Helen Peacocke looks at lamb's popularity through the centuries

Lamb has been part of mankind’s staple diet for thousands of years. The oldest (and now one of the rarest breeds) in this country is said to be the Cotswold breed brought into England about 2,000 years ago by the Romans.

Ritually, lamb was used for sacrifices by many different religions and to a variety of gods, not just during Easter, providing not just meat but wool for clothing and skin for parchments.

One of the many pleasures of walking the countryside at this time of the year is the sight of newborn lambs leaping through wild flower meadows. They are a heart-warming sight that symbolises so much that springtime stands for.

Watching a ewe give birth is a remarkable experience, one which I witnessed last spring while walking a country lane in the Cotswolds. At first, the newborn lamb stayed curled under the ewe, then gradually it moved just a little as its mother leant over and began to lick it clean. This went on for about ten minutes, then when the ewe nuzzled its little head the lamb attempted to stand — its little legs wobbling in its gallant attempt to join the world. Within another ten minutes it was not just standing, but greedily taking milk from its mother . . . and so another little lamb joined the flock.

On asking my butcher how he tells baby lamb joints from regular lamb, he explained that once it was jointed it’s a matter of colour. The flesh of a spring lamb will be light pink whereas a regular lamb’s flesh will be a pinker red. If he was able to examine its mouth, during its first week after birth the lamb will have eight baby milk teeth on the lower jaw. After a year, the central pair of these milk teeth are replaced by permanent incisors. At two years of age a second pair appear. By four years of age a full mouth of teeth will have developed.

Lamb can often be purchased at the farm gate, a farm shop, a farmers’ market or your local butcher. I admit that I am often seduced into making my purchase because I know the provenance of the herd and am familiar with the fields in which they graze. In October last year shepherds Lauren and Dan Marriott moved to Little Wittenham, having been offered a farm tenancy by the Earth Trust charity.

As their 400-acre farm consists mainly of wild flower meadows they can provide perfect grazing for their 470-strong flock of rare breed Oxford Downs.

Oxford Downs date back to the 1830s and are a cross between Cotswold rams and Hampshire Downs and the South Down. You can recognise these fine sheep by their bold muscular head and their chunky bodies well covered with thick-set, long lustrous wool. They have such attractive black faces — some look rather like my Burmese cat.

You can purchase Little Wittenham lamb at Headington, Wallingford and Wantage farmers’ markets, also at the Brightwell Village shop and at Clifton Hampden Stores, or by going to their website. Their lamb is also sourced by local pubs, such as the Plough Inn, Long Wittenham. In addition, Lauren and Dan welcome visitors to the farm during their open lambing weekends and invite them to become shepherds for the day.

Travel to Deddington, in the north of the county, and you will discover The Meat Joint on Iron Down Farm, a family enterprise run by Sebastian Peissel, who can also be found at local farmers’ markets. He breeds Polled Dorset sheep, an old native breed suited to early lambing and renowned for its flavoursome meat. He also rears North Country Mules that have great mothering abilities. They lamb later in the year. Both enjoy being fed on fields of clover, which adds superb, delicious flavours to the meat.

If you are buying spring lamb from a supermarket rather than the farm gate, look out for a quality standard lamb mark. If it is English, a St George’s flag will indicate this fact. Lamb that has been born, raised and slaughtered in the UK will be marked with a Union Flag.

If you are buying a joint of lamb for an Easter family feast, you will find that a 6lb leg of lamb will serve at least six to eight people, perhaps more if you are carving with a sharp knife and have let the meat settle before serving.

As an extra treat and to add that special touch to your Easter lamb, you will no doubt be delighted to know that, if the weather holds, the asparagus season is about to start. Farmer Charlie Gee of Medley Manor Farm, Oxford, is confident his crop will be ready to serve with your roast lamb Easter lunch. Call Charlie on 07887 701 011 for further details and opening times.

Can you imagine a finer mix than tender local lamb and fresh asparagus?

An Easter treat indeed.