Mutton dressed as haute cuisine: UK chefs urged to learn new tricks with old sheep

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The Independent Online

It made the roasts of our grandparents. It filled their plates; it filled their pies. But, over the years, mutton has become Britain's forgotten meat.

It made the roasts of our grandparents. It filled their plates; it filled their pies. But, over the years, mutton has become Britain's forgotten meat.

Now, however, a group of enthusiasts - led by the Prince of Wales - is mounting a determined campaign to bring the older, stronger-tasting version of lamb back onto the British dinner table as a culinary delight. Traditionally meat from a sheep aged over two years, mutton was one of the most commonly consumed items in the British diet for hundreds of years, up until the Second World War.

But a series of changes in farming practice, including a decline in rearing sheep for their wool (when they were kept on hillsides longer), and the introduction of year-round supplies of young lamb from Australia and New Zealand, meant that, in the post-war years, mutton virtually disappeared from butchers' shops. It even assumed a bad name, being considered old and tired and tough, as opposed to the freshness and tenderness thought of as lamb's key attributes.

The Prince of Wales wants to change all that. At a lunch in London's Ritz Hotel today, where three different mutton dishes will be served, he will urge some of Britain's top chefs, and the public in general, to rediscover the virtues of this staple of our forefathers.

The Prince doesn't just have consumers in mind. He is also thinking about producers and, in particular, hill farmers - many of whom make a precarious living from their sheep flocks. One of their principal difficulties is that there is little market for the meat of older ewes that have come to the end of their breeding life; a revival in the market for mutton would help greatly.

After a group of farmers made that point forcefully to the Prince, he organised a mutton dinner last year at his country home, Highgrove, for the Academy of Culinary Arts, Britain's leading professional association of head chefs, restaurant managers and suppliers.

Some of Britain's best-known cooks, including Marco Pierre White, Gary Rhodes and Jamie Oliver, were served mutton from the Prince's own farm, cooked by his own chef, Gary Robinson, and persuaded to back the campaign which the Prince will highlight today, entitled Mutton Renaissance.

It aims to spark new interest in mutton and mutton recipes, and re-energise the supply chain that delivers mutton to the consumer. More than 100 outlets across England and Wales are serving mutton recipes this week as part of it. And the principal tool of persuasion? Flavour.

"Mutton has an intense and rich taste and a unique texture that is quite unlike lamb, yet few people have ever tried it," said Henry Harris, chef- proprietor of Racine, a restaurant in London's South Kensington where mutton is often on the menu.

"A simple mutton casserole or a Moroccan tagine demand long, slow cooking and can be left in a low oven for a few hours. The flavour of the mutton further intensifies during the cooking process and when served, delivers an eating experience that's just truly delicious."

But Mr Harris is keen to make the point that there is mutton and then there is mutton, the meat can indeed be tough; it is only at its best when it has been properly treated by producers and suppliers.

It should come from a sheep that is at least two years old, and have a solid layer of fat which works itself into the meat and adds flavour; to be at its best, it should be hung like beef or game for at least a fortnight after slaughter, and the longer it is hung, the better.

The result is a bold, assertive taste that is somehow darker and longer than lamb. "If you like game, you're going to adore mutton," Mr Harris said.

He gets his from a farm in the Elwy Valley in North Wales run by Daphne and David Tilleys (and advertises the fact on his menu); he pays more for it, but, he says "it is worth every single penny".

To prove his point, yesterday morning, he cooked a piece of lamb and a piece of mutton for The Independent. The lamb was sharp and sweet; the mutton had a deeper, richer taste. Both were delicious.

Not one to waste good food, Mr Harris consumed his roast mutton with a glass of red wine. It was 9.30am. I asked him if he had already had breakfast.

"I had a small omelette earlier," he said. "But this is much better."

A SLOW PROCESS

Slow is the secret of cooking mutton well, many chefs think, for five, six or even seven hours on a very low heat. That way, the rich intense flavour is even further intensified.

Asian, North African and Caribbean cuisine value mutton highly, so too the slow method of cooking, often after a marinade. In England, a leg of mutton was traditionally boiled and served with a sharp accompaniment to cut through the richness, caper sauce being a favourite. Chef Henry Harris had his "poached" mutton on the menu at his London restaurant, Racine, for a day before it was all eaten. He cooks it slowly and makes his caper sauce with the mutton liquor, lamb stock, shallots and cream.

Very good quality mutton can be roasted and served pink, like lamb. Leg is the most commonly used cut but shoulder used to be, because it is so fatty and the flavour is the most intense. Its popularity can be gauged by the number of pubs called The Shoulder of Mutton - there are more than 60 in Britain.

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