Posted on

A Dish of Mutton

And it all ended, at last, in his telling Henry one morning that when he next went to Woodston, they would take him by surprise there some day or other, and eat their mutton with him. Henry was greatly honoured and very happy, and Catherine was quite delighted with the scheme.
Northanger Abbey, 1818

For hundreds of years, mutton was the staple meat of the British household, considered superior in both texture and flavor to lamb.

According to legendary cook Fanny Farmer (The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, 1918) Lamb is the name given to the meat of lambs; mutton, to the meat of sheep. Lamb, coming as it does from the young creature, is immature, and less nutritious than mutton. The flesh of mutton ranks with the flesh of beef in nutritive value and digestibility. The fat of mutton, on account of its larger percentage of stearic acid, is more difficult of digestion than the fat of beef.

Lamb may be eaten soon after the animal is killed and dressed; mutton must hang to ripen. Good mutton comes from a sheep about three years old, and should hang from two to three weeks. The English South Down Mutton is cut from creatures even older than three years. Young lamb, when killed from six weeks to three months old, is called spring lamb, and appears in the market as early as the last of January, but is very scarce until March. Lamb one year old is called a yearling. Many object to the strong flavor of mutton; this is greatly overcome by removing the pink skin and trimming off superfluous fat.

A favorite dish since ancient days, meals of mutton have repeatedly been documented throughout history. In the 17th century, Samuel Pepys’ diaries often mention meals involving the meat. Indeed, his Christmas Day feast in 1660 consisted of ‘a good shoulder of mutton and a chicken’.

By the Georgian era, a greater variety of fruits and vegetables were eaten, but meat was still the most popular choice and it would not be unusual to have fish, beef, pork, mutton, venison and poultry served at the same meal. Meats, hot and cold were served at breakfast and depending on what part of the country you lived in, the lunch menu might be similar to another’s dinner.

Always looking to imitate the rich, the middle classes took no time in copying their menus and recipes. Even the servants in such houses ate well, and at a time when the poor farmer or laborer might subsist on bread and potatoes. In large eighteenth-century houses, according to the duc de La Rochefoucauld, there was “a supply of cold meat, tea and punch” on the servants’ tables “from morning to night”. Another observer considered that “servants in great families wantonly” ate five times as much meat as nature really required.*

In Victorian times, the sheep was much lauded by the legendary Mrs. Beeton in her book, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861): “Of all wild or domesticated animals, the sheep is, without exception, the most useful to man as a food and the most necessary to his health and comfort…Mutton is, undoubtedly, the meat most generally used in families. And, both by connoisseurs and medical men, it stands first in favour, whether its fine flavour, digestible qualifications, or general wholesomeness be considered.”

George Borrow, the well-renowned Victorian traveler and writer often extolled the virtues of Welsh mountain mutton in his book Wild Wales (1862) “For dinner we had salmon and a leg of mutton; the salmon from the Dee, the leg of mutton from neighboring Berwyn. As for the leg, it was truly wonderful; nothing so good had I ever tasted in the shape of a leg of mutton. The leg of mutton of Wales beats the leg of mutton in any other country. Certainly I shall never forget the first Welsh leg of mutton I ever tasted, rich but delicate, replete with juices derived from the aromatic herbs of the noble Berwyn, cooked to a turn and weighing just 4lbs. Let anyone who wishes to eat a leg of mutton in perfection go to Wales.”+

Changes in farming methods and personal tastes meant mutton went out of fashion after the Second World War. The Mutton Renaissance, a movement that was especially active in the winter of 2004, aims to put it back on the menu, not just in restaurants and pubs around the country but also in the home. You can visit their website, The Southdown Sheep Society, for a variety of mutton related information and recipes.

To Dress a Breast of Mutton
Boil your breast of mutton till the bones will come out. Take the skin and rub the meat over with the yoke of an egg. A few sweet herbs, parsley, onion, crumbs of bread with salt and pepper chopp’d altogether and strewed on the meat. Put it in a Dutch oven before the fire to brown and dish it up with rich gravy.

To Make Gravy or Glazing
Take a foreskin of beef, cut it into pieces, and lay it in a stewpan with six large onions—turnip, carrot and two heads of celery and sweet herbs—set it on a stove and draw the gravy, let it be brown and all dried up, then put water to it, skim it very well, and let it boil like very good gravy—then strain it through a sieve, when it is cold take off all the fat and take any quantity you want, set it on the side of the stove without cover, and let it boil till it is like glue—put it on anything you wish to glaze with a paste brush.
Martha Lloyd’s Household Book

*J. Hecht, The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth Century England 1956 + Farmers Guardian; Country View, December 3, 2004

Enjoyed this article? Browse our giftshop at janeaustengiftshop.co.uk for Regency recipe books!

Leave a Reply