In this post:
- introduction – popular in asia, until recently hit by bad pr in the West
- the difference between lamb, hogget and mutton
- how to cook hogget and mutton
- ideas for what to do with hogget and mutton
- good books about sheep
- where to buy mutton online
- restaurants which serve mutton
Have a listen to the lovely madrigal by Monteverdi, Cantava la più vaga pastorella (“The most graceful shepherdess was singing”) at the bottom of this post while you read through this.
Since we’re celebrating the beginning of the Chinese year of the sheep today it seems fitting to have a look at mutton – a meat which has suffered from bad PR over the last few decades, where for centuries before it was eaten with gusto…. In fact in many parts of the world, in the middle east for example, in India and in Asia, its fuller-fatted flavour, and the finer grain it develops as it munches away at heather and herbs, still is very much appreciated.
The difference between lamb, hogget, and mutton
Lamb is less than a year old (usually four to six months) and minus its incisor teeth.
If it’s classified as salt-marsh lamb, or agneau de pré-salé you know you’re going to be in for a relatively similar price hike as for bonnotte potatoes. This lamb grazes on salt-rich grasses – a diet which makes its flavour delicately more interesting. Lamb raised around the island of Mont St Michel and around the Somme estuary has now the AOC protected designation.
Hogget is between one and two years old
Mutton is over two – and it’s best eaten at four years
An easy rule is the darker the colour of the meat, the older the animal will be.
The main difference between mutton and lamb is that mutton tends to have more flavour and a little more fat, but it can be tougher so it benefits from long, slow cooking – it’s particularly suitable for stews (see mutton ragout). The trouble is that mutton has earned itself such a bad name that it can be hard to find.
Which, of all of them, is the best? Tom Parker Bowles puts it best:
“Hogget is simply lamb with wanderlust and a decent education. It’s killed when it’s between twelve and eighteen months old, so it knows a thing or two about flavour. It doesn’t overwhelm like old mutton, yet still bleats with ovine delight.”
Tom Parker Bowles, Let’s Eat Meat
How to cook hogget and mutton
- As a stew – get your butcher to cut into cubes and make a stew in the usual way – lots of wine and very slow cooking at low temperatures in a casserole with a well-fitting lid. This is probably the best method. Try gypsy camp mutton ragout.
- As a steak – a 500g/1 lb mutton tenderloin will do for two people. Fry in butter for a good five minutes until all sides are browned. If you like your meat well done fry for another five minutes. Remember to leave the meat to rest for a good five minutes, covered in foil.
- It can, of course, also be slow-roasted
Ideas for what to do with hogget and mutton
- Curry and other Indian dishes: Of course, there’s lots of mutton around – slow-growing lambs for example, too small to butcher before the allocated 12 months are still slaughtered and sold for meat, but it tends to be bought by Indian restaurants – mutton has a strong flavour which can stand up to the fiery Indian spices (in India and Asia sometimes ‘mutton’ refers to goat). Follow this link for the ten best Indian mutton recipes.
- In Sumayya Usmani’s new book on Pakistani cooking, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree, she gives a wonderful recipe for mutton biryani with sour plums and dried pomegranate. “This is by far the most aromatic and spicy biryani in my book”, she says, “though the addition of potatoes, sour dried plums and dried pomegranate takes the edge off. Great for a special occasion”.
- equally mutton stands up well to strong tastes in European cuisine – Tamsin Day-Lewis suggests serving it roast, with anchovies and a red-onion sauce for example
- it’s good in a ragout with fiery eastern European flavours
- the richness of the meat can be cut through and lightened by putting it in a salad – with little gem, basil, grilled and caramelised pears and a creamy blue cheese – perhaps one of the Irish cheeses – and a balsamic vinegar dressing.
- there’s a really great recipe for hogget with celeriac purée and sauce vierge on the Grow Eat Gather blog.
- Tommy Banks, chef at the renowned Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire serves his hogget with goats’ curd and hispi cabbage along with a 2012 Pinot Noir from Josten and Klein
- and, of course, it’s long been known that mutton is excellent with a strong-tasting caper sauce:
“Faith, I can cut a caper” remarks Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night,
“And I can cut the mutton to’t” responds the food-focussed Sir Toby Belch
So it is literally worth experimenting…. because there is also a price difference – the price of lamb is about double the price of mutton, but the mutton chops and loin can be just as tender.
You could also try some smoked mutton from Capreolus – you might even be able to taste the heather from the Dorset pastures the sheep graze on.
Where to buy mutton online
Restaurants where you can eat mutton
Books about sheep
If you are interested in sheep and their husbandry you could do worse than to read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. As Tom Fort describes in The Literary Review, in this ‘exceptional book’ the humble sheep is transformed from ‘bleating booby to doughty, hardy, resourceful, tasty, indispensable four-legged hero of the uplands’. Rebanks himself is an interesting author. He hated school (‘It was like being locked in a Ken Loach movie’) and left at 16, but he later took evening classes and got to Oxford, and then surprised everyone by returning to the Lake District where his family had been farming sheep for centuries. The description of his subsequent life managing his flock ranges from sublime descriptions of the beauty of the Cumbrian fells to frank accounts of the effects of foot and mouth.
Alternatively, Counting Sheep by Philip Walling is written by a former shepherd (so first-hand knowledge) now turned barrister (so well-structured, beautiful, original use of English).
Great quote about mutton
“It is worth pointing out that one of the first recorded uses of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ was to praise, not riducule, hot older women. The phrase is attributed in a lady’s journal of 1811 to the future king of England, George IV, who, when still a prince, was asked at a ball if he found a particular girl pretty. He snorted with derision: ‘Girl! Girls are not to my taste. I don’t like lamb.; but mutton dressed like lamb!'”.
Julia Baird, The New York Times, October 22-23 2016
This post is dedicated to Pete Hoggett