Much ado about mutton

Fanny Cradock called it 'divorce meat' and Shakespeare used it as a slang word for prostitutes. No wonder we're always trying to dress it up as lamb. Bill Knott says it's time to give mutton a chance

Mutton needs a makeover. The vagaries of fashion affect what we eat just as much as how we dress or what colour we paint the hallway: they just tend to do it more slowly, and more irrevocably. While flares and shoulder pads come back every few years; when a foodstuff goes out of fashion, it can stay that way for several generations.

In Victorian times, mutton was the staple meat of the British household, considered superior both in texture and flavour to lamb, and celebrated for its ability to stand up to long, slow cooking. Since the Second World War, however, it has more or less disappeared from our national cuisine, replaced by tender cuts of lamb intended for roasting, frying or grilling. Even dishes like Lancashire hotpot are cooked more quickly than in the mutton age, surrendering flavour for convenience.

So who is to blame for giving mutton a bad name? Step forward William Shakespeare, James Joyce and Fanny Cradock. Shakespeare's description of a prostitute as "lac'd mutton" popularised a persistent metaphor which did little for the reputations of either; James Joyce in Ulysses was the first to coin the phrase "mutton dressed as lamb" (referring to a brothelkeeper); and Cradock, whose own marital status was a matter of some confusion, referred to it as "divorce meat. Forget it."

Cradock was not alone among post-War cookery writers in dismissing mutton. The tough Southdown sheep often cooked when the larder was at its barest was a fatty beast eaten out of necessity rather than for its gastronomic value. Only Jane Grigson, in typically robust fashion, regretted mutton's passing and in English Food gives a splendid recipe for Welsh mutton "ham": flavoured with allspice and coriander seeds, cured for a fortnight, pressed for a day or so, then simmered for hours. Delicious though it is, it is unlikely to feature on Ready Steady Cook.

One man in a perfect position to assess the decline of mutton is Stuart Baker, who has farmed on the edge of Dartmoor since 1946, and now devotes much of his time to butchering and selling lamb and mutton: clients include Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park. Baker has experimented with various breeds of sheep for mutton, with a preference for the Scottish Blackface and the North Country Cheviot, and a marked dislike for the flavour of Welsh hill sheep and Swaledales. "Back in the 1950s, the Blackface was a loose-framed beast, but crossed with Texel [a European breed] it's meatier, with a shorter coat."

The technical definition of mutton is * any "sheep meat" from an animal more than a year old. Baker does not consider it to be true mutton until the animal is at least six years old, when a breeding ewe (he never sells rams as mutton) is at the end of her useful life. He will then hang it at 2C for three weeks to improve both flavour and texture. It is strange that, while food-lovers clamour for old-fashioned breeds of pasture-reared beef, that have lived long enough to develop a dark colour and a rich flavour, mutton has been ignored.

Baker thinks he might have an answer to the mutton problem. He has, over the past few years, started to raise wethers - castrated male sheep - which are very lean and tender, while gaining much more flavour and a closer texture after an extra year in pasture. "A lady turned up saying she needed enough lamb for 14: I gave her the wether and she said it was tender as lamb but far tastier." The Royal family, he hints, are also rather keen.

He points out that, in reality, mutton has not died out in Britain at all. Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi butchers sell huge quantities of mutton. If you have ever savoured the rich meat in a rogan josh or a meat biriani (the word "meat", rather than lamb, is the clue) it is probably mutton. It has a natural affinity with slow-cooked dishes such as curries.

Why, then, is mutton so rarely seen on smarter restaurant menus? New Zealander Peter Gordon, chef at Providores in London, thinks it's a shame. "I love mutton - it's got far more flavour than lamb - but we've tried putting it on the menu several times and it doesn't sell. In New Zealand we eat it all the time."

Shaun Hill, chef at the Merchant House, Ludlow, agrees. "People are used to innocuous meat nowadays," he says. Unlike Baker, he believes the only way mutton will become popular again is if ewes are bred especially for the table. "Nobody wants to eat clapped-out old ewes; the problem is that keeping them for another year costs money, and people are reluctant to pay more for mutton than for lamb. It will always be a niche market."

The easiest way to enjoy mutton is simply to substitute it for lamb in any classic British slow-cooked dish: neck chops in a hotpot, a Scotch broth, a Welsh cawl or an Irish stew; minced mutton in a shepherd's pie. Poach it gently, covered with an aromatic broth, serve it with a sweet and slightly sharp sauce, spiked with herbs, and you might even agree with Des Essarts, the 18th-century gourmet. "Mutton," he said, "is to lamb what a millionaire uncle is to his poverty stricken nephew." Fanny Cradock would turn in her gravy. *

Stuart Baker, tel: 01647 433 300

Spiced mutton hotpot

Serves 6

1kg/2lb lean minced mutton
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon dried mint
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 x 400g/13oz tin chopped tomatoes
Salt and pepper
About 1.5litres/21/2 pints lamb stock
1kg/2lb onions, halved and sliced thinly
1.5kg/3lb potatoes, peeled and sliced
200g/7oz mozzarella, sliced thickly
25g/1oz butter

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

Heat the oil in a frying pan, add the mince and cook until brown. Spoon off the fat and stir in the spices. Cook for a minute or two, reduce the heat to medium, add the onions and cook until soft. Add the tomatoes, stir and season.

Grease a shallow casserole dish and layer the potatoes with the mince and onions and the mozzarella, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Press down firmly in the dish, then pour over the stock until it nearly reaches the top layer. Dot the surface with butter, season and cook in the oven for two hours, or until brown on top. It will still seem rather runny: let it cool in the dish and the potatoes will soak up the liquid. Serve with runner beans.

Poached mutton with onion sauce

Serves 4

For the poached mutton

1.5kg/3lb trimmed loin of mutton,
in a piece (about 8 "chops")
1 carrot, peeled and cut in half
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
2 sticks of celery, cut in half
Small bunches of thyme and parsley
3 bay leaves
12 black peppercorns
2 teaspoons salt

For the sauce

50g/2oz butter
1kg/2lb onions, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon plain flour
100ml/31/2fl oz single cream
Bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

Put the mutton in a saucepan, add the rest of the ingredients, cover with cold water and bring slowly to the boil. Skim if necessary. Adjust the heat to a very slow simmer, cover and poach for two hours or so, until tender. Allow to cool slightly in the poaching liquid.

Melt the butter in a heavy frying pan, add the onions and cook very gently until soft. Sprinkle over the flour, stir and cook for a minute, then add 250ml (8fl oz) of the strained poaching liquid. Simmer briefly, then stir in the cream and parsley and heat through: if it seems a little thick, dilute with more stock. Remove from the heat, add the lemon juice and mustard and season.

Remove the mutton from its poaching liquid, then either slice into eight chops or remove the loin from the bones and cut thickly. Dress with the onion sauce and serve immediately. Best served with carrot and parsnip mash, roast potatoes and a watercress salad.