Lamb should be a most local of meats—sheep are hearty creatures who fair well in a wide range of climates and topographies. And for those concerned about where their food comes from and how it is raised, lamb is often a safe choice when little else is known: there are no lamb feed lots.
While I live in California, a state that still has some sheep ranches around (although not nearly as many as it used to), I often can only find foreign lamb at meat counters. This, even though I'm in the Bay Area, with sheep ranches still operating in Rio Vista and other local farms raising sheep as part of a diversified agriculture.
Simply put: lamb from New Zealand is cheaper—even after shipping—than is American lamb. And, as a local foods advocate, I'd like to be able to tell you that New Zealand lamb doesn't taste as good as American lamb. That it's tough. That it's gamey or mutton-flavored. I can do no such thing. What I can say, is that New Zealand lamb does have a different flavor profile than does American lamb. As does lamb from other countries. I've outlined the general differences below.
American lamb tends to come from the largest animals. It is almost always grass-fed for most of its life, but some American lamb is grain finished, meaning that it's fed grain at the end of its life to fatten it up before slaughter. This practice leads to a mellow flavor and lots of marbling (a characteristic that Americans prize in their beef as well). American lamb tends to be quite dark red and, because of the marbling, quite tender. American lamb specifically marked "grass fed" or "grass finished" will likely be leaner and have a stronger lamb flavor.
New Zealand Lamb
Lamb from New Zealand is smaller than American lamb. It is grass-fed throughout its life and tends to have a more pronounced, lamb-like flavor. It is slaughtered at a younger age, so despite the lack of grain feeding and lesser marbling, it is still very tender. It is important to note that in New Zealand, as in Australia and many other countries, only animals under 12 months old and without incisors can be labeled "lamb," whereas in the U.S. there is no such age restriction in labeling.
Australian lamb is less common in American markets, but like New Zealand lamb it tends to come from smaller animals that have been entirely grass-fed on open pasture so it is leaner and has a deeper flavor than American lamb.
Icelandic lamb is not something I've ever seen in U.S. markets, but a friend in New York wrote to me not too long ago that she had spotted some. It tends to be the smallest in the lot, with a remarkably delicate flavor and a very tender texture.
French lamb is famous, particularly the tender young lamb that feeds on salt marshes (a practice growing in frequency in the U.K. as well). Like the U.S., however, France has seen a reduction in lamb production, and only true specialty markets get their hands on any on this side of the Atlantic. Even much of the lamb for sale in France comes from Ireland!
Where to Find Lamb
Want to find local lamb where you live? Use the resources in these State Guides. Looking for tasty lamb recipes? Scroll down to see some of my favorites. Unsure about lamb? Were you scarred by eating some lamb that had an overly strong or even "off" flavor? Start slow and steady with ground lamb. Also feel free to use plenty of strong flavors - spice rubs, mustard sauces, feta cheese - alongside lamb. It can take it!