Page last updated at 15:27 GMT, Friday, 3 February 2006

Mutton gets a makeover

Prince Charles on a sheep farm
"I'll have that one": Prince Charles is a big fan of mutton
Prince Charles is urging Britons to eat more mutton - but why has this once popular meat disappeared from our dining tables, and does it deserve its reputation as a poor-man's lamb?

"Mutton is, undoubtedly, the meat most generally used in families. And, both by connoisseurs and medical men, it stands first in favour, whether its fine flavour, digestible qualifications, or general wholesomeness be considered."

When Victorian domestic goddess Mrs Beeton was eulogising about British mutton in 1861, it was part of the staple diet for most families.

But the quote most readily associated with the meat these days is "mutton dressed as lamb" - a slogan that sums up the modern view as the dish being an inferior substitute for its younger, more glamorous alternative.

Mutton is one of the lost gems of British cuisine
Bob Kennard, Graig Farm

Outside of West Indian and Muslim communities, that derogatory remark is often the closest most people get to mutton.

According to one farmer, Bob Kennard, they are missing out.

"Mutton is one of the lost gems of British cuisine", he said.

"It is part of our cultural heritage - for hundreds of years it was the only sheep meat eaten in Britain."

'Depth and complexity'

The owner of Graig Farm Organics said the meat was much misunderstood.

"It has a much greater depth and complexity of flavour than lamb, but it needs proper handling.

"It has to be slaughtered and then hung properly, and needs a long slow cook".

There is no strict definition of mutton - at one time it was simply any sheep meat sold after Christmas, but generally it refers to sheep aged over two. To be at its best, the meat must be hung for at least two weeks. Its flavour emerges only after long, slow cooking.

That labour-intensive process is one of the reasons for mutton's fall from grace.

But a wartime rationing-induced image problem has also helped its decline.

Mrs Beeton's Household Management
Mrs Beeton's famous book sang the praises of mutton

During the rationing years, poor-quality mutton was one of the few meats that could be reliably obtained, and memories of tough old meat, together with the post-rationing availability of better quality alternatives, saw mutton placed in the national psyche somewhere near powdered egg and black-out blinds.

A fall in the price of wool also hit the mutton market - it became more profitable for farmers to kill off their sheep early than to hang onto them for wool production before slaughter.

Martin Lam, chef-proprietor at London's Ransome's Dock restaurant, said an appreciation of mutton was a steep learning curve for all involved.

Celebrity chefs

"I'm 50 years old and I've been cooking for 32 years, but I have only been cooking mutton for 18 months.

"So most people, chefs and customers, are approaching mutton from the point of view of people brought up on lamb".

However, he said, it was a taste worth acquiring.

"It's rather like the difference between veal and beef, or chicken and guinea fowl - you can tell they are the same sort of thing but each has a distinctive taste.

"Good mutton has more complexity of flavour than lamb".

With top restaurants, and celebrity chefs such as Michel Roux, Marco Pierre White, Gary Rhodes and Antony Worrall Thompson joining the mutton fan-club, the meat could yet make a comeback.



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