Principles: Mutton (Guest post from Farmer Sharp)

Andrew Sharp, master butcher, is on a campaign to revive the popularity of a traditional and under-rated meat that also happens to be one of his personal favourites.

There was a time, in years gone by, when mutton was regarded as the pinnacle of fine dining and graced the tables of the wealthy. Not for them the mild, if not downright bland flavours of lamb. However in recent years mutton consumption in the UK has been in massive decline. After the Second World War people wanted young lamb that cooked quickly, partly in response to the bad experiences they had had with poor quality mutton due to the shortages during rationing. Consequently mutton became tarnished with a down-market reputation, and slipped from our culinary lexicon.

No doubt you’ll be familiar with the phrase mutton dressed as lamb, a disparaging description that implies mutton can in no way be quite as good as lamb. It’s not an attractive association and certainly not one likely to encourage us to try, and thus appreciate, the fantastic flavourful product that mutton can be. But popular dishes like the humble hotpot, and that north African favourite, the tagine, were actually originally designed to be made with mutton, and when they are the end result is so much the better for it.

In fact the qualities and flavours of mutton are many and varied, so it is important to purchase your mutton from a butcher who knows all the permutations. Mutton is classified, according to sheep farming experts, as a female or castrated male sheep that is at least two years old; it should have good fat cover and be matured for a minimum of two weeks.

As with any natural product the differences between the breeds are vast, and the choices you make will determine the method you use to cook it, as well as the eventual flavour profile of your dish. It is important to understand that the breeds cook differently, for example a Texel ewe, which is a modern fast growing sheep, will probably need long slow cooking, but slower growing Herdwicks, Soays or North Country Cheviots, once aged properly can be prepared just like lamb.

Cured mutton also has a rich tradition; wherever there was sheep production there were shepherds and their wives curing mutton for the winter. It may not be at the forefront of many cooks’ culinary charcuterie thoughts but, as the cuts aren’t as big as pigs, it is easy to do at home. By following the same principles for lightly cured pork — leaving the shoulder joint overnight in brine that’s not too salty and adding aromatics like lavender, rosemary or juniper — you get a great cured product that’s not unlike belly of pork.

So go on, go to the butcher and find out how great mutton is! Remember to ask them what age it is, what breed and how long it has been hung and you will not be disappointed.

This post was originally written for Borough Market’s blog in October 2013. You can view the original post here,

By Andrew Sharp, better known as Farmer Sharp, who is a master butcher, champion of Herdwick mutton and friend of Heckstall & Smith. You can find out all about him and his work on his site, and blog