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Under the watchful eye of a team of Great Pyrenees livestock guard dogs, 500 sheep graze among solar panels that cover more than half of Montgomery Sheep Farm in Biscoe, a rolling 200-acre property at the edge of Uwharrie National Forest. For the animals, it’s business as usual. Inside the farm’s renovated bunkhouse, however, about 50 people are sitting down to a farm-to-table lamb feast. The first course: a North Carolina-sourced charcuterie board of fruits, cheeses, jams, crackers, and, the star of the show, lamb salami from Sun Raised Foods, including a fennel-flavored finocchiona and a sweet soppressata.
Joel and Tonje Olsen created Sun Raised Foods in 2018 as a spin-off of Joel’s work as a solar-farm developer. The company regularly hosts lamb-and-wine dinners at the farm in Biscoe, as well as at restaurants around the state. Guests can taste not only the charcuterie but also other cuts of meat, such as shanks, chops, and ground lamb.
A Charlotte native, Joel has always had a global outlook and concern for the environment. While studying international relations and Japanese at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he spent a year abroad in Japan and a summer in Norway, where he began learning Norwegian — the language of his ancestors. After graduation, he spent 15 years working in Norway, where he met Tonje.
After Joel and Tonje moved to the United States in 2007, he landed a job at a solar equipment manufacturer and later started his own solar development company, O2 Energies. The company was a pioneer in building solar farms across North Carolina, which now ranks fourth in the country for solar-generating capacity. These days, Joel operates and maintains the farms that he built.
That’s where the sheep come in.
Keeping the grass tidy beneath solar panels is required maintenance. Grazing sheep do that in an efficient and ecologically friendly way, Joel says.
The Olsens began working with sheep farmers and formed a sister company, Sun Raised Farms, which organizes flocks of sheep to control vegetation at more than 20 solar farms across North Carolina. And once they had sheep, selling lamb meat — and salami — was a logical next step.
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“I grew up with lamb salami. It’s fairly popular in Norway, actually,” Tonje says.
She remembers eating salami at breakfast smorgasbords. “We have breads, and you put out cheese, salami, pâtés. And jelly is kind of common,” Tonje says. “Then you pick your favorites and put them on the bread. And that’s your breakfast.”
The Olsens drew on Tonje’s childhood memories as they considered ways to market their lamb. “We were thinking we should do something different than just having lamb chops, and started experimenting with salami,” she says.
At first, they worked with a local salami maker, whose lamb salami included pork fat. But the Olsens wanted their product to be made with 100 percent lamb. One of Sun Raised Foods’ customers, Chef Joe Kindred of Kindred restaurant in Davidson, recommended a new partner — a former charcuterie expert at specialty food retailer Dean & DeLuca, who helped the couple develop their current recipes.
They started with six different types, then narrowed down their offerings to two — a finocchiona and a sweet soppressata, both based on Italian dry-cured salamis traditionally made with pork. But Sun Raised Foods created a unique recipe using lamb. Finocchiona gets its name from a key ingredient: finocchio, the Italian word for fennel. Soppressata is made with cracked red pepper that gives it a spicy kick. Sun Raised Foods’ sweet soppressata gets its sweetness from red wine and a hint of cherry.
The salami’s unique flavor can also be attributed to the breed of sheep. Most lamb consumed in the United States comes from wool sheep raised in New Zealand or Australia. But the Olsens raise Katahdin sheep, which have hair instead of wool. Their meat has a milder flavor that is “much more suited to the American palate,” Joel says.
The Olsens’ sheep also stand apart because they’re raised on a farm that is certified Animal Welfare Approved. That means they’re pasture-raised without hormones, using sustainable, high-welfare farming practices.
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In 2020, Chef Jennifer Brulé Raised Foods’ first lamb-and-wine dinners at the Davidson Ice House. Though lamb is not normally on the menu there, Brulé worked with the Olsens to create a successful dining experience. Guests were ushered into the dining room, handed a glass of wine, and directed to a “grazing table” — a counter transformed into a giant charcuterie board. For most, it was their first taste of lamb salami.
Brulé had never seen anything like the feast or Sun Raised Foods’ salami. “They’re as good as any salamis that I’ve had while living in Europe,” she says. “And I’m absolutely crazy about charcuterie.”
Brulé says that Americans are often hesitant to eat lamb because they’re afraid that it’ll have a gamey taste. Not so with Sun Raised Foods’ salami. “It’s very delicate,” she says. “They got the balance just right.” She likes to serve these salamis as a passed hors d’oeuvre or for grazing, alongside ripe pear slices or apple compote. It has “a savory flavor punch,” she says, but it’s not heavy.
Introducing more diners to North Carolina-raised lamb is the whole point of dinners like the one at Montgomery Sheep Farm. But for Joel Olsen these events are also about promoting his farming model. “We’re looking for opportunities to use the land for more than just generating clean electricity,” he says. “And this dual use of land is really the key, I think, for the future.” — David Boraks
To master the craft of making ice cream, Andia Xouris and her husband, George, traveled for three years, taking classes around the country. “My husband has always said, ‘Ice cream makes people happy; it brings people together,’” Andia says. When they started their ice cream business in 2013, a few years after moving to North Carolina from New Jersey, the Xourises decided to serve flavors that honored their new home and supported the community they love. For butter toffee pop-corn, one of Andia’s most popular seasonal flavors, they incorporated ingredients from family-owned businesses around the Triangle, including gourmet popcorn from Ella’s Popcorn in Raleigh, caramel from Chocolatay Confections in Chapel Hill, and toffee from The Durham Toffee Company. “Even though you have the sweetness and creaminess of the ice cream,” Andia says, “you still get a good punch of saltiness from the caramel and the popcorn, and the toffee gives it a nice bittersweet crunch.” — Tamiya Anderson
1008 Ryan Road
In a 300-square-foot cellar in Polk County, Looking Glass Creamery ages its Cheddar-style cheese to peak flavor and texture. “We want to give it the proper environment where it can rest before it’s released into the world,” owner Jennifer Perkins says. “After about 12 to 18 months, it’ll have a nice, crumbly texture — but still creamy.” Jennifer and her husband, Andy, made cheese in Fairview, southeast of Asheville, for nearly 10 years before relocating to this larger farm in 2018. The Perkinses named their best-selling Cheddar-style cheese, Drovers Road, after the path that western North Carolina livestock drivers once traveled to reach Charlotte markets. Decades later, Jennifer says that there are still remnants of the old road around the county. “If you’re going on a long hike like those drovers in the Appalachians did, this is the kind of cheese that you might throw in your bag and eat for lunch,” she says. “It’s sharp, easy to cook with, and just flat-out delicious.” — Tamiya Anderson