Saturday, May 30, 2009

It’s Official: Our Lamb is the Best!

- Sue Dean (Renu Karoo Veld Restoration cc) -

Many visitors to Prince Albert and other Karoo villages make a point of buying “Karoo lamb” to take back to the city. Why go to this trouble when lamb is readily available in supermarkets in every city? The problem is that a number of meat packers and food producers label their products “Karoo lamb”, but the consumer cannot be sure that the meat really originated from the Karoo. To protect the consumer and the Karoo sheep industry a consortium of farmers and economists is working with the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape Departments of Agriculture to define and obtain legal protection for a “Karoo” meat brand name.

Product branding is a complicated business. The region of origin needs to be defined, as well as the characteristics of the product that make it distinctive to that region. The first phase of the research into branding was led by Prof. Johann Kirsten, head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, extension and Development at the University of Pretoria. The findings have recently been made known in a research report ( and presented at the Karoo Development Conference in Graaff-Reinet as well as in the Landbouweekblad (article by Theuns Botha, May 2009) and Farmers Weekly (Roelof Beszuidenhout, 24 April 2009).

After much debate on the geographical boundaries of “The Karoo” the experts defined the region on the basis of the distribution of seven common Karoo shrubs. These little grey bossies are silwerkaroo (Plinthus karrooicus), ankerkaroo (Pentzia incana), skaapbossie (Pentzia spinescens), kapokbossie (Eriocephalus ericoides), Rivierganna (Salsola glabrescens); geelbuchukaroo (Pteronia glauca) and perdebos (Rosenia humilis). The Karoo, according to the bossies, cover a vast area from the western part of the Northern Cape, through the southern Free State, Eastern and includes Prince Albert, Laingsburg and Beaufort West in the Western Cape.

Popular belief has it that Karoo lamb is more tasty – but is this perception real? And does the taste reflect the aromas of typical Karoo plants? To answer this question, a panel of meat-tasting experts was assembled. First they were served hot “bossiestee” brewed from the shoot tips of all the little grey bushes listed above. The next course was cubes of Dorper of Merino lamb and sheep meat from five regions of origin (De Aar, Carnavon, Kalahari, Free State and Namibia). Each cube was individually wrapped and labelled, and panel members wrote a description of the taste of each sample next to its code on their evaluation forms. The verdict was that Karoo lamb and mutton, regardless of breed, differed in taste from that raised on the grassy plains of Namibia. Karoo lamb had a herby flavour compared with a “musty” flavour of the more tender lamb from Namibia and parts of the Kalahari.

Essential oils are the basis of all perfumes and are fat soluble, in this way becoming part of the sheep. The lingering aromas of the Karoo bushes, especially ankerkaroo, geelbuchukaroo kapok, perdekaroo and skaapbossie, and others with such common names as boegoebossie, buchukaroo and laventelbossie are derived from essential oils in the leaves. This property was appreciated by the indigenous Khoi people of the Karoo who used crushed leaves to make perfumes, medicines and insect repellents. Currently the oils of both Eriocephalus and Pteronia are in demand for the international perfume industry. So it is true: sheep are what they eat; the fragrance of Karoo veld permeates the meat.

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