Mutton doesn’t have to dress like lamb: it’s just fine as it is

November 6, 2012, 00:09am

Head chef, Paternoster Chop House

I don’t know why but people have started asking me about mutton. Maybe it’s because I run a British restaurant and I have big mutton chop sideburns – but whatever: it’s got me thinking. Why don’t we eat more mutton in this country, and could there be a demand for it? I’ve never seen it in the supermarket and you rarely come across it on menus. We love our lamb but mutton, which used to be far more common on British dinner tables, has really fallen out of favour.

There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this, other than changing trends in the way we produce and eat our food. According to the great Mrs Beeton, writing 150 years ago, “Mutton is undoubtedly the meat most generally used in families and by connoisseurs … it stands first in flavour”. Today people seem to think that mutton is just tough old lamb, but that assumption doesn’t do it justice. After all, we don’t think of beef as just tough old veal.

So what is mutton? Well, it comes from a sheep that is more than two years old (lamb tends to be anything up to a year – after that it’s technically called “hogget”), and because of its age and the fact that it tends to have spent longer outdoors it has more inter-muscle fat, known in the trade as “marbling”. Although this makes the meat less sweet and tender than lamb, it also gives it a deeper flavour. It does take more (slower) cooking, but to my mind, the rewards are there.

Thanks to its stronger taste, dishes such as stews, hotpots, pies, tagines or curries come alive when you substitute lamb with mutton. It goes perfectly with sharp, spicy or other robust flavours, which is perhaps one reason why it is popular in Middle Eastern and Asian cookery. One of the easiest ways to eat it is in a simple Shepherd’s pie, throwing in a few capers at the end to give it another dimension.

If you can find it, now’s a good time to try it, as the animals have had all summer to fatten up and enhance their flavour – but that’s the problem. While some TV chefs and food writers have started challenging negative perceptions of mutton, the lack of availability is the biggest hurdle. If more chefs do our bit for the poor old sheep by offering mutton chops, roasting joints, pies and stews, I’m sure the appetite would be there. Mrs Beeton would be proud.

Try some wild boar on Bruce’s menu. Visit paternosterchophouse.co.uk for more.

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