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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

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Irish Stew

I have had some ragout veal, and I mean to have some haricot mutton to-morrow.
Jane Austen to Cassandra, Saturday, November 17, 1798

Irish stew is a traditional Irish dish made from lamb or mutton as well as potatoes, onions, and parsley. It originated in Ireland but appears in cookbooks all over Europe, including Escoffier’s Guide Culinaire.

Irish stew is a filling, flavourful dish made with the most readily-available ingredients. The Irish raised primarily sheep and root crops for subsistence. The sheep provided wool for warm clothing, milk for drinking and making cheese, and eventually food. Potatoes were the main food crop, prior to the potato famine. (Sometimes the potatoes are boiled separately, and added before serving, as they tend to break down faster than other ingredients.)

Irish stew, or “stobhach gaelach” as it is called in Irish, is traditionally made of lamb or mutton (mutton is from less tender sheep over two years of age), potatoes, onions, and parsley. Sometimes, only lamb or mutton neckbones, shanks, and other trimmings were the only basis for the stock. Yet, these would-be discards still held enough flavor after a long simmering process to do justice to a hearty bowl of stew. The root vegetables added further flavor and thickening power, as well as filling sustenance. Some cooks added turnips or parsnips, carrots, and barley when available.

Although traditionally made with lamb or mutton, Irish stew was sometimes a meal which was thrown together with non-prime cuts and filled out with potatoes. More recently, Irish stew has been made with beef.

When the Irish people began immigrating to the United States, they naturally brought along their food traditions. The stew evolved and adapted to include the local offerings. Sheep were not as plentiful, so other types of meat were often substituted. The recipe has evolved to often include Guinness stout and Paprika. Some variations have exalted this original peasant dish to near gourmet status.

The following recipe is from Martha Lloyd’s Household Book. A haricot is a stew of lamb or mutton with turnips and potatoes.

A Harrico of Mutton
Cut a neck of mutton into steaks. Flour them and fry them brown on each side. Put into your stewpan a piece of butter and 2 spoonfuls of flour, and let is simmer together until is is of a light brown (keeping it stirring all the time). Add to it some good gravy and let it boil up, then put in your steaks, and turnips and carrots and let it stew one hour. Pepper and salt to your taste and 2 Spoonfuls of catchup–when done if greasy mix some flour with cold water and put to it, but let it only boil up once afterwards.

Irish Stew
6 pounds boneless Lamb shoulder (or beef roast) cut into 2-inch pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 Large Yellow Onion peeled and finely chopped
1/2 cup water
4 cups Beef Stock
2 teaspoons sugar
4 cups carrots-cut into 1 inch pieces
2 large yellow onions peeled and sliced
3 pounds potatoes or turnips peeled,quartered and cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 teaspoon dried thyme,whole
1 bay leaf

Put lamb salt pepper and flour in large mixing bowl-toss to coat meat evenly.

Brown meat in frying pan with bacon fat or butter. Put meat into 10 quart stove top casserole-leave 1/4 cup of fat in frying pan. Add onion and saute till onion begins to color. Deglaze frying pan with 1/2 cup water and add the onion to your casserole with the beef stock and sugar.Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or till tender. Add remaining ingredients to pot and simmer covered for 20 minutes until veg. is tender. Check for salt and pepper before serving.

Historical information from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

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Cottage Pie

“Dinner to day, Cottage-Pye and rost Beef.”
Reverend James Woodford, 29 August 1791
Diary of a Country Parson

Cottage pie and shepherd’s pie are traditional methods for using leftover roasted meat, either beef or mutton, with mashed potato as a convenient pie crust. In early recipes, the pie dish was lined with mashed potato as well as having a mashed potato crust on top. The use of previously uncooked meat is a recent adaptation, suited to the techniques of commercial food processing companies.

Early cookery writers did not use the terms “cottage pie” and “shepherd’s pie” and the terms did not appear in recipe books until the late part of the 19th century. From that time, the terms have been used interchangeably, although there is a popular tendency for “shepherd’s pie” to be used when the meat is mutton or lamb. The first mention of Cottage Pie was in 1791, when the Rev. James Woodford mentions eating it with “rost beef” for dinner.

Cottage Pie
Required: a pound and a half of cooked potatoes, half a pound to three-quarters of cold meat, seasoning and gravy as below. Cost, about 9d. The potatoes must be nicely cooked and mashed while hot…The should be seasoned, and beaten until light with a wooden spoon. A pie dish should then be greased, and the potatoes put at the bottom, to form a layer from half to an inch in thickness. The meat should be made into a thick mince of the usual kind with stock or gravy…or it may be mixed with Onion Sauce, or any other which may be sent to table with meat. The nicer the mince, the nice, of course, will be the pie. The meat doest next, and should be put in the centre of the bottom payer, leaving a little space all around. The crop the remainder of the potatoes on the top, beginning at the sides–this prevents the boiling out of the gravy when the meat begins to cook–go on until all the used, making the pie highest in the middle. Take a fork, and rough the surface all over, because it will brown better than if left smooth. For a plain dish, bake it for fifteen to twenty minutes. Or it may be just sprinkled with melted dripping (a brush is used for this), or it may be coated with beaten egg, part of which may then be used in the mashed potatoes. As soon as the pie is hot through and brown, it should be served. There are many recipes for this pie, or variation of it, and in some, directions are given for putting the meat in the dish first, and all the potatoes on the top. The plan above detailed will be found the better, because the meat being enveloped entirely in potatoes runs no risk of becoming hard, as it wold do it exposed to the direct heat of the oven. Any other cooked vegetables may be added to the above, but they should be placed between the meat and potatoes, both top and bottom. If a very savoury pie is desired, make the mince very moist, and allow longer time for baking. The potatoes will absorb some of the gravy, and found tasty. In this case, the heat must not be fierce at starting, only at the end for the pie to brown well. For a richer pie, allow a larger proportion of meat. For a very cheap one, half a pound of meat will do for two pounds of potatoes.
—Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book
, Lizzie Heritage, 1894


  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 onions finely chopped
  • 2 tomatoes chopped or one small can of peeled, diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup beef stock or bouillon
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon sage
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
  • 5 medium potatoes (boiled and mashed)
  • 1/2 tsp thyme
  • 1 tablespoon butter or bacon fat
  • salt and pepper

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

Brown the beef in oil.

Remove from pan and set aside.

Drain most of the accumulated fat from the pan. Sauté onions until tender, and then add chopped tomatoes and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Add broth and stir in herbs and seasonings.

Return brown meat to skillet and continue cooking for 5 minutes.

Transfer all ingredients to an ovenproof casserole.

Top with mashed potatoes (scoring them with a fork.) Dot with butter and bake uncovered in 375-degree oven for 30-40 minutes.

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