On the Lamb in La Manche

With so many people visiting Mont Saint Michel for its history and tidal phenomenon, let’s make the pilgrimage for another medievally-related but very different reason. For those chefs or amateurs out there, you certainly know that seasoning is a must! There is just no excuse for under-seasoned meats. It’s a rule that might as well be written in the French constitution for it’s a country that takes particular pride in seasoning. Well, what if your meat came pre-seasoned!? That’s exactly why agneau (lamb) de pré-salé is such a delicacy.

The meat, translated as “salt meadow lamb”, is unique to the salt marshes around Mont Saint Michel and a few other rare locations where halophyte grass grows as a result of the tides coming and reseeding rapidly, leaving water to become highly salty. So when the shepherds release their flock, as they have for millennia, to roam in these salty low-tide fields, they become oh so delicious. As with all other delicacies, the French have protected the meat and its patented taste as an official appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Like other products with the AOC label, agneau de pré-salé is very much based on terroir. The mark was provided to the agneau of the Somme in 2006 and was finally applied to the lambs of the Baie du Mont Saint Michel in summer 2010.

Surely this is a cause for celebration. In fact, this part of the Manche Department takes particular pride in its special contribution to French gastronomy. It is likely on every menu in the area from mid-summer through January. Even some restaurants presumably are dedicated to the dish. Such is the case with Le Pré-Salé restaurant, which is just across the causeway from Mont Saint Michel but far enough to shelter its patrons from observing the same specimen on their plate in the field. And of course in pure French fashion, there are at least two fetes dedicated to the beast that feeds on seaweed.

There’s the Genêts festival in August showcasing its dogs’ herding skills, local resident’s shearing capabilities, wool crafts, lamb cutting prowess, and finally the rotisserie in action before the main event – a pré-salé meal. But then there’s the Fête de l’Agneau de Pré-Salé in Courtils each July. This community has been holding its annual celebration for twenty-three years, usually on the salt marshes themselves, here at a place called Roche Torin. The community brings out all its barbeques so that following a flea market and ritual mass to bless the unlucky animals, the smell of burning wood ultimately means that the feast is almost near.

It won’t take long for the meat to be done on the barbeque grates, for its best prepared slightly rare. After a mandatory seventy days munching on its unique diet on the marches, the meat becomes particularly tender and interestingly-enough, not especially salty. It’s the variety of herbs found in the terroir that make it distinctively tender and jucier. By all accounts, lamb will never taste the same after having it pré-salé. Agneau pré-salé is legendary. It is a natural process that feeds off the area’s strong natural tidal flood phenomenon that gives Mont Saint Michel its own unique character. Yet another reason to visit Mont Saint Michel and even more reason to venture into the communities and marshes that nourish it. Bon appetite!

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