Once a staple part of the British diet, mutton is being revived in pub kitchens thanks to a growing and dedicated fan base. Mark Taylor reports
Ask about mutton and it's a pretty safe bet that the majority of people know nothing about it other than that rather ungracious phrase "mutton dressed as lamb".
Those who know a little more about it may simply refer to mutton as an old-fashioned meat produced from "clapped out" old sheep.
More than any other meat, mutton the meat of sheep aged over two years and hung to mature after slaughter has suffered from an image problem over the years, but that is all set to change thanks to the recent Mutton Renaissance week.
The campaign, which was led by the Prince of Wales, attracted widespread support from top chefs across Britain.
Mutton Renaissance week was co-funded by EBLEX (English Beef and Lamb Executive) and Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotion Wales (HCC) and celebrity supporters included top chefs Brian Turner, Gary Rhodes, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White, Antony Worrall Thompson, Mark Hix and Henry Harris.
Mutton used to be a dinner-table staple in Britain and cookery books from the late 1800s until the 1940s were packed with delicious recipes.
Mrs Beeton's Every Day Cookery, for example, features more than 50 mutton recipes, from simple boiled mutton to the rather more extravagant leg of mutton with oysters.
In the classic British cookery book, Cooking With Elizabeth Craig (1932), the author dedicates five pages to mutton recipes, but after the Second World War, mutton fell out of fashion as lamb became more and more popular.
Broadcaster and farmer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is passionate about mutton and writes extensively about it in his latest book, Meat, as well as featuring several excellent recipes and cooking tips.
"Mutton is to lamb what beef is to veal," says the Dorset-based writer. "Mutton ought to be the main thing, while lamb is a seasonal speciality for this is precisely how it used to be."
Fergus Henderson, chef/proprietor of London restaurant St John, mentions mutton in his award-winning book, The Whole Beast: Nose To Tail Eating. "Not that long ago a mutton chop was fundamental in the British diet almost no formal meal went by without it appearing somewhere," he says.
TV chef Brian Turner adds: "Many people may never have experienced mutton's rich complexity of flavours and textures, whilst some older food lovers will remember it from many years ago.
"The Mutton Renaissance will encourage people to reappraise this classic British food and to consider it when dining out or shopping for high-quality meat."
One of the reasons mutton became unfashionable after the war was that much of the meat available was of a poor quality, particularly the cheaper cuts.
Unlike lamb, which is usually slaughtered at the age of six months and sometimes earlier, mutton comes from sheep over two years old.
The carcass is then hung for a minimum of 14 days, but longer hanging improves its strong, distinctive flavour, as well as its texture. Although it is possible to cook mutton in much the same way as lamb, it benefits from long, slow cooking, usually in the form of roasts or braises.
One pub chef who embraces traditional dishes is Colombian-born Francisco Cardone, who runs the 18th-century Waggon & Horses inn at Doulting Beacon, on the Mendip Hills in Somerset.
Cardone's winter menu leans heavily towards comforting meat and game dishes. Current favourites include pot-roasted partridge in a rich red wine sauce with truffled foie gras (£13.90), braised oxtail in a rich vegetable sauce (£10.90) and, of course, roast Hebridean mutton in a traditional mustard and caper sauce with haricot beans (£12.90).
Cardone has been putting mutton on his menu for the past five years, but his interest in it started when he lived in London in the 1960s and ate at some of the best restaurants, like Simpson's on the Strand and Connaught, the hotel restaurant.
"I always thought it was a very tasty piece of meat, but it needs to be cooked properly. I had some difficultly getting local mutton, but one of my suppliers, Barrow Boar, got me some Hebridean mutton which I've been using regularly.
"The recipe I tend to use is the one with mustard and caper sauce, which is very traditional, very English. The capers and mustard goes very well with it because mutton is such a rich meat you need something tart with it. I think mint sauce kills meat that has been cooked delicately and it kills the sauce altogether.
"I cook it like I cook lamb. I prefer pot-roasting it because it retains the juices, and I like to cook it for a long time and slowly. That keeps the flavour and the juices.
"A lot of young people don't know anything about mutton other than that rather abusive expression, but a lot of older people do remember it and I'm quite certain there's a market for it. It's something of a delicacy and has almost become a rarity by default."
l For a list of British mutton suppliers, call 0870 242 3219