maybe It would be a good Idea if WFM would get fish from Iceland both Cod and Haddock. Also around Christmas time get smoked Lamb what Icelander usually cook for Christmas Day. Icelander in America have a Facebook page where we talk about WFM and what came in From Iceland. Thank so much for import part of our Tradition.
12/18/2011 7:51:13 PM CST
Dawn says ...
One of the only reasons I look forward to colder weather is that I know that Icelandic Lamb is on it's way!! And I'm always sad when the season is over. I absolutely LOVE the Icelandic lamb shoulder, bone in, slow roasted/braised with just a bit of salt, pepper, and nestled on a bed of fall veggies with a bit of mushroom or chicken broth for a little liquid. They are very right that this lamb does NOT need much seasoning; I would even describe the taste as "gentle like a lamb"! :) and it would be ruined by the heavy seasoning hand that many recipies call for. It is a mild lamb, and I have had many friends who "don't like lamb" take a taste, and suddenly change their minds! But nothing is like the Icelandic lamb, and the season is sadly too short! :)
12/22/2011 12:14:38 AM CST
Sandy says ...
I'd love to try this but limit the meat I eat to humanely slaughtered. Can you tell me anything about that with these animals? Thanks.
03/12/2014 7:47:15 AM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@SANDY - The Animal Welfare ratings for lamb is currently in development. You can continue to check online at http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/about-our-products/quality-standards/animal-welfare-standards as the page will be updated once they are included in the step rating.
03/12/2014 1:58:06 PM CDT
Peter H says ...
Having just returned from a two week trip to Iceland I can attest to the extremely high quality of the lamb there. I cooked it several times and it was the best I ever had. Better even than the lamb from New Zealand, which is really saying something!
08/19/2014 7:31:50 AM CDT
Rick Boesen says ...
I wonder why Whole Foods imports Icelandic lamb when the Icelandic Sheep breed is raised is such large number in the US. If they were interested in buying locally raised, high quality, pasture raised, humanely treated lamb, just look out their back door.
08/29/2014 10:30:56 AM CDT
Lorry McDonald says ...
There are farms here in the USA that raise purebred Icelandic sheep ( http://www.isbona.com/ ). Most of us are small producers. The representative of Whole Foods told our association that they were not interested in purchasing small quantities of local grown meat - much sadness. So if you want USA grown Icelandic lamb, please help support us by purchasing locally grown lamb.
08/29/2014 11:10:20 AM CDT
John says ...
When will the Icelandic lamb be available this year (if it will at all)? Ever since our trip to Iceland a couple of years ago, we wait for it to be offered each fall.
09/02/2014 12:05:43 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@JOHN - The timing and availability will differ between stores. Check with your local store to see when/if they will have this in stock!
09/03/2014 6:34:46 PM CDT
Thor Runolfsson says ...
I am an Icelander looking to buy a smoked leg of lamb. Where can I find one?
11/16/2015 8:30:11 PM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@THOR - Our exact availability will vary between stores. Check with your local store directly to see if they have this in stock.
11/25/2015 5:06:15 PM CST