Set the Table with Mutton
Written onAugust 21 , 2014
I once had a “wild” sheep named Janet. When I would walk down to the field where she was kept with the other sheep, she would observe me with calm confidence. Then, when I would open the gate from one enclosure to the next, she’d jump the fence and run away up the hill. Like a deer, she’d turn in stark profile, then baa to her compatriots: “Freedom, girls! Freedom!” But my other sheep were perfectly content to remain domesticated.
When Janet abdicated her role as a parent and left me two lambs to raise, I debated what to do with her. Could I sell her? She was at least eight years old, rather over-the-hill by commercial standards. Moreover, few shepherds would delight in acquiring a fence-jumper and a neglectful mother. Putting her down would be wasteful, but keeping her would easily double my shepherding workload, given the necessity of retrieving her whenever she escaped.
I finally settled on a solution: mutton.
With the help of some friends, I loaded Janet into a trailer (a story in itself!) and took her to the Royal Butcher, an Animal Welfare Approved abattoir in Randolph. Three days later, 200-pound Janet had become 96 pounds of roasts, ribs, and ground. Two massive hind legs presented a challenge—my oven just isn’t that big! Nevertheless, I’ve braised, curried, roasted, and burgered my way through most of this bounty.
The economics of eating Janet will thrill any committed localvore. Janet cost $50 when I purchased her as a breeding ewe for my lamb and wool operation, and she cost approximately $125 to maintain over the winter. My total cost, including slaughter, for 96 pounds of meat was $300, or a little more than $3 per pound. That is really, really cheap by local food standards. Granted, $50 is a low price for any sheep, and Janet was exceptionally large, but these numbers bore out for most of my other mutton-sheep purchases. Not only was the meat frugal, it also offered a humanely raised product that price-equivalent, conventional meat could barely hope to touch.
In the U.S., mutton has a bad rep. Sources agree that mutton’s downfall came about when soldiers who endured poor-quality boiled mutton in World War II’s Pacific Theater came home with a distaste for the meat. At the same time, rapid changes in farming at home were increasing the availability of pork, chicken, and beef. Agricultural industrialization marginalized sheep, which do not tolerate feedlot crowding and corn-based diets as well as other meat animals. According to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, the total number of sheep in the U.S. declined from nearly 60 million in the 1940s to a bit less than 10 million today. Less than a third of Americans eat lamb at all, and mutton makes up a vanishingly small proportion of American meat consumption, except among immigrants who come from lamb-eating cultures in the Middle East, Central Asia, and elsewhere. (It is also relatively popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland.)
I didn’t grow up eating mutton, but my love of lamb and commitment to local and humane meat on a budget led me to the idea of buying live cull sheep from local flocks (always fully diclosing my intentions): a 4-year-old Icelandic that couldn’t breed, a 2-year-old Border Leicester wether whose care was costing more than the value of his wool, a Romney ewe with a bum udder. These animals gave me valuable sheep experience prior to buying my own flock in 2012. Each represented an economic conundrum for their shepherd but a culinary adventure for me. The first roast I ate from Janet, the tenderloin, was as tender as any lamb but with more concentrated, bolder flavor. The grassy, lamby flavor of the ground meat stood up well to the bright spices in curries and stews. I braised the shoulder in a Dutch oven with barbecue spices and found to my surprise that mutton compares favorably with traditional pork.
Every year, most shepherds face the quandary of what to do with prime-age animals that cannot produce within the flock. For hobbyists, whom I define as those who raise small flocks of sheep primarily for enjoyment and with minimal concern for profitability, non-breeding or problem animals can simply be retained as pets or painstakingly retrained. But for shepherds who want to make their sheep a business, the time and feed costs associated with non-producing animals mean keeping them is unfeasible.
The lack of a general mutton market is another obstacle. According to information provided voluntarily through an inquiry I made on the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association listserv, many shepherds working on a small scale quietly eat their older sheep themselves but would be happy to sell some. None reported regular consumer demand. Refugee and immigrant communities represent a small but growing opportunity, but marketing effort is required to seal those deals.
Marketing norms may also contribute to the challenge of selling mutton. Most Vermont shepherds who sell fiber as well as lamb choose not to emphasize the fates of sheep that don’t contribute to the flock. Perhaps they fear repercussions from customers who think of sheep as pets and don’t want to acknowledge the food side of the equation. Alternately, shepherds may find themselves unable to part with animals they have cared for over the years.
In any case, farm operations that are serious about generating a living income need an outlet for older but edible sheep. That’s where you come in.
Mutton is an affordable meat, and delicious. If you like lamb, chances are you will like a well-prepared cut of mutton. Just as veal is meltingly tender but less flavorful than beef, so does lamb compare to mutton. Good mutton is lamb-flavored but denser, more concentrated in flavor. As with other red meat, it goes well with a variety of spices. A good mutton leg or loin roast will surpass a lamb roast, and the leftovers make a fine broth and soup. Some breeds and older sheep can be gamier, so if strong flavor is a concern, look for younger sheep from richer pastures.
The main drawback of mutton, and a main source of mutton’s bad rep, is the significant amount of fat found in some cuts. Ground mutton in particular can contain more than 25 percent fat. The best way that I’ve found to cope with the fat is simply to choose recipes where I can cook the mutton separately and drain it before adding in anything else. Mutton works brilliantly in most applications where ground beef is used. Shepherd’s pie, chili, stir-frys, and more taste great with ground, drained mutton in place of beef. In shepherds’ pie, it’s even traditional! Mutton can be made into burgers, but be aware of the grease factor if you are grilling. I’ve had a few charred fireballs due to dripping grease!
Mutton also substitutes well in nearly all Indian dishes that call for lamb. Why cover up the delicate flavor of lamb with strong spices when mutton will bring delicious flavor, too?
And cubed leg or shoulder makes for fabulous stew meat. Substitute mutton in beef stew or beef with barley soup. For stew meat from tougher sheep, use vinegar or other acids to help break down tougher meat fibers. Barbeque works along the same principles. It may be heretical to the ears of pork enthusiasts, but pulled barbecued mutton has amazing flavor and texture.
Some cuts of mutton make delicious roasts. The loin and the leg can be tender even on older sheep. Rosemary and garlic are traditional flavors, but you don’t have to feel constrained by tradition; consider adobo, cumin, black pepper, chili, and curry. Other cuts, such as the shoulder or brisket, are best braised. Don’t be intimidated by braising meat; cooking meat at a low temperature for many hours doesn’t require much attention. Choose a marinade and put the roast in a pan with the marinade and cook on low heat in the oven until the meat is fork tender. Braising melts the fat, which you can choose to remove from the braising liquid.
Supporting mutton, then, will expand your culinary reaches while saving you money. It will also add a revenue stream to the balance sheets of local sheep farmers, making their enterprises more competitive and sustainable. Mutton may be a vanishingly small piece of the culinary landscape of Vermont now, but a few people expressing interest in mutton by talking to a sheep farmer at the farmers’ market or calling a few nearby sheep farms could start the ball rolling.
My freezer now only has a few more packages of ground and a roast or two from Janet. As I reach for one to defrost for dinner, I am grateful that she fed me all winter long. Her daughter Agnes has fabulous wool and a friendly, affectionate personality. I will sustain my sheep, and the sheep will sustain me in return.