One of the joys of seeing the seasons roll round from summer to autumn and then to winter is the anticipation of the huge abundance of seasonal produce these colder months bring. After a summer of barbecues and light cooking there’s nothing like that first pheasant of the season or the first slow-cooked winter casserole. There’s something about winter cooking that’s special. It feels deliberate, slow, and communal in a way that’s uniquely comforting.
Winter is the time of year to enjoy mutton. It lends itself perfectly to the season of hearty, rich, earthy and simple cooking. If you can find good quality mutton give it a try.
Lamb, hogget and mutton
Broadly speaking a sheep is classed as lamb until it enters its second spring. For that first year the animal is young and the meat is tender, mild and sweetly flavoured.
Once into its second year it becomes hogget. Meat from these slightly older animals is darker, richer and often slightly fattier than in lamb. With this extra growing time comes extra flavour. For me hogget is preferred choice for ‘standard’ roasting lamb because of this superior flavour.
Once a sheep enters its third year it will be classed as mutton. Traditionally sheep were reared for wool rather than meat so the natural process would have been to keep those sheep for their entire productive life and typically to process them for meat at a much older age, when the meat would have been classed as mutton rather than lamb.
In recent decades the market for wool has declined steeply so the value of the sheep has switched from its fleece to its meat. As a result there has been greater emphasis on meeting (and even fostering) the demand for lamb as opposed to hogget and mutton in the U.K.. Tastes have changed and mutton has now fallen from favour in this country, becoming harder to find. Thankfully there is mutton of the highest quality out there if you know where to look!
Selecting and Cooking Mutton
Good mutton will be dark red, almost crimson in colour. The texture will be dense and firm, but not hard. There should be plenty of marbling through the meat and a good layer of fat around it. To get the best from the meat it should be aged before being butchered. At Garlic Wood we age all our mutton for a minimum of 2 weeks before we prepare it. This allows the rich, earthy flavours to intensify and the texture to improve.
Good quality mutton can be cooked and served rare if it is sliced thinly. However, I think the real joy of cooking with mutton is in long slow roasts, casseroles, stews, hotpots. Combine it with the fantastic seasonal vegetables we see around us at this time of year and use it to create a dish that takes time and effort – something to share and savour with family and friends.
At Garlic Wood we source all our mutton from Saddlescombe Farm, and from the pedigree Portland and Black Welsh Mountain ‘Hawthorn’ flock kept by our friend Helen Butler. Both are passionate about their livestock, and about farming in balance with the landscape. Camilla and Roly at Saddlescombe Farm are custodians of an area of our precious South Downs wildflower chalklands. This globally significant habitat is incredibly delicate and by farming it sympathetically they are able to act to conserve this unique landscape. Helen farms her ‘Hawthorn Flock’ on a small low intensity scale. She is a dedicated conservator of two of our traditional sheep breeds, both of which produce beautiful mutton.
Mutton is available seasonally from our online shop for home delivery or from our network of ‘click and collect’ partners so why not order some today and try this winter treat for yourself.