At Domus Café, Ottawa's temple of regional cuisine, chef-proprietor John Taylor recently served up a whole lamb in individual mixed platters of braised shoulder, grilled rack and loin, roast leg and a spiced patty.
"I called it a Study of Katahdin Lamb," said Mr. Taylor, one of a handful of Canadian chefs who are offering a little-known North American heritage meat. "It's very lean, almost like veal. It's got a different flavour and texture."
The result of crossing wool sheep with African hair sheep, the breed was registered in Maine in the early 1970s and named after the state's highest mountain. Now that they are spreading through Canada - mainly Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario - the animal has the potential to become a favourite of locavores who want to know what they're eating.
"I love the taste. It's lamb, but so mild," says Jasmin Kobajica, executive chef at Edmonton's Crowne Plaza Chateau Lacombe.
But the breed goes largely unnoticed, according to Tavistock, Ont., farmer Neil Mesman, president of the Canadian Katahdin Sheep Association. "There hasn't been enough demand, but if there was, a lot of us probably would raise more of them," Mr. Mesman says.
With a thick winter coat that it sheds in summer, it's a hardy animal that is well suited to Canadian temperature extremes. It thrives on pasture foraging (while some farmers do opt for growth hormones, Katahdin lamb is generally raised naturally). And the meat tends to have lower cholesterol than regular lamb, which is typically Suffolk, Hampshire or Dorset breeds.
At Calories restaurant in Saskatoon, Provence-born chef-owner Rémi Cousyn has been using Katahdin for his merguez sausages as well as other dishes.
"It's very good. There's no strong muttony smell," Mr. Cousyn says.
Farmers say it's the animal's coat that makes the difference in taste: The Katahdins' hair has no lanolin, a natural substance secreted by most sheep. At Jesswill Acres farm near Campbellford, Ont., Edna Rudkin shows off her herd, pretty in shades of cinnamon, tan - even some with spots.
"The lanolin is in the wool," Ms. Rudkin says, "that's what gives that smell. But even wool breeds don't produce lanolin until they are over 100 pounds [45 kilograms]"
Except for Easter lambs, which are smaller, lambs are usually slaughtered at around that size. Since Katahdins don't produce lanolin, they can be sold at 120 pounds. "People say: 'Wow, lamb chops that aren't a quarter [coin]size.' "
"The first Katahdins came out west in Canada in the mid-80s," says Lynette Kreddig of Franklyn Farm in Mayerthorpe, Alta. She's been raising them since 1992, and her customers include Mr. Kobajica in Edmonton. "I would not go to any other breed."
Ms. Rudkin agrees. "They're so easy to look after, very easygoing."
Mr. Mesman figures he breeds about 800 lambs a year from his 400 ewes, making him the largest producer in Ontario, if not Canada. Twins are common, and Katahdin ewes lamb year-round.
But Mr. Mesman sells his lambs at stockyards, where they are marketed as simply Canadian lamb - maybe even the Canadian lamb you last bought at the supermarket. To buy Katahdin lamb usually requires a trip to a farmers' market or the farm gate.
Restaurants face similar obstacles. It is hard for chefs to find a consistent supply of fresh local lamb. But most restaurants only want prime cuts such as racks and legs, and Katahdin farmers can't afford to sell specific parts because the lamb market in general is relatively small.
Chefs like Mr. Kobajica, Mr. Cousyn and Mr. Taylor want to rise to the challenge, sustaining local producers by using the whole animal. A whole Katahdin delivered to Domus Café by the Pickle Patch farm on a Thursday will be sold out by closing time on Saturday.
At Chateau Lacombe, Mr. Kobajica goes through 10 whole carcasses a month.
"We offer a Franklyn Farm Katahdin Lamb of the Day," Mr. Kobajica says. "My favourite part is the neck." He braises it with local organic lavender.
"People will call," Ms. Kreddig says, "and say, 'We had some lamb that was just great.' "
Finding Katahdin lamb
Calories: 721 Broadway Ave.
in Saskatoon; 306-665-7991ALBERTA
Crowne Plaza Chateau
Lacombe: 10111 Bellamy Hill
in Edmonton; 1-800-661-8801
Franklyn Farm in Mayerthorpe; 780-786-4754ONTARIO
Domus Café: 87 Murray St.
in Ottawa; 613-241-6007
Jesswill Acres: RR 1 in
The Pickle Patch: RR 2, 22190 Breadalbane Rd. in Dalkeith;
For further information visit http://www.katahdinsheep.com