Post writing about goats it was on to Sheep for my project. Perhaps I’d been prejudiced by firstly writing about goats but researching and writing about sheep just didn’t grab me in the same way. That is, until I started talking to Anissa Helou about fat-tailed sheep.
A few years ago I wondered why they docked the tails of lambs, and, more to the point, whether anyone ate the tails anywhere. I just wondered and didn’t check it out any further until I started reading about sheep and the incredible accounts in historical literature of sheep in the Middle East and Central Asia with tails so fat that shepherds made little carts for the tails so that the sheep could walk without dragging them. Quite a few historians believe that Genghis Khan’s army, for example, favoured sheep like this simply because they could cut off a tail to eat on the move without halting the army or killing the whole animal.
According to Helou, this tail fat is delicious: because it swings off the back of the sheep it has a lower melting point (being cooled by air and not susceptible to the heat of the animal’s organs), and therefore has the mouthfeel of silk. Whilst used for cooking, it is apparently at its finest eaten raw, for breakfast no less, and preferably with slices of very fresh raw sheep’s liver. Now ever since, in good old-fashioned parenting-style, I was made to eat cold, partially regurgitated fried liver for breakfast before being allowed to leave the table (I hadn’t finished my dinner the night before), I’ve not been a fan. But this sounded fascinating. Raw liver I can find, and fresh at that, but I’m on the hunt for sheep’s tails now, and then I’ll have me a traditional Lebanese breakfast.
But back to Genghis. When his army took the city of Merv in present day Turkmenistan they slaughtered over 1 million people by judicious accounts. The city of Merv, considered to be one of the most populous and prosperous cities in the world, never recovered. The reputation of Genghis’ army was that they shed the blood of humans more readily than they did of sheep. Now, here’s the interesting bit: that’s true, because traditional slaughter of sheep involved (and still does in Central Asia) making a small incision in the sheep’s chest, and reaching in to stop the heart with your hand (or pinch the aorta more specifically). Ideally, no blood is shed on the ground so that it is all saved for food. I spent a morning watching videos online of this slaughtering practice, and whilst the reputation for the technique is that the animal feels no pain and it is over in seconds one video took five minutes from start to finish, so either the Mongolian fellow in question was rubbish at it, or it might be a case of wishful thinking.