Mutton was, up until the Second World War, a delicious meat fit for kings. The Victorians including Mrs Beaton consumed it with a passion, so why is it now considered a fatty chewy second rate product.
Pre war cooking methods were ideal for cooking mutton, before the ‘fast food’ revolution most food was cooked long and slow on a range, instant heat from gas and electric was not available.
Mutton was in times gone by, meat from the sheep at the end of a sheep’s useful life. In these days sheep were kept primarily for wool production (certainly not the case now) so female and male sheep would be kept for many years to get multiple wool clips. The animals would be grass fed and the skilled shepherds would know how to ‘finish’ the animal to produce superb meat. Careful hanging and butchery and an experienced housewife would then produce delicious meals with this beautiful product.
During the war most of the skills involved in producing fine mutton disappeared with the men who were fighting, the reputation of this meat was further degraded by some of the worst examples of mutton being cooked badly for large volumes of people during the blackouts. The stigma of Mutton being, tough, old, fatty meat has proved to be a difficult one to shake off.
Mutton’s fate was sealed, when during the war meat production had to be fast and efficient, favouring the use of young lamb. The demise in the wool industry further compounded the situation and effectively made Mutton a bygone product.
So what is Mutton? It is generally agreed that although once upon a time the best Mutton would be primarily from male castrated sheep of about five years. Nowadays Mutton is considered to be sheep meat from ewes or wether’s (castrated males) of over two years in age. The crucial quality factor, in my opinion, is that the animals are ‘finished’ on a forage based diet (grass ,hay, plant) and that the carcass is ‘hung’ on the bone to tenderise for two to three weeks.
Really Mutton is to lamb what beef is to veal, it is the more flavoursome product. The very best time to eat Mutton is from October to March as this is when it has had all summer to benefit from the nutritious grass, enhancing the flavour of the meat as well as being higher in levels of nutrients. Happily this is also the time that the weather encourages us to hearty meals that have been slowly cooked, dishes which mutton suits very well.
Savvy chefs and restaurant owners have cottoned on to the fact that there is a growing desire for ‘old fashioned’ menu options. A modern population now has a tendency to eat quick food at home and dine out on the long slow food that was once a homely staple. Thankfully once again a finely produced mutton can be sourced from producers who are tapping into this growing trend.

Mutton carries rich and strong flavours really well, but also makes a superb roasting joint that needs no enhancing, like lamb a good mutton loin can be served pink and will be beautifully tender and succulent.
So let’s not assume mutton needs to dress up as lamb – as with so many things in life - maturity brings, depth, sophistication, and superior characteristics that are simply in a class of their own.

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