When it comes to festive feasting, I’ll admit mutton is not high on most folks lists of foodie treats. No mutton will take pride of place in the Cuisine Christmas issue. Master Chef won’t set a mutton challenge and you won’t see adverts to “Order your Christmas Mutton Now” in your local butchers this month. In fact outside the pet food aisle, you will be hard pressed to find anywhere selling mutton.
What a crime in a country that is built on a solid foundation of mutton roasts (and gravy). Why has mutton fallen from our tables and into our pet bowls? Ask most New Zealanders about mutton and they will either look at you blankly or tell you that it is tired, old, greasy meat and they’d rather have prawns or a chicken kebab. But you know, if you’d told me beards and homebrew, sorry – craft beer, were cool a couple of years ago, I’d have sent you off for your cardy and slippers. So don’t rule out mutton. It is made of tough stuff (literally).
For the last decade I’ve kept a small flock of 30 or so sheep and in that time I’ve come to understand and appreciate mutton. In that time, I’ve also become mutton although my husband tells me I’m still a two tooth in his eyes (not lamb then, hey ho).
Lamb is usually slaughtered at around 6 months old or less, whereas mutton has seen at least two summers and is in its third year of life or more before meeting its maker. The meat has had time to develop a rich flavour and texture that is infinitely more interesting than bland lamb. Good mutton is meat with character, from animals in the prime of their life. I can identify with that. Perhaps I’ll get a T-Shirt “Mutton and Proud” or “Mutton Dressed up as Nothing”.
And I’m not alone in my mutton love. Many foodies favour mutton to lamb. In his excellent book “River Cottage Meat”, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall states, “mutton is to lamb what beef is to veal” which sums it up perfectly. In the taste stakes there is no comparison between a 3 year old whether mutton (castrated ram) and new season lamb.
Eating lamb is actually a relatively new practice. Until we fell in love with wearing polyester and nylon, no farmer would dream of killing sheep in their infancy and deprive themselves years of good income from the wool of a living animal. But when demand for wool decreased, the quicker the meat could be sold the more profitable it was for the farmer. And so we started eating lamb.
The rise of lamb and demise of mutton matches the rise in the pace of western life and the demise of that balance that we’re now off busy looking for. Downing tools to cook a joint of meat for 5 hours, roast veggies and make gravy became a rarity rather than a ritual and sadly there are few 2-minute mutton recipes. But just like beards and beer, all things come around again and mutton, for a number of reasons, is a meat on the up and up.
An increasing number of us value a bit of slow – be it slow farmed, slow grown, slow aged or slow cooked. Slow food is the new fast food. We also attach a bit more value to “free” these days too – free range, cruelty-free and preservative free. And finally fat is back. Who hasn’t sat next to some paleo/primal fat eating convert recently extolling the virtues of good fats from grass fed meat? (They’d put mutton fat in their coffee given half a chance).
Anyway, mutton ticks all these boxes and author Bob Kennard agrees with me. Bob ran an organic meat business in Wales, together with his wife, for over 20 years. His excellent book, “Much Ado About Mutton” is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history and development of one of our great meats around the world. I shared some emails with Bob about his book, mutton, and recipes and I got the distinct impression from him that there is a slow but steady revival of interest in mutton in the UK, spearheaded by direct farm sales, traditional butchers, and farmers markets.
One of the things we corresponded about in particular was cured mutton in the form of mutton hams and macon (mutton bacon). Mutton ham was quite common in New Zealand before we had cheap imported pork for cured hams and bacon. I remember mutton ham, cut thick in a sandwich with Mums piccalilli and fresh white bread and butter. Bob mentioned a recipe for macon he had come across in the George Orwell diaries from 1940 which made for interesting reading – seems they didn’t have cheap Danish pork then either.
Not being short of good mutton, I decided to make a mutton ham. At just over 8lbs, my leg of mutton needed just over 3 weeks of curing, allowing for 3 days curing per pound of meat. Once done, I boiled it up like a cooked ham and it was similar to a good pickled pork or piece of beef silver-side. It wasn’t rosy pink because I didn’t use the nitrates – just sugar and salt – but the flavour was excellent and it got the “make again” seal of approval from everyone who ate it. The two photos above show the results and the full recipe is in Bob’s book. But I wasn’t done yet.
While the mutton ham effort was encouraging, I was more interested in exploring macon. I’ve been curing bacon from belly pork for some years now without the use of nitrates. But it is really hard to find free range pork here and I think you can’t be half ethical about these things. Why make preservative free bacon from factory farmed pork?
Encouraged by Bob and George, I had a crack at macon using the sheep equivalent of pork belly – mutton flaps. While pork belly is revered, mutton flaps are feared and are possibly the most unfashionable part of an already unfashionable animal. But they are just misunderstood and mistreated. A badly cooked mutton flap is like trying to chew roast innertube spread with grease. Well cooked, they will see-off the best pork belly. I love them sliced and basted with mustard and oil then roasted for a crispy snack with a cold beer – I think that was another River Cottage recipe.
MY MACON RECIPE
I’ve made this a couple of times now and it astounds me how good it tastes and how simple it is. The first time I made it I cured and smoked it and it was gorgeous. The second time I just cured it and it was still very fine, but if you have a smoker I’d definitely recommend smoking it.
- Take a piece of mutton flap. Trim it of any scraggly pieces and pat it dry with paper towels. For the cure mix together soft brown sugar and salt in a ratio of 70% sugar to 30% salt. I use more salt when curing pork bacon but the mutton doesn’t seem to need as much salt.
- Make enough cure to generously rub into the meat. You don’t need to bury it in cure but you want enough to make sure every part of the meat has a good coating. Rub it on and into all the cut edges thoroughly on all sides.
- Place the meat in a large clean plastic container with a lid and put it in the fridge. Turn it every day and rub the liquid that accumulates over the meat. If it is a thin piece of meat it will be cured in 2 days. If it is thicker leave it another couple of days. Mutton flaps won’t take longer than 4 days max.
- Rinse the cure off. Air dry the meat in a cool place for a few hours. I hung mine in our porch on a cool windy night and it was dry the next morning (much to the horror of passing vegetarians who enquired after my husband’s health).
- Then either hot smoke it for a couple of hours and set it in the fridge before slicing it, or slice it straight away. Slice it to your preference – thick like pancetta or thin like streaky rashers. Bag it and freeze it. Remember there are no nitrate preservatives in my recipe so you don’t want it hanging around at room temperature.
Cook it slowly on a low heat because there is no watery rot to come out of this. If you cook it fast the sugar burns before the meat is cooked. Next on my mutton bucket list is a longer air-dried mutton ham rather than a boiled one. I’m going to call it prosmiutto! Anyone with me?
Ps. Did you know mutton was known as Colonial Goose in early New Zealand? So there you go – it was festive fare once. We’re not having mutton for Christmas this year, but that’s because I’ve got a proper goose which will be a story for another day.