Why mutton should be back on the menu

The fragrant gaminess of mutton makes it the ideal choice for hearty winter dishes, says Mark Hix
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Why do we neglect an old-fashioned delicacy such as mutton? We rush to buy trendy cuts of lamb such as the shank and slow-cook it for hours on end – but what we should actually be slow-cooking is mutton. For years mutton was completely out of vogue and, as my colleague Charles Campion explains on page 87, HRH The Prince of Wales kick-started a revival when he launched the Mutton Renaissance Campaign in 2004 in order to support British sheep farmers who were struggling to sell their older animals. The delicious, gamey quality of the mutton is a result of the animals having a good summer's feed on grass and heather. This is then followed by feeding on roots and silage, which helps them develop a healthy layer of fat – perfect for hearty winter dishes.

Don't expect to pick up bargain mutton just because it's older – more often than not you will probably pay a bit of a premium, especially with breeds such as Herdwick, Romney, Welsh Mountain and Shetland.

Mutton and turnip hotpot

Serves 4

There are various versions of Lancashire hotpot, which would traditionally have been made with mutton, not lamb. Cuts such as the neck, either as a fillet or chops, are best suited to hotpot. Kidneys and even black pudding have traditionally been added along with the potatoes and onions. Back in the days when they were cheap, a few oysters would be put under the potato.

800g mutton neck chops

6 kidneys, halved (optional)

Flour for dusting

Vegetable oil for frying

60g unsalted butter plus a little extra for brushing

500-550g onions, peeled, halved and thinly sliced

1tsp chopped rosemary leaves

800ml lamb or beef stock (a good quality cube will do)

500g large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

500g large turnips, peeled and thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 220C/gas mark 7. Season the pieces of mutton and kidneys separately with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil and brown the chops on both sides on a high heat. Then drain in a colander. Fry and drain the kidneys afterwards, and set aside, mixed with the chops. Clean the pan and heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil. Fry the onions on a high heat until they begin to colour, add the butter and continue to cook for a few minutes until they soften. Dust the onions with a tablespoon of flour, stir well and gradually add the stock, stirring to avoid lumps, and sprinkle in the rosemary. Bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Now assemble the dish. Take an oven-proof casserole dish with a lid or similar, cover the bottom with a layer of potatoes and turnip first, followed by some of the meat with a little of the sauce, then the potatoes and turnips again. Continue until the meat and sauce has all been used. Finish the top with a layer of nicely overlapping potato slices. Brush the top with a little of the sauce, cover with the lid and cook in the oven for about half an hour at 220C/gas mark 7, and then turn the oven down to 140C/gas mark 1 and leave for 2 hours.

Then remove the lid and turn the oven back up to 220C/gas mark 7. Brush the top with a little melted butter to allow the potatoes to brown for the final few minutes.

Mutton and maple pea broth

Serves 4

Mutton is without doubt the best meat to use for a soupy broth like this and it will give maximum flavour and fragrance to the broth itself. You will probably need to ask your butcher to order mutton in advance, although some butchers are coming round to the fact that mutton is back in vogue and may well have it in stock. A gamey broth like this is perfect to take in a Thermos on an autumn day's fishing or shooting trip, or on a long walk in the country.

250-300g mutton neck fillet, or boned shoulder of mutton, cut into rough 1cm dice

1 onion, peeled and finally chopped

1/2 tsp chopped thyme leaves

100g maple peas or carlins

2 litres lamb or chicken stock, or a couple of good quality stock cubes dissolved in that amount of hot water

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small leek, well rinsed, trimmed and cut into rough 1cm dice

2 carrots, peeled if necessary and cut into rough 1cm dice

1 celery stalk, peeled if necessary and cut into rough 1cm dice

1 small swede or turnip, peeled and cut into rough 1cm dice

A few leaves of green cabbage, stalks removed and cut into rough 1cm dice

1tbsp chopped parsley

Put the mutton, onion and thyme into a large saucepan and cover with the stock. Season with a little salt and freshly ground black pepper, bring to the boil and simmer for 1 hour.

Add all the vegetables, except for the cabbage, and simmer for another 30 minutes.

Add the cabbage and parsley and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Season again with salt and pepper, if necessary, and serve

Mutton, barberry and almond stew

Serves 4

This is a traditional Persian wedding dish from Kermanshah in western Iran – the idea being that the sweet and sour character of this dish is a poignant reminder to the newly-weds that life is filled with both sadness and happiness. Barberries are small wild cranberry-like fruits that you can find in Middle Eastern foodstores. They're hard to find fresh, so buy dried ones and soak them a little before using.

700-800g neck of mutton fillet, cut into rough 2cm chunks

Olive oil for frying

2 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped

1 litre chicken stock

60g almond slithers

60g pistachio slithers

60g dried barberries

2tbsp pomegranate molasses or 50g sugar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

A good pinch of saffron strands

Heat a tablespoon of the olive oil in a frying pan, season the mutton and fry on a high heat for a few minutes, turning every so often until nicely coloured. Then remove and drain. Meanwhile gently cook the onions in another tablespoon of olive oil for 2-3 minutes until softened. Add the drained meat and stock, bring to the boil and simmer for about 30 minutes. Put the almonds and pistachio in a pan of water, bring to the boil and drain, then add to the stew and continue simmering for another 30 minutes.

Add the barberries and pomegranate molasses and continue to simmer for another 20 minutes or so until the meat is tender (you may need to add a little water if the stew is a bit dry). Stir in the saffron and leave to infuse for a few minutes before serving.

Serve with rice.

Mutton chops in aromatic cream sauce

Serves 4

This is a typical Moghul dish and works equally well with boneless pieces of mutton, although I do quite like getting stuck into chops as they have a much more interesting look and texture.

For this dish you could use mutton loin chops, loin best end chops or neck chops. How much you trim them is up to you, although with a dish like this it's probably worth trimming most of the fat back, as it doesn't render down much in the sauce. A perfect accompaniment to this would be some plain, steamed basmati rice, or a spinach and potato sag aloo. You could customise this dish according to your taste by adding other spices such as cumin, chilli, or even some freshly chopped coriander leaves at the end.

8 mutton chops with most of the fat removed

A little ghee or vegetable oil for frying

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

250g natural yoghurt

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

11/2 tbsp grated root ginger

2tbsp flaked almonds

2tbsp cardamom seeds (podded)

2tbsp ground coriander

1tsp black pepper

1tsp salt

500ml chicken stock

250ml double cream

Season the chops, heat the ghee in a frying pan and colour the chops on both sides. Meanwhile put the yoghurt, onions, ginger and almonds in a food processor and blend to a purée.

Put the mixture, along with the coriander, cardamom, black pepper, salt and stock, in a saucepan with the chops, bring to a simmer and cook with a lid on for about 1 hour. Add the double cream and continue simmering gently for another 20-30 minutes or until the sauce has thickened. Let the chops sit in the sauce for about 30 minutes or so before just re-heating and serving.