Bare Knuckle Lamb

This article was published in the April 2014 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column, page 37.

I admit, readers, that Irish lamb is not something I’ve cooked. I happily indulge in my Dad’s BBQ lamb chops and even ate my entire plate of lamb and potatoes at my County Down wedding dinner. My Northern Irish mother-in-law serves up a mean lamb too, but I never got on the wagon, until now.

“I like lamb with sweetness … carrots, parsnips, sweet baby turnips or peas or even green garlic,” said Abra Berens, owner of Bare Knuckle Farm and alumna of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry in County Cork, Ireland. “I like the gaminess to it. I like a big roast cut, such as leg of lamb or the shoulder so that you get some of that fat in the dish, because it smells and tastes more barny.”

She had me hooked, almost. I couldn’t get past the word ‘barny.’ I felt better when she said, “As far as lamb goes, people are either lamb lovers or haters.” I decided to give it a try.

Berens has done more than try—she has flourished—bringing Ireland back to the Midwest, where she is the co-owner and chef at Bare Knuckle Farm in Northern Michigan. She attributes the way she approaches food and farming to her childhood experiences and to the three-month program at Ballymaloe.

She had an expert teacher, the legendary Darina Allen. Some call Allen the Julia Child of Ireland. Allen is the founder of the cookery school, a farm activist and huge promoter of farmers markets (she reinvigorated the farmer’s market movement in Ireland in the late 1980s).

Many great chefs have passed through the doors of Ballymaloe, including Berens’ mentor Rodger Bowser. He was the one who encouraged Berens to look into Ballymaloe.

Once Berens arrived at the school, she was not disappointed. She dove in headfirst, immersing herself in the opportunity to learn from a master, just like Darina Allen did many years before from Myrtle Allen, the farm’s original Irish mother, home cook and a farmer. (Darina married Myrtle’s son, hence the shared Allen surname.)

Back, in the Midwest though, Berens’ learning experiences with Allen inform her farming and cooking. Berens and her business partner, Jess Piskor, dedicate themselves and their business to small-scale agriculture that supplies a healthful, delicious and diverse array of vegetables to their friends and neighbors. In 2013, they started private farm dinners using the finest Leelanau County ingredients.


Bare Knuckle Farm (Credit: Bare Knuckle Farm)

At Bare Knuckle, just like at Ballymaloe, you will find chickens escaping and hogs misbehaving. “We had two naughty hogs at Bare Knuckle. A pig was walking straight to the barn where our farm dinner was happening. I quickly had to divert them. The pigs know they aren’t supposed to be out,” she said.

And once at Ballymaloe, a well-to-do London classmate of Berens’ found a freshly lain egg in her kitchen shoe. “Blame the constantly escaping chickens,” said Berens. “Working on a farm, you get used to animals getting out.”

Escaping animals aside, Berens remembers her time in Ireland with great fondness, and it’s clear the experience deeply impacted her on a personal and professional level. “It’s a lens through which I view my food. I have a tendency to use Irish dishes—brown breads, rich butter—as ingredients in their own right,” she said.

We both laughed over our shared experience with America’s attitude toward road trips and the contrasting difficulty of navigating Ireland in a single day.

Upon her arrival, when Berens asked how she could get from Belfast International Airport to Ballymaloe, everyone insisted she take two buses, not one. “’You have to stop in Dublin, it’s too far to go in one trip,’” she reminisced. “A busload of people was diverted to Ballymaloe to drop me off. People took time to be open and hospitable.”

Berens misses Ireland and stays in touch with Allen, exchanging emails now and then, but she hopes to go back to visit soon. “It’s been too long,” she said. “Before you arrive, you have an image of what a place is going to look like. After you’ve walked the road into town every day for two months, it changes,” she said. The more familiar the path became, the more at home she felt in Shanagarry.

In the meantime, here’s her Midwest take on an Irish Easter lamb. “Thank Myrtle for the cumin,” said Berens. Myrtle Allen added cumin to the legendary Irish lamb pies and now Berens always associates that spice with lamb. We will too.

Abra Berens and Jess Piskor (L to R).

Abra Berens and Jess Piskor. (Credit: Bare Knuckle Farm)


Roast Leg of Lamb with Cumin, Garlic and Herbs

Recipe by Abra Berens

Note for Chicagoland: Berens recommends buying lamb at The Butcher & Larder or Publican Quality Meats.


1 leg of lamb, 8oz raw weight per person

4 cloves garlic

1 T cumin seed

½ C olive oil

½ C chopped fresh herbs; parsley, rosemary thyme, chervil, mint, chives, tarragon etc.

salt and pepper

potatoes, 4-6oz raw weight per person

fresh or frozen peas, 2oz per person

carrots, 1 per person


Cooking Instructions

  • In a small saucepan, toast the cumin until it is fragrant and begins to pop.
  • Remove from the heat and add the olive oil to cool the seeds and steep the flavor.
  • Smash and chop the garlic until into a fine paste.
  • When the oil has cooled, add the garlic, herbs, a good pinch of salt and pepper and whisk to combine.
  • Season the leg with a healthy amount of salt and pepper. Pour half of cumin oil over the leg of lamb and rub into the meat. Allow to sit for several hours or, better, overnight.
  • A couple of hours before serving, remove the lamb from the refrigerator if necessary and bring to room temperature.
  • Heat oven to 350F.
  • Cut the potatoes into large pieces and scatter over a large roasting dish.
  • Rest the leg of lamb on top of the potatoes and roast for approximately 18 minutes per lb. of lamb.
  • Wash, peel and cut the carrots into bite size pieces.
  • Remove from oven, cover with tin foil and allow the leg to rest for 10-15 min before carving.
  • While the potatoes are still hot, toss them with the peas and raw carrot and more fresh herbs, whatever you have around.
  • Carve the lamb and serve with the potato salad and reserved cumin oil.

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