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Lamb eaters

One of my favourites of Finnish literature is "Lampaansyöjät" (it means "Lamb eaters") by Veikko Huovinen. The novel was published in 1970, and was soon adapted to a movie. Both the movie and the book are well known, and the story is both humorous and inspiring. At those times sheep rearing was becoming rare in Finland, not many people ate lamb meat. Well, the story is about two adult men, who spend their summer vacation driving around Finland (and briefly visiting Norway, too). And they hunt sheep. Yes, they drive in the countryside, looking for places where there are sheep grazing on a pasture. They seek cover in forests, and shoot a lamb in the night, quickly escaping with their loot, often retreating deeper into a forest to cook and to eat lamb. Yup, that's illegal for sure - but afterwards they send a letter to each farmer, with money inside, thus compensating for the loss. With one of those lambs they try a traditional cooking method, called "robber's roast" : first they dig a pit in sandy soil, burn a fire in the pit, then placing the lamb in the pit, covering the pit, and letting the lamb stay in the pit for ten or twelve hours. I'd guess nowadays in Finland everybody knows that cooking method, because of this popular story.

Well, both Sami and me had been dreaming about having that kind of a vacation. (And apparently, we are not the only ones - there are some rumours that when the movie was released, there were several reports of real-life incidents inspired by the story.) Since I have sheep of my own, we didn't need to go poaching. Sami arrived at my place on Sunday, and first we dug a pit big enough for a whole lamb. We covered the bottom of the pit with a layer of natural stones. And we secured the walls with thin flat stones - those stones were from an old fireplace I torn down a year ago. So, now we had a pit with a floor and walls of stone. We had sauna, drank some beer, and planned the details of the procedure. We have both tried a ground oven before, but only in smaller scale. Nowadays people often do it with a fish, vegetables, or a piece of meat, which then is wrapped in aluminium foil or something like that. But I don't have enough aluminium foil to wrap a whole lamb, and anyhow we wanted to experiment with a simple and a primitive method.

Can we just put the whole animal in the hot pit, and then cover it with sand? Will the wool and the skin offer enough protection, so that the meat doesn't get sandy? Or should we first cover the lamb with a layer of tree branches or something like that? We googled for information, and found one article by a well known Finnish cook. His recipe started with a line "First, steal a sheep" - okay, now this sounds like the real thing =) He suggested using a mixture of natural clay and water, applying the mixture all over the lamb - it will get stuck in the wool, and in the heat of the pit the clay will form a natural wrapping. But all of my yard is sandy soil, and we didn't like hauling a load of clay from far away, so we decided to try it as simple as possible. If we keep the fire burning for ten hours, that should leave a lot of embers in the pit - if we first remove the embers, then place the lamb into the pit, and cover it with a layer of embers, and then cover the embers with a layer of sand, there will be only a minimal risk of getting sand mixed with the meat. So, we had a plan.

Monday morning I butchered a ram. Then we placed some kindling into the pit, and Sami started the fire with an iron and a flint stone. We kept the fire burning for the whole day, having sauna and drinking some beer, telling some stories and writing a few lines of code for UrW. At around 11 pm we had a thick layer of hot embers in the pit. With spades we removed as much of the embers. I fetched the lamb, and we placed it on top of a metal chicken wire. As the lamb had been hanging for the day, the carcass had already become stiff, so I had to use some force to bend the legs to a curled position so that we could fit the whole animal into the pit. Using the metal net it was rather easy to carefully place the lamb into the hot pit. At first we were unsure if the pit is too small, but it turned out to be big enough - or even slightly too big. As there was some empty space on the sides, most of the ambers went to filling that space, and we only had a very thin layer of ambers on top of the lamb. Well, but at this point we couldn't change our plans, so we just went ahead with covering the pit with a layer of sand. Just to make it sure, we built a small fire on top of the covered pit. We burned the fire for couple of hours, slowly drinking beer and telling stories (like quest ideas for UrW). When the fire was out, we wrapped a couple of yellow turnips in tin foil, and placed them in the hot sand on top of the pit.

