I've been meaning to have my say about mutton for some time now. Whatever happened to it? My grandparents used to eat roast mutton on a regular basis, ordered from their local butcher in Buckinghamshire. And this was not so long ago. Today, it's almost impossible to get hold of unless you go to a specialist supplier. Inspired by Rick Stein's excellent television programme Food Heroes, I rang up Lidgate's to buy a joint of mutton. Didn't have any. Slightly surprised tone to the voice. I rang Allen's. Same answer. I rang that upmarket butcher in the Wandsworth Bridge Road. Didn't have any, but they could get some in from that bloke down in Tooting. I gave up, and bought a shoulder of lamb instead.
It's not really the same thing. The tastes, flavours and textures are different. I'm very excited by the whole shoulder of Herdwick mutton (on the bone) sold by Yew Tree Farm in the Lake District for £23.00. Yew Tree Farm also happened to have been owned by Beatrix Potter, which adds that extra frission. As they say on their website: "It's ideal for long, slow cooking...Herdwick Mutton is becoming well known amongst the finest chefs in the country as a delicious full flavoured 'melt in the mouth' meat, reminiscent of meat as it used to be."
Under new guidelines from Mutton Renaissance (the campaign launched by HRH The Prince of Wales), mutton must come from a sheep over two years old, and the animals must have a forage based diet- (ie grass, heather and root crops). The Cumbrian sheep roam the fells and live off the heather, which produces a meat of fabulous quality.
And what can be more traditional than poached mutton, served with caper sauce? It's an absolute British classic. Here's how to make it. It's not difficult, and I really do hope that you take the trouble to order a joint from one of those fabulous farms up in the Lake District. You may have to wait up to two to three weeks for delivery to allow for hanging. It's going to be worth it:
Into a large cast iron cooking pot goes the mutton. Have a look at the shoulder of Herdwick mutton on the bone from Yew Tree Farm. Cover the mutton joint with water, and sprinkle it with chopped onions, quartered carrots, a peeled parsnip, some chopped up celery, a bayleaf, a few black peppercorns and a sprig of rosemary. (Incidentally, I see in some recipes that the mutton is soaked overnight to "degorge" before cooking. I haven't done this before- and it would be interesting to see if it makes a difference. I need to experiment).
Bring the pot to a very slow boil, skimming off the scum as it rises. Turn the heat down, and poach very slowly for about two hours or so- or until you think the mutton is done. I like my mutton to be soft, juicy; a meat that melts in the mouth- mutton has more fat than lamb; you will need to watch the cooking time carefully. You do not want to overcook it. When I tried this recipe with lamb, although it tasted all right, I overcooked it and it ended up a bit on the dry side. No, mutton's the thing for this one.
Remove the mutton from the pan, and allow it to rest. Now's the time to make the caper sauce. It's pretty easy. In a separate smaller pan, make a roux. That's means stirring in white flour into some melted butter, and cooking it gently, stirring as you go, until you end up with a smooth golden coloured flour and butter paste. It's very important that you let the paste cook for a bit, otherwise you will end up wtih undercooked, raw floury tastes. Gradually stir in a bit of stock from the mutton. Keep stirring away. Add a splash of milk. Then a bit more of the stock, then a bit more of the milk- until you have a creamy, béchamel type sauce.
The sauce is finished off with a handful of capers. Check the seasoning, and add sea salt and white pepper to taste. I see that some recipes use cream, rather than milk, for the caper sauce; and of course, you could easily try this out if you prefer. Personally, I think this might be too rich, but as always, it's up to you.