The Suffolk farmer putting mutton back on the menu
PUBLISHED: 11:01 27 February 2018 | UPDATED: 11:02 27 February 2018
Lamb producer Jason Gathorne-Hardie tells Linda Duffin why we should be giving mutton another chance on Suffolk's menus
Aldeburgh butcher Gerard King calls it “phenomenal”. Sheila Dillon, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme, has described it as “one of Britain’s glories - crazily neglected”.
So why aren’t we all eating mutton?
Technically mutton refers to the meat from sheep over two years old, but in practice these days usually refers to ewes past breeding age. It has fallen out of favour over the past half century, largely due to an influx of cheap lamb from abroad.
Most of us enjoy a joint of lamb (under one year old) or occasionally hogget (between one and two years) but mutton has developed a reputation for being tough, scraggy, smelly and largely inedible.
That is a calumny, according to Jason Gathorne-Hardie, who markets mutton as a seasonal meat under his Alde Valley Lamb brand. “Lamb is to mutton what veal is to beef,” he says.
“It has the same depth of flavour as beef. You can get really beautiful roasting joints from the leg, shoulder is good either trimmed or boned and rolled, or broken down for Mediterranean dishes, stews or casseroles, the loin is amazing and that’s a real treat, incredibly tender.”
Gerard King, who sells it for him, agrees. “That lovely rich flavour of lamb? It’s like that, only turbo-charged. In a tagine or hotpot or Irish stew, it’s another layer of flavour on top of lamb or hogget.
“For a roasting joint, if you cook it pink, it’s vital to rest it for a good long time. And as a butcher, you need to prep it properly. We hang it for at least two to three weeks.”
Jason is part of the Mutton Renaissance, launched by the Prince of Wales in 2004 and the brainchild of farming consultant and food campaigner Bob Kennard, author of Much Ado About Mutton.
The book tells how mutton was our predominant sheep meat for hundreds, possibly thousands of years, gracing the tables of everyone from royalty to peasantry and urging that it be reinstated.
But the campaign is not just about restoring the reputation of an almost forgotten food. There are animal welfare issues too. Jason, son of the Earl of Cranbrook, runs a flock of around 200 Swaledale and Bluefaced Leicester crosses on the pastures and parkland of the family estate.
He is comparatively unusual in marketing mutton and most cull ewes go to market to vanish into the food supply chain.
That’s something that worries Penny Watts who, with her husband, manages Jason’s flock. While there are strict rules in the UK governing the treatment of livestock in transit, they don’t always apply once the animals have travelled abroad.
“If you sell the cull ewes, traditionally by taking them to market – Colchester would be our nearest one now because there are so few left – once they’re bought in Colchester market we have no idea where they go. I hate it. They could go to the docks and they could be transported live.”
The alternative, she says, is to slaughter and sell the ewes locally, ensuring higher welfare for the animals and added value for the farmer. Does she eat mutton herself?
“Do you want me to be brutally honest? I wouldn’t choose to eat mutton over lamb, but I suppose a lot of that is ignorance in cooking and I haven’t experimented. Jason’s had some evenings at White House Farm where the chef’s been and everything he’s done has been beautiful, and I have thought, hmmm, I need to do that more often.”
She’s talking about Jason’s Mutton Suppers, held at the farm in the latter half of February, when chef Peter Harrison cooks up a mutton feast. “I think it makes most sense, personally, to have that seasonality,” says Jason.
“New season lamb starts at the earliest in April/May. That then leaves you with possibly the autumn for hogget, but that post-Christmas winter period feels like the natural season for mutton.”
He says the Mutton Renaissance campaign is slowly gathering pace across the country, with chefs and home cooks showing an interest. He is keen for more butchers to back the campaign, marketing mutton in the same way as premium beef, with its breed and origins flagged up.
“Otherwise the cull ewes would go off to market. And it gives more value to the animals, both literally in terms of its meat, but also to be mindful of what they’ve done for the flock in terms of breeding for several years and being more aware of their final months on the farm, where they’re grazing and how they’re being nourished, and that feels important too.
“It feels that you honour the flock a bit more.”
Find out more about Alde Valley Lamb here.