The Karoo is a semi-desert area in South Africa, located in the central and western part of the country. The Karoo encompasses nearly 40% of South Africa, comparable to the size of Germany. It is a very dry area with an annual rainfall between 50 – 250 mm. The name “Karoo” is derived from the Khoisan language, meaning “place of thirst”.

wooden serving board with small bread appetizers with karoo lamb overlay how karoo lamb gets its unique flavour

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The main vegetation of the Karoo landscape consists of smaller bushes, shrubs, aloes and succulents that survive with low water. The vegetation is not very dense and typically you’ll see the shrubs about half a meter apart from one another. The biodiversity is high with around 6000 different types of vegetation counted in the total region, of which more than half are only found in this region.

Typical Karoo landscape with low shrubs and mountains with cloudy sky
Typical Karoo landscape

So what gives the Karoo Lamb its unique flavour? Here are various reasons why:

The Karoo is a very bio diverse semi-desert area in South Africa

Due to the invention of windmills to pump up borehole water, farming became possible. Much of the Karoo area is used for goat and sheep farming who both thrive on the local vegetation. Goat is used for mohair production and sheep for merino wool and meat.

Karoo landscape with windmill for pumping up water
Karoo landscape with windmill for pumping up water

When on a road trip in the Karoo, the area looks very desolate and not much livestock can be seen. The reason is that on average, each sheep requires minimum 4 hectare of farmland. As a result the farms in the Karoo region are huge. The roots of the plants keep the soil together. With too many animals grazing on a too small an area, the plants do not have the time to recover and when there is heavy rainfall the soil will erode.

Karoo Lamb is unique and distinct in flavour

Now what makes meat from Karoo sheep so unique and distinct in flavour?

The Karoo has a harsh climate, cold winters and hot summers with hardly any rainfall. The indigenous shrubs endure this harsh climate and grow year round, while grass only grows in rainy season. The Karoo sheep mainly feed on this indigenous flora, which is nutritious as well as palatable to the sheep. These shrubs have a very herby aroma, varying from rosemary, thyme, sage, eucalyptus and lavender. One can say that the sheep flavour their own meat while grazing.

Even when walking around in the fields you can smell the herbs of the Karoo bushes and shrubs. It almost feels like walking around in a spice market and gives its distinctive taste to the Karoo meat.

Sheep grazing in the Karoo between the shrubs
Sheep grazing in the Karoo

The Karoo lamb and Karoo mutton is famous for its unique herby aroma and taste and so only sheep that have been grazing on these bushes will acquire this distinctive Karoo meat flavour.

Karoo Lamb Certificate of Origin

The real Karoo Lamb has a certificate of origin, recognisable by a sign of a windmill. It’s basically the same as with Champagne in France or with Parma ham in Italy.
It specifies that only sheep that were grazing in an area that has at least two out of these six indigenous shrubs; Ankerkaroo (Pentzia incana), Kapokbos (Eriocephalus ericoides), Rivierganna (Salsola glabrescens), Silverkaroo (Plinthus karrooicus), Boegoekaroo (Pteronia glauca) and Skaapbossie (Pentzia spinescens).

kapok bush with white flowers
Kapok bush

Moreover, the Karoo sheep have to be free ranging, but if 4 hectares of farmland are taken into account, one can definitely speak of free ranging.

When cooking or grilling the lamb meat, you will notice that it hardly needs any extra flavouring with spices and herbs, due to its natural herby taste. A traditional South African way to cook the Karoo lamb chops or mutton is on the braai.

2 Mutton steaks on the "braai"
Mutton steaks on the “braai”

So when travelling around in South Africa and you get to spend some time in the Karoo region, definitely try out Karoo lamb meat, especially if you love the lamb taste. It’s a local dish, available in many restaurants and when you go for self catering, no problem to find the meat in most supermarkets or local butcheries. Just check for the Certificate of Origin.

What has been your experience with food that had a unique flavour? What was it and where?

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