You are a two-Michelin-star chef who has invited several others to celebrate the success of your restaurant. What do you choose to serve them? Suckling pig, milk-fed veal, a baby lobster or whole turbot apiece come to mind as elegant, festive choices.
But it was not young, tender flesh of any sort that David Everitt-Matthias chose as the centrepiece of his 25th-anniversary dinner at Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham. Hogget, the elder relative of new-season lamb, was the beast enthusiastically demolished by Pierre Koffmann, Eric Chavot, Brett Graham of The Ledbury, Phil Howard of the Square and (Chez) Bruce Poole.
They loved it, to judge by empty plates. "Hogget offers such texture, as well as rich flavour in an era when we have come to expect mushy meat," raves Everitt-Matthias, who goes for the older sheep as soon as it becomes available in late spring. So does Simon Rogan, another of the small club of British chefs holding two Michelin stars: "The really strong flavour of lamb makes it so desirable," he explains.
The older, larger beasts our forefathers enjoyed in heartier times are making a comeback. Hogget and mutton are flying out of the butchers' shops in season, and slow-grown, mature chickens, some as big as a turkey, are putting their puny, pallid, short-lived supermarket cousins to shame. British foodies have cottoned on to the fact that the muscle and fat put on by free-range animals given a longer, happier life translate to tastier meat once they get to table.
"All meat gets its flavour from fat, and a younger animal rushed to market weight will have very little," explains Max Clark of Leiths School of Food and Wine. "The internal marbling bastes the older beast from the inside, anointing it with fat while keeping it moist – the result is succulence."
Traditional farmers endorsing centuries-old best practice are leading the way. At Yew Tree Farm in Cumbria, Caroline Watson breeds grass-fed Herdwick hoggets for the most-rated chefs in the Lake District, including Rogan of L'Enclume. "They are slaughtered after the 12-month-old cut-off period for lamb, but before 24 months, when they become mutton," she explains. She recommends looking for purplish meat and yellow fat when hoggets become available after overwintering, and treating it in the same way as lamb. "But the flavour will be much deeper and more complex, and all the fat will dissipate."
Everitt-Matthias is also a fan of cockerel, the thoroughly grown-up chicken that is starting to make its presence felt on menus: "It has the lovely, fully developed chickeny flavour I remember from the birds I ate as a child on my aunt's farm in Suffolk."
While both hogget and cockerel are seasonal and in relatively short supply, an increasing number of chefs are turning their attention to other slow-grown beasts which enjoy a longer, more active life – more mature pigs as well as older sheep and slower-grown chicken, and larger fish and crustaceans, too.
Alec Mercer of Packington Free Range is leading the way with chicken and pigs. "The fact is, animals pick up flavour the longer they are able to run around in the fields," says this fourth-generation Staffordshire farmer, who started breeding cockerels – birds which achieve up to four times the weight of a typical supermarket chicken – five years ago and has seen the demand increase tenfold.
"We started five years ago with 300 and are now selling 3,000, mainly over Christmas, when there is a demand for a bird which at three to six kilos is the size of a turkey and the focal point of any meal. The flavour is down to the fact the bird uses its leg muscles more and grows very slowly – only as fast as its skeleton can support it." The grown bird achieves the weight and succulence of a capon with none of the hormone injections that outlawed the castrated bird in Britain several years ago.
Mercer sells his large, slow-grown chickens to Ocado and his cockerels to Selfridges, which also does a brisk trade in hogget and the even-older sheep, and which has redeemed its unfairly bad reputation over the past couple of years. "Mutton is a meat our customers really hanker for because of the earthy, farmy quality," says Selfridges' food-buying manager Andrew Cavanna, who finds it vastly preferable to lamb for curries: "It can stand up to really strong spicing, and made the best vindaloo I ever tasted at Chutney Mary's."
A leg we roasted at home and found utterly delicious was enhanced by home-made Cumberland sauce (redcurrant jelly beefed up with vinegar, shallots, orange and lemon juice, ginger and mustard), and tasted no stronger than lamb. What it did bring to the party was a great deal more texture, with the satisfying "chew" of a well-aged steak.
Mutton, which Waitrose now sells in 30 stores – "we have expanded, based on its popularity last year," says meat buyer Andy Boulton – is enjoying a major revival in London restaurants: "It's often perceived as being tough, dry and old, but I couldn't disagree more," says James Adams of Gail's Kitchen, who butterflies a leg before char-grilling it and serving it with barley cooked in mutton stock.
"The trick to cooking the meat successfully is to make sure it has been well hung – for more than 20 days," he believes. "The lamb flavour will be more intense in well-hung mutton than in any lamb dish."
Richard O'Connell, the head chef of The Jugged Hare in London's Square Mile, is another fan of the two-year sheep, best eaten between October and March: "Mutton is one of those wonderfully aggressively British taste treats which we started using when we opened a year ago.
"I started cooking just the leg on the rôtisserie, then progressed to using the shanks and loins. A lot of people associate it with being old school and a bit tough, which it definitely isn't. As for being 'poor man's meat', at £8-plus per kilo, it is as expensive, if not dearer, than lamb."
When braising mutton, which he buys at two to three years old, O'Connell's tip is to grate raw beetroot into the liquor prior to cooking. He prefers to confit the neck in oil and is about to launch the old northern staple of Hands and Scrags, a dish more usually associated with pork, using mutton neck and belly.
It's not just beasts of the field that reap flavour benefits when allowed a bit more time on this earth before being dispatched for the table. The same holds true for river- and sea-dwellers.
"A 500g lobster will never taste as good as a 750g specimen, because the meat from the larger one will be much firmer," says seafood wholesaler and guru Matthew Sankey.
"As for salmon, as it grows, its length doesn't change, but it does get fatter, so an older fish will have a much higher meat yield. The same applies to turbot – you can cook a tranche off a larger fish much more successfully than off a smaller one, and that's reflected in the pricing. A 1kg turbot costs about £9 per kilogram, whereas a 4-5kg one sells for £28 per kilogram, which tells the whole story."
HOW TO COOK IT
Hogget farmer Caroline Watson recommends covering a shoulder joint in 50/50 stock and red wine and cooking in a sealed roasting pan for six hours at 120-130C. When finished, remove the meat, add a good slug of Cumberland sauce and mint jelly and reduce before returning the meat to the pan to warm through.
David Everett-Matthias of Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham recommends garnishing roast hogget with cockles and accompanying with parsnips: "they are really complementary flavours to the meat." When it comes to cockeral, he removes the legs to confit and ballotines the breast.
At Heckfield Place in Hampshire, Skye Gyngell plans to cook cockerel with porcini and leeks, or alternatively with pancetta, braised endive, verjus and crème fraîche.