Tuesday morning we went to inspect. We thought that if the meat is not properly cooked, we can save the situation by roasting pieces of meat on open first. First we removed the turnips, they turned out to be perfectly cooked and delicious. That's promising! We carefully removed sand, until we hit the embers. We grabbed the chicken wire and used it to lift the lamb from the pit. We placed the lamb on top of a wooden pallet - and it was nothing but a miserable heap of sand and ashes. Maybe it was all ruined? Certainly the meat was quite well-done; I carefully grabbed a leg and gently lifted it - which gave me just the leg. The skin, all the meat and the joints were so thoroughly cooked that the legs were already mostly disconnected. Hmm... But maybe we can still save some of the meat? I carefully wiped away as much of the sand as I could. I firmly grabbed the rear end of the lamb, pulled it apart, and placed it on top of a plank. Then I could just peel away the skin, exposing the well-done meat. Some areas of the meat got sand, but other areas were perfect. Sami brought me a big kettle and a bowl - I started sorting through the meat, placing the high quality pieces into the kettle, and lower quality pieces into the bowl. That way, working piece by piece through the lamb, I harvested as much of the meat as I could. So, after all, it was a success! We enjoyed a tasty meal of robber's roast, yellow turnips, together with some beer. Yum! The experiment confirmed that about 10 hours of burning fire in the pit, and 12 hours of roasting is enough to make a whole lamb thoroughly well-done. But maybe next time we really should try it with a layer of clay applied into the sheep wool =)

On Tuesday evening we did some more UrW-related work, drank some more beer, and had a sauna bath. All in all, it was an extremely good session - a mixture of "boyish adventures", creative work, vacation, refreshment and some productive work.

We kept the fire burning for ten hours
We kept the fire burning for ten hours
A small fire on top of the covered pit
A small fire on top of the covered pit
There's a well-done lamb under this heap of sand
There's a well-done lamb under this heap of sand
Like that!
Like that!
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Yum! I haven't had mutton for years.... I am going to have to find some, I am hungry for it now!

Sheep and goats are popular livestock here in Appalachia, in the rougher high country that isn't suitable for cattle. But at least around here sheep are not eaten very often anymore. It's all about the wool instead.

We went so primitive that we didn't even apply salt - but with this method of cooking the meat becomes so tender that it's tasty even without salt. But of course it depends on one's personal preferences =) Some people find the taste of mutton always being somewhat "woollen".

If you want to try ground oven, it is relatively easy to do with a piece of meat wrapped in two or three layers of aluminium foil =) Personally, I'd like to try that clay thing with a smaller animal, maybe a rooster in the autumn...

Reminds me of some Bushcrafting/Aboriginal/Ancient way of cooking I was looking at before, the well known Ray Mears cooked some Venison in a similar way, I'll have to try and find the video of it on youtube somewhere, its well worth the watch, from what I remember he cooked it with rocks that had been heated from a very hot fire in a pit, wrapped it in either pine boughs or some other form of greenery, put it on the rocks, covered it with more rocks and then capped the hole with something...my memory of it fades off there!

I'd love to have a go at something like that, still building myself up to do some mussels on the beach when I go, but having any kind of fire on any beach in the UK is a difficult prospect...they seem to think the beach will set alight!

According to wikipedia this method of cooking has been used all around the world - which makes sense. There are different variations which can be used even for smoking or steaming food. In our experiment we wanted to try a "robbers' version" - a quick make-shift pit with no intention of building a reusable structure. In Finland some people have permanent ground ovens; floor and walls made of bricks, and a metal lid for sealing. That kind of structures are often smaller, suitable for cooking 2 or 3 kg of food in one go. I've also heard people using natural cracks in a cliff instead of a pit dug in soil.

(Hmmm, if I was a land-owner in UK, I'd set up a "primitive camping area" - a private property, where people could enter for a very small fee, and then they would be allowed to use a modest amount of natural resources, start fires, fish and forage according to their skills...)

This left me in a strong doubt of start eating meat again, hmm! :)

Haha, yes =) Normally Sami doesn't eat meat, but for this experiment he ate little bits, just for the taste and the atmosphere. But then, on the other hand, this method of cooking could be used as well for any kind of food. Pieces of carrots, onions, potatoes and slices of tomato, all wrapped in tin foil - left in the embers of an ordinary camp-fire, that should cook in about an hour or so =)

Wasn't sure where to post this, so I hope here is cool. :P

I was squirrel hunting the other day, and when I was cleaning one it made me think of Unreal World.

I seem to recall when I was playing that game, ambushing squirrels by throwing a small axe at them (I figure that must be about the same as a tomahawk, right? :P ). After missing them with the axe, I would pelt them with a pocket full of rocks until they fell from the tree and were stunned, at which point I would jump on them and punch them until they were dead.

Great times. XD

Then, since I could so seldom catch larger animals, I always tanned the squirrel hides in that game, and made fur clothing out of them for winter. And cordage. And everything else, lol.

So as I was cleaning that for-real squirrel the other day, I thought about making some squirrel-size stretch forms with all of those narrow boards that came out of my floor, and trying to brain tan all of the squirrel hides and send them to you and Sami. Along with a small rock. Lol.

Probably just a silly thought. I doubt I'll try tanning the squirrel hides. I am not sure what to do with them afterwards. Maybe little pouches, or gloves? Hehe. It would take many and a lot of lacing just to make even a hat!

I know a guy who lives in the woods of Eastern Finland. He lives almost completely outside the money-based exchange, and he practices a lot of the old skills. With his self-sufficiency, he went even that far that he grew linen, made cords out of linen, and wove fish traps of that cord - only to find out that his local waters aren't that rich of fish... Well, but he has trousers made of squirrel leather - I don't remember how many animals he needed to make the trousers, he used his own urine to tan the leather =)

Maybe after ten years, when I have my mortgage loan paid and the house renovated, I could live on radically smaller monthly income, but I doubt if I will ever be as hardcore as that friend of mine =)

Wow. That would take so many squirrels haha.

Did he leave the hair on? Do you know if it stays on the squirrels when you brain tan? I know they make some kind of chemical that it supposed to keep the hair from slipping, but it seems like it causes metal implements and ammunition cases to corrode if they are stored inside such leather for very long. :S

I wish I could live like that. But I like the computer and modern refrigeration too much, lol. And I probably don't have the skills anymore (if I ever did at all lol) either... :P

I was kind of thinking it would be neat to lace up a case-skinned squirrel into a little neck pouch for rimfire ammunition, with the tail left hanging on the flap. Maybe pull some wooden or bone or antler beads onto it or something, assuming it's possible to skin out the tails and remove the bone... Never tried that...

I think the belly leather might be too thin, though.... One might have to trim that out and fold the back over and lace up the sides hmmmmm.... I dunno. I wish I knew more about leatherworking. :3

No, it was squirrel leather, so without the hair. I don't know for sure, but at least in Finland it makes a difference that what time of the year you hunt animals for furs. When the winter starts to turn into early spring, it is too late, as the animals begin to lose their winter hair. Yeah, but I don't know - sure it would be nice to experiment more with tanning and leatherwork in general!

Well, but a self-made ammunition pouch sounds like a great idea! If you have time, maybe you can try it and then if it doesn't work, you still gain experience and find new ideas for improved experimets =)

Here in southern Brazil there's a traditional method of cooking meat called "fogo de chão" (literally "fire on the ground"). A fire is lit on the ground and a whole piece of meat (usually ribs) is left to cook by the fire, for 10-12 hours. The result is a delicious and tender meat. Here's a photo of someone doing it: http://asnovidades.com.br/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Costela-no-fogo-de-...

There's also a dish called "barreado" ("covered with clay"). As the story goes, it was invented by slaves, who got leftovers of meat, put them in a clay pot sealed with more clay to hold the steam inside, and cooked it underground for several hours (maybe a day), to avoid their bosses finding out. I don't know if that's true or just legend, but it's an interesting background story. Today we just use a pressure cooker, since there's no ground to dig a hole on...

The recipe goes something like this:

1kg of chopped blade steak without fat (or some other meat without fat, you can even mix different types of meat. Sorry I'm not very specific here, I barely know names of meat in my language, let alone in english...)
80g of chopped bacon
some leaves of laurel and chopped garlic
2 chopped tomatoes and a chopped onion
a teaspoon of black pepper
two teaspoons of cumin and two of salt
4 cups of water

Then you just mix everything in a sealed clay pot and leave by the fire for 8 to 12 hours (some recipes say 17 hours). Or in a pressure cooker for 3 hours. Finally you shred the meat with a fork. It's a custom to mix the cooked meat and juice with rice and cassava flour, and some people like to add a banana too. I guess the basic idea is "slowly cooked meat with pepper". You can reheat it for several days, and it will taste even better =)

Well, I guess people here are more of "cattle eaters". I have eaten lamb only once, so I don't remember how it tastes. But in the countryside where my relatives live, they rear both sheep and cattle (specially here in the south, where it's colder, and in the north, which is the biggest part of the country, people rear only cattle, mostly large scale).


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