Now there’s a question! Although I’m rather evangelical about mutton I can understand why it might not appeal - my mother-in-law remembers vats of grey, unappetising mutton stew at school and its taken quite a lot of convincing to get her to give it another try.
Firstly, it’s important to separate lamb and mutton in your mind. They both suffer in comparison with each other. Better to put mutton in the same bracket as beef: like the best beef, if properly hung, it is full of the most delicious flavour and can be roasted and served pink. Somehow, our relatively recent preference for lamb has kept mutton in the shadows but this must be partly due to the expertise needed when dealing with it: just like a piece of good beef, if a butcher or supermarket doesn’t have the space or inclination to hang the carcass properly (I prefer 2-3 weeks) then the texture and taste will really suffer.
And what a taste! The Victorians generally considered lamb inferior to mutton, complaining that it lacked mutton’s depth of flavour. And I have to agree! With almost any meat - chicken, pork and beef - the older it is at slaughter, the more intense the flavour. And this is especially so with mutton - partly because older, more exercised muscles have more flavour, and partly due to the extra months and years the animal has had feeding on delicious fresh grass, clover, and ideally wild flowers. Add to this the hanging factor - hanging enables the naturally occurring enzymes within the meat to tenderise it and develop the flavour - and your tastebuds will really tell the difference between and old and a young animal.
So. What about cooking mutton? With a really well-farmed and expertly hung and butchered piece of mutton you can roast it and serve it rare as you would a good bit of beef. But I also love to slow-roast my mutton. Try a shoulder joint in a low oven for 3-4 hours. It gives the most wonderful pull-apart texture to the meat which, served with creamy mash, can’t be beaten. This is a more snazzy version to jazz it up a bit:
Gerard’s Slow-Roasted Mutton with Anchovy
- 1 large mutton shoulder with neck fillet attached
- 2 garlic heads cut in half
- 1-2 peeled and halved onions
- 2-3 glasses of red wine
- 6 anchovy fillets
- 1 tsp chilli flakes (if you like)
- Bunch of fresh rosemary and thyme
- Large handful of roughly chopped veg (carrot, parsnips etc.)
The day before eating, place mutton in a large bowl and add all ingredients except veg. Season. Leave to marinade overnight. In the morning, fill the bottom of a large oven dish with the chopped veg and then empty the meat and marinade over them. Tuck the garlic under the meat to avoid it burning. Sprinkle over some olive oil, a cup of water and perhaps an extra glass of wine. Cover the meat with a square of foil and put in over for five to six hours at 130/140 C. Remove foil for last 40 minutes or so to give a lovely crust (you can also finish off meat on the BBQ in the summer.) Serve with the roast veggies and a generous helping of mash.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall also has some great ideas for mutton in his ‘Meat’ book, including a meat-feast cassoulet and a left-over mutton broth. Lancashire Hot Pot and Irish Stew make good use of mutton, and Darina Allen has a lovely warming recipe for Boiled Mutton with Caper Sauce in her classic book, ‘Ballymaloe Cookery Course.’
The other lovely and heartwarming thing about eating mutton is the positive effect it will have on the farmer, on the flock’s welfare, and on the surrounding countryside. Most lambs are slaughtered before they’re six months old, but mutton has had at least three springs and summers out at pasture (hogget fills the gap between). This extended life is good for animal welfare - think of the veal argument; good for the farmer - the flock is made more viable if all animals can be sold for meat; and good for biodiversity - higher numbers of longer-living sheep increase our need for pasture, and ideally wild-flower meadows at that.
And - as if you need further convincing - it has been proven that mutton is good for you! Mutton has a higher level of desirable omega-3 fatty acids than pork, veal, chicken, beef or lamb. Only fish was found to have higher levels. In fact, in an Australian study carried out in 2007, omega-3 levels in mutton were found to be 40% higher than those found in lamb. The report added that of all the grazing animals, mutton was particularly nutrient dense, providing a rich source of thiamine, Vitamins B6 and B12, iron and copper. It concluded that older animals - which applies to all grazing animals - tend to have higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals than their younger peers.
Have I convinced you yet? As a post-script, I might add that mutton costs much the same as lamb - perhaps a tiny bit cheaper if you’re lucky . And remember, that an animal is what it eats so be sure to ask your butcher where and how the mutton was farmed before you buy. Let me know how you get on!
If anyone would like to try some mutton for themselves, come down to the shop on Saturday 20 February for the launch of the Salter & King Mutton Week! There will be butchery and cooking demos and lots of delicious mutton to taste. You can also buy mutton meat online.