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!