Country Life: Mutton makes a comeback

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The Independent Online

A leaflet arrived in the post last week, sent by the Lloyds, a family of sheep and cattle farmers based in Herefordshire's Golden Valley. The Lloyds run a mail-order company called Food From Here, to which they have just added Well-Hung Food From Here. They say they like to think of it as their brother company. Ooh, matron!

Like lots of farmers who sell direct to the public, the Lloyds are keen to keep abreast of emerging food trends, which is why they are about to start offering mutton. While recently operating a stall at Borough Market in London, they got into conversation with Andrew Sharp, a Cumbrian farmer who is to the mutton movement what Billy Graham was to evangelical Christianity, except with a marginally sillier flock. He assured them that there is an increasing demand for mutton, and so there is. Indeed, The Independent's own Mark Hix wrote about it in last Saturday's magazine.

At Rob Lloyd's suggestion, I called Andrew Sharp on his mobile phone. The wind whistled around him, making it hard for me to tell what he was saying. There was a steady drumming of what sounded like hailstones. I smiled, picturing him striding across a desolate Cumbrian fell, his beloved Herdwick sheep scattering before him. "Where are you?" I asked. "Turin," he said.

Apparently, there were 5,000 farmers there from all over the world, discussing sustainable agriculture. But it was mutton I wanted to talk about. Why was it, I asked, that mutton was making a comeback? And why did it fall out of fashion in the first place? "It's a long and convoluted story," said Mr Sharp.

It is, too. For centuries, mutton, which can be broadly defined as meat from a sheep that is more than two years old, was the most popular meat in Britain. Samuel Pepys ate it for his Christmas dinner. But its reputation plummeted during the Second World War, when only the cheapest cuts of meat were available. And poor mutton is not nice. "There's fantastic mutton, bad mutton and absolute shite," said Mr Sharp, a man who believes in calling a spade a spade, even when sitting in an Italian piazza.

After the war, the decline of mutton was compounded by changes in the textiles industry, as man-made fibres replaced wool. If there was no need to keep sheep for wool, there was no source for mutton. And around the same time, New Zealand spring lamb was marketed strongly. Mutton fell further and further out of favour, hastened by the expression "mutton dressed as lamb". By the 1960s, TV cook Fanny Cradock was referring to it as "divorce meat", meaning, I suppose, that a husband would be entitled to call his solicitor if, on getting home from a hard day at the office, he was insulted with a plate of mutton.

Happily, things are changing; men are more enlightened and mutton is back. Although 85 per cent of it is still claimed by the halal trade, non-halal butchers and restaurateurs are beginning to recognise its intensity of flavour. I know, for example, that an excellent mutton pie is on the menu at The Fighting Cocks in Stottesdon, Shropshire. And that some extremely notable people are spearheading a campaign to return it to our plates, among them not only the Prince of Wales but even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In his magisterial volume The River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh F-W writes that putting mutton back on the British culinary map "is an unashamed mission of mine".

His mission will gain more credibility next month with the deliciously named Mutton Renaissance Week, its highlight being a lunch hosted at The Ritz by Prince Charles, who I can only hope will be wearing a false set of mutton-chop whiskers.

Weapons of mash creation

One of the simple pleasures of country living is the predictability of car journeys. The village where our sons go to school is 11 miles from our house. Between us, Jane and I have made that journey well over a thousand times, and on fewer than a hundred times, I would estimate, has the journey lasted other than 17 minutes. To drop them at the school gate just before 8.40am, we leave here at 8.22. If a last-minute search is mounted because one of them suddenly realises he needs a particular schoolbook or, even more urgently, a particular conker, delaying departure until 8.24, then arrival will be at 8.41. You can bet your life on it.

But not at this time of year. For about three weeks every autumn, an exciting element of uncertainty accompanies the school run: will we, or won't we, get stuck behind a potato lorry? The arteries of north Herefordshire never get clogged, exactly, but the nearest they come to it is following the potato harvest. Which is frustrating for us, but exhilarating for the boys, because the potatoes are always carried in open loads, and every bump in the road sends one or two of them pinging off the pile, sometimes directly at the car behind. The school run the other morning resembled a computer game, with spuds flying at the windscreen like so many intergalactic missiles. In fact, a friend of mine, who drives a convertible, says that he ended a recent journey from Bromyard to Titley with about a pound of potatoes in his passenger seat. If he'd run over the pheasant that scurried across his path just outside Pembridge, dinner would have been sorted.