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HomeFarming NewsWhy did we stop eating mutton?
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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Why did we stop eating mutton?

Why did we stop eating mutton, that meat which once delighted and satisfied the nation? What was so good about it? And how can we start to enjoy it again?

Author Bob Kennard answers all these questions and more.

Much Ado About Mutton, which is available from Merlin Unwin Books, will not only leave you an expert on what mutton has done for Britain but will also equip you with what to look for when you buy it, where to buy it, which breed, which cut, and how to cook it!

Let’s start with an explanation of what it is; as author Bob Kennard explains, mutton is simply the meat from older sheep – just as beef is mature veal, so mutton is mature lamb. Today, it is generally taken as being sheep over two-years-old.

Sheep are fascinating animals, and their management and ecological value are often overlooked.

Author, Jill Mason, has dedicated a chapter to sheep farming in her book, Everything you wanted to know about the Countryside, recently reviewed by That’s Farming.

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“Sheep are sold as lamb if they are sent to market in the year of their birth (or in the year following its birth if the lamb is born after September 30th). After this, it becomes known as a hogget and will be marketed as mutton.”

Jill notes their great diversity, with 90 different breeds and crosses of sheep in the UK, which have evolved to suit the diverse terrain.

Their breed and hardiness have an impact on their survival within particular regions, which, in turn, impacts the flavour of the meat if eaten.

Nutritional benefits of mutton

New research shows the important nutritional benefits mutton has to offer. In addition, grass-fed mutton can also play a lead in the transition to sustainable lower, carbon farming.

Mutton production has been entwined with our landscape, our history, our wealth and our well-being since prehistoric times.

For many hundreds of years, mutton was the main form of sheep meat eaten on these islands.

Yet over the past 40 years, it virtually disappeared from our shops and menus – and we were in real danger of losing one of our iconic foods, as much part of our culture and heritage as roast beef.

Happily, the current revival of interest in mutton is putting it back in the spotlight, celebrating the versatility as well as the long tradition of this fabulous-tasting meat.

The story of sheep and mutton is very much part of the story of the United Kingdom.

Mutton fed our people through the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution; its fat lit our homes by candlelight, it was served at the last lunch on The Titanic in 1912 and was a birthday meal on Captain Scott’s last expedition.

Today, our uplands are only enjoyed by walkers because of the sheep that have grazed them for hundreds of years. It is difficult today to appreciate just how ubiquitous mutton once was.

Distribution of fat

Many Victorians thought that superior flavour was to be enjoyed from the mountain breeds of Scotland, northern and western England, and Wales, or breeds of chalk downs such as Southdown and the ‘primitive’ breeds of the Scottish islands, Isle of Man and Portland. One reason for these preferences is the distribution of fat.

Many of the breeds of sheep suitable for wool production also have the unfortunate habit of laying down plenty of fat on their backs when older, which makes the mutton unattractive – even to a Victorian palate.

The right amount of fat in the right places can add hugely to the flavour of red meat.

As the demands for meat, wool, milk and even manure have risen and fallen, so have the fortunes of the sheep industry.

The revolution in productivity, which has overtaken the farming industry over the past two centuries, has also contributed to the type of sheep meat we eat.

Farming now produces lambs ready for eating in a reliable and efficient fashion at a much younger age, and so mutton is a rarity.

People are once again beginning to appreciate the unique taste of this culinary icon, which we nearly lost.

The complexity and depth of flavour are like no other. In a world of bland-tasting meat, mutton is king.

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