Recipes: Matthew Fort calls for a return to mutton

I got an email from Andrew the farmer the other day. "Interested in mutton? We're killing a three-year-old sheep." it read. Was I interested? Was I ever. I have dreamed of mutton for more than 20 years. Longer probably. Mutton is one of the forgotten masterpieces of British protein production. Bloody spring lamb has cornered the market, vaguely sweet, vestigially meaty, utterly gummy; fatless, tasteless, pointless; the perfect meat for today - devoid of interest in every way.

Mutton, on the other hand, is full of fat (and fat, as we know, or as we ought to know, is the primary carrier of flavour in meat). Consequently, mutton has a broad, rollicking, rolling, ripping, roistering flavour. It has texture and heft. Mutton is mighty; mighty good, mighty delicious, mighty mighty. Or so my memory told me. So I drove over to the farm to collect my leg, two breasts and a bag of bits - all mine for £24. And never has money been better spent. The bits were to be stewed, the breasts to be braised and then grilled, covered in a mixture more secret than KFC's chicken mix - I will give the recipe for that another day - and the leg was to be boiled or, more accurately, poached.

And then, blow me, hardly were plans for a mutton fest hatched than I received an invitation to a mutton lunch at the Ritz hotel, with the man we call POW (Prince of Wales) in tow, and it doesn't get much more nobby than that. The point of the lunch was to promote something called the Mutton Renaissance, though I couldn't help thinking that Mutton Resurrection would have been a more accurate title.

As a result of words spoken over lunch, I discovered that the world of mutton was much more complicated than I had ever imagined. For a start, it seems that there's no official agreement as to when sheep becomes mutton. I had always been under the impression that lamb was lamb for a year. Then it became hogget, which it remained for another year until it became mutton.

But then I read Laura Mason and Catherine Brown's epic (and invaluable) Traditional Foods Of Britain (Prospect Books), a copy of which should be compulsory in every British home, in which they say, "In theory, any sheep older than 12 months becomes mutton when killed for meat." What is a chap to do? And that's before we get into the finer points of wethers - castrated rams - and mule mutton crosses, which surfaced on the Ritz menu.

Anyway, I still stick to the lamb-hogget-mutton school of thought, and I'll leave the other refinements to the higher schools of agricultural philosophy. After all, the real point is, does mutton taste different from lamb? Yes, unquestionably. Does it taste better (ie, is it worth the extra dosh?)? Well, that is a matter of taste, as they say, though in my view the answer is again unquestionably yes. For one thing, the farmer has had his capital tied up for 12 months longer than he needs.

My boiled leg was milder than I had remembered, gentler and sweeter, but it still boomed away like a big bass drum. The fibre of the meat was coarser but well woven. And the sheer size of it drew cries of admiration. It looked splendid. It inspired awe. It produced demands for second helpings. Can a cook ask for more?

· All recipes serve 10 or more (there's no point in cooking a leg of mutton for two or four or six; eight possibly).

Boiled leg of mutton
Your principal problem with this recipe is to find a pan large enough to hold the leg. It does have to be pretty enormous. You can sort of braise it in a roasting pan covered in foil. You can, of course, roast it very slowly (for at least three and a half hours at 150C/300F/gas mark 2), basting along the way.

1 leg of mutton (around 3.5kg)
2 onions
1 turnip
2 sticks celery
2 leeks
2 bayleaves
1 bunch celery
2 tsp peppercorns

Trim off some of the surface fat, but not too much. Place the leg in a pan large enough to hold it. Cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, skimming off any grey gunge that floats to the surface. Add all the other ingredients. Bring back to the boil and simmer for three to three and a half hours, depending on its size and nature. Now it is ready for the carver's art, the plate and the sauce.

Salsa verde alla Mantovana
The classic accompaniment for boiled mutton is caper sauce, or possibly onion sauce, but I think salsa verde is superior to both. It is prettier, for a start, and its oily richness, pungent with anchovies, capers, gherkins, is a perfect foil for the rollicking, grassy flavour of the meat. There are no set measurements, really - just a blend of ingredients. I have lifted the body of this recipe from The Taste Of Italy, by Giuliano Bugialli, but with the addition of lemon peel, the fragrance of which lifts the whole thing. Does this make it a Fort original? Probably not.

3 hard-boiled eggs
4 anchovy fillets
6 gherkins (or cornichons)
2 tbsp capers in vinegar
1 yellow pepper
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
2 cloves garlic
1 very large bunch parsley
1 lemon, zest removed and cut into thin strips (use the flesh for another dish)
Extra-virgin olive oil

You can cut all the bits and bobs into tiny dice painstakingly by hand, which, as a true kitchen artist, you ought to do. I am not a true kitchen artist, so bung everything in the food processor and give it a couple of short whizzes so that it's finely chopped, but not mush. Then I add the oil, as much as I feel appropriate to make a sludge but not a slush - say about 115ml.

Ballotine of Savoy cabbage with swede
I am not sure that this is a true ballotine, but it sounds about right. I suppose I could call it a cabbage and swede Swiss roll, but that lacks the romance of ballotine. The recipe looks long and complicated, but that's just me trying to be as explicit as possible - and so avoid complaining letters.

1 medium Savoy cabbage
1kg swede
1 egg
115g butter
Salt and pepper
500ml stock

Cut away the outside leaves of the cabbage. Keep them. You will need about six to eight of them. Core and finely slice the rest of the cabbage. Bring a pot of water to the boil. Blanch the outside leaves for a minute, then lift out, plunge into cold water and drain. Blanch the shredded cabbage for two minutes, then lift, plunge and drain likewise.

Peel the swede(s), then cut into chunks. Cook in boiling water until soft - about 20 minutes, then drain. Into the food processor with the swede, along with the egg and butter, and whizz until puréed. You can do this with swede because it's high-fibre texture stops it from turning to glue, as potatoes do if you give them the food processor treatment. Season according to taste.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Now lay out a large piece of muslin (or a drying-up cloth or clingfilm - though my wife doesn't like me cooking with clingfilm for reasons of health), and lay out the blanched outer cabbage leaves so that they form a largish rectangle within the larger rectangle of the muslin. Smear the swede purée all over the cabbage leaves, leaving it about 1.5cm short of the outer edge of the leaves. Arrange the sliced, blanched cabbage down the centre of the swede purée. Now create a cabbage and swede sausage by rolling over the edge of the cabbage and easing it over and over with the muslin until you have one long cylinder encased in muslin. Twist the ends of the muslin and tie securely with string. Fix with a couple of other lengths of string at strategic intervals.

Carefully place in a roasting pan. Pour in the stock. Cover with foil. Place in the oven for 20 minutes. Lift out. Take off the muslin carefully; it is pretty fragile. Cut into slices.

Slow roast loin of mutton with autumn vegetables
This, we thought at our table at the Ritz lunch, was the pick of the dishes. It's a good bit fancier than mine, but then the result was a good bit more refined. This can be pot roasted on or off the bone. The recipe that follows is off the bone.

1 loin of mutton
100ml vegetable oil
100g butter
150g mirepoix (ie, finely diced) vegetables (onion, garlic, leek, carrot, celery, fennel)
half head garlic
1 bouquet of herbs (thyme, mint, parsley, bayleaf, tarragon)
100g shallots
200ml white wine
300ml thickened brown veal or chicken stock

Remove the loin and fillet from the bone and lightly bat the fat so that it is even and fairly thin. Then place the fillet on top of the loin eye and roll everything so that it is covered by the fat. Tie with string to keep the shape. Chop the bones into small pieces and keep all the meat trimmings.

Heat the vegetable oil and butter in a roasting tray or casserole. Place the loin in it and fry until golden all over. Take the meat out of the tray, and add the chopped bones and the trimmings, frying these until they are all brown and caramelised. Add the vegetables, the half garlic head, the herbs and shallots. Pour on the wine. Boil to reduce by half. Add the stock, bring to the boil and place the rolled loin on top of the bones.

Preheat the oven to 140C/275F/gas mark 1. Cover the roasting tray/casserole with foil or put on the lid, and pot roast in the oven for around 50 minutes. Turn down the oven as low as possible, take off the foil/lid and cook for a further 30-45 minutes, basting from time to time, until the loin is beautifully glazed.

Remove the meat and pass the liquor from the pan through a fine sieve, making sure that the garlic is pushed through as well. Beat in a little butter. Season to taste and add some finely chopped tarragon, parsley and a touch of mint.

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