What's the deal with mutton?

Thanks for mutton.
Thanks for mutton. Photo: David Reist

There's an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is served mutton and finds it inedible. He spends the rest of the scene channelling Mr Bean and hiding his chewed and unswallowed dinner in napkins and pockets.

"This is some FINE mutton!"

Later in the episode, George poses an intelligent question - what exactly is mutton?  "I don't know," replies Jerry. "And I didn't want to find out."

As a young kid, I didn't know what mutton was either. It was never on the table at home and that Seinfeld episode was probably the first time I'd heard it referenced. For a fair chunk of my life I would have guessed mutton to be a wobbly, flightless bird that tasted of grey.

It's not. It's delicious and we should be eating more of it.

What, exactly, is mutton?

The meat of a mature-aged sheep. One that's cast aside the follies of lamb to spend Sundays listening to The Eagles between trips to Bunnings. Before that, when no longer a lamb, not yet a mutton, when the sheep is experimenting with gateway grass and downloading Ed Shearin', you've got a hogget on your hands.

More specifically:

Lamb - young sheep, often under 12-months-old. Incisor teeth are yet to grow.

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Hogget - a lamb that's lost its milk teeth. This usually happens at the 12-month mark. It's possible for a sheep to leave the farm as lamb and arrive at the abattoir a hogget if the tooth fairy pays a visit on the way.

Mutton - the meat of a sheep with at least two incisor teeth, usually over two-years-old.

There's variations to those definitions too detailed for an article quoting Seinfeld. For the sake of this discussion, mutton is the meat of an older sheep.

Also note that some Indian and Pakistani restaurants will use the term "mutton" for both sheep and goat meat. Because that's not confusing at all.

What does it taste like?

I catered for a group of 20 last year and sourced protein from the ethical meat legends at Feather and Bone in Marrickville, Sydney. A day was spent slow-cooking lamb and mutton  to the same rosemary, anchovy and garlic-heavy recipe and, in a blind side-by-side comparison, mutton was declared the more delicious, rounded, soft and sticky meat by a landslide.

Frank Camorra's lamb shoulder in a pomegranate glaze.

Frank Camorra's lamb shoulder in a pomegranate glaze. Photo: Marcel Aucar

"Mutton to lamb is like beef to veal," says Feather and Bone owner Grant Hilliard.

Mutton can also have gamey venison flavours and notes of heather and grass. What sounds more appealing - a six-month-year-old lamb that's spent most of its days staggering around a feedlot, or a sheep that's lived a fat and happy life munching on fields of bracken, herbs and flowers? Ewe beauty.

If mutton is so delicious, why aren't we eating more of it?

The idea of "mutton dressed as lamb" is deeply embedded within Australian culture, with previous generations brought up not on tender mutton stews, but tacky cuts of boiled shearing sheep past its prime.

"The sheep meat industry in Australia followed the wool industry, meaning meat was just a byproduct," says Hilliard. "You can probably breed very good Merino sheep for eating these days, but they're likely not as good as pure meat breeds such as Wiltshire Horn or Southdown."

Australian mutton was traditionally a byproduct of the wool industry.

Australian mutton was traditionally a byproduct of the wool industry. Photo: Rob Homer

There's also a cost structure that doesn't reward farmers for keeping lambs so they can be sold as mutton. The market price fluctuates, but say lamb is being sold for $7.50 a kilo, mutton will might be around half that price or less.

"However, the farmer has held onto the sheep for two or three years longer," says Hilliard. "There is absolutely no financial incentive for farmers to hang onto lamb that long. Even as soon as it becomes hogget, it loses considerable value."

Are we on the verge of a local mutton renaissance?

Perhaps. There's certainly farmers in tune with the majesty of middle-aged sheep and supplying hoggett-happy chefs. Mat Lindsay had mutton chops with smoked garlic and garam on the menu at Ester and during Luke Burgess' time at 10 William St, you could enjoy mutton carpaccio on layer of ewe's curd.

 

Mutton chops / smoked garlic and garum new lunch menu tomorrow

A photo posted by Ester Restaurant & Bar (@ester_au) on

Brisbane's Gaslight Bistro (sadly now closed) was rocking mutton last year, too, a fillet served over macadamia milk and scattered with pomegranate arils. When Jake Nicolson was head chef at St Kilda's Circa, The Prince, he did a roaring trade in roast mutton slow-cooked for 48 hours.

"Because the meat is so full of flavour, it really lent itself to those colder, wetter months in Melbourne," says Nicolson, who is now executive chef of the one-hatted Blackbird in Brisbane. "With meat you don't see too often like mutton, it's important to educate your customers and staff if you want to move it."

"Being a great restaurant isