With Prince Charles, Hugh FW and any number of of famous chefs among its members , the mutton fan club isn’t short of celebrity status. The so-called ‘mutton renaissance (http://www.muttonrenaissance.org.uk/) was a 2004 HRH initiative and despite noble intentions doesn’t really seem to be going anywhere. We’ve always sold mutton but, judging from shop trade, I would say that sales are solid but in no danger of going stratospheric.
As we all know, mutton used to play a key part in our diet – as per Dorothy Hartley’s Vicarage Mutton ‘hot on Sunday, cold on Monday, hashed on Tuesday, minced on Wednesday, curried on Thursday, broth on Friday, cottage pie on Saturday.’ It all starts with the joint and, in the case of mutton, this was where things started going wrong. Until relatively recently, many didn’t have ovens and relied on a range so roasting wasn’t an option. The supposedly iconic boiled mutton with caper sauce doesn’t do it for me. Mutton is always going to be a little fatty and the idea that strongly flavoured fat, untroubled by by even the briefest searing or sizzling is a bit of a turn off. If you want to try it, see https://figjamandlimecordial.co/tag/rick-stein-poached-mutton-recipe/ but the photos alone are enough to put me off.
It wasn’t just the way they cooked it. Until recently, sheep were kept as much for their wool as the meat of their offspring. The breeds were hardy and slow growing with lambs often changing hands as ‘stores’ to be finished on better lowland pasture in the late Autumn. Over the years, the three tier stratified system of sheep farming developed. As with so many traditional systems it made optimum use of land, including marginal, hill farms (for more details see https://www.nationalsheep.org.uk/know-your-sheep/uk-sheep-farming/) but without a market for wool, it’s teetering on the edge financially. Today’s fast growing , almost milky, new season lamb hardly existed so the difference between a year old lamb and mutton from a two year old ewe was negligible. Why kill a lamb when it would go on growing and producing valuable wool? Male lambs were castrated and reared until they were about three, when apparently, the meat was most prized.
Now, sheep are kept solely for the value of their lambs. The introduction of the now ubiquitous Texel ram from north east France and the Benelux countries has meant the lambs can be finished in four or five months. With wool going for far less than the cost of shearing, giving them a haircut is done for sheepitarian, rather than financial grounds. Hardcore muttoneers compare lamb and mutton to veal and beef and we don’t eat veal so we shouldn’t eat lamb. Anyone who’s seen a few lambs frolicking amongst the dandelions in the spring sunshine might beg to differ and given how both farming and taste have changed, I think lamb is here to stay.
Where hogget, wether and mutton really come into their own is in curries, casseroles and cassoulets. In fact, it’s so much the case that mutton claims a high price on the halal meat market. I believe much of it goes to an abattoir in the Midlands so we’re keeping things local and helping our suppliers keep costs to a minimum by taking ewes a couple at a time with the lambs. It’s also perfect for’loads of veg and a bit of meat’ type dishes and goes particularly well with beans and pulses.
Cordero Verde – Spiced Lamb Casserole
Citrus and spice flavours make this one pot Spanish ‘olla’ perfect for seeing off the Autumn blues. In fact, the flavourings aren’t that different from those that would have been used with mutton back in the day. Go large and make it last for a few days.
1kg well trimmed, diced mutton
300g cooking chorizo – cut into 1cm pieces
2 tins cooked chickpeas
1 tbsp seasoned white flour
4 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions – finely chopped
3 cloves garlic – finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh mint leaves – chopped
50cls bone broth or chicken stock
50cls red wine
350g cavalo nero – destalked and shredded
1/2 tsp each ground cloves, cinnamon and allspice
Juice and zest of an orange and a lemon
Toss the lamb in the seasoned flour. Heat the oil in a large flame proof casserole. Quickly brown the chorizo and remove with a slotted spoon. Add the lamb and the bacon and fry, turning, until evenly browned.
Add the onions and fry gently for five minutes.
Add the garlic and chorizo and fry for a couple more minutes.
Add the stock and wine and cook in a 160°c oven for 2 hours, stirring every 1/2 hour or so.
Add cavalo nero and all the rest of the ingredients, plus a little more stock or water if it seems a little dry and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Not surprisingly, nose to tail man, Fergus Henderson likes a bit of mutton too and makes full use of its affinity with beans and pulses in his pot roasted leg of mutton with borlotti beans. If cassoulet is your thing, substitute the confited duck legs for diced mutton or, simply bung some in as well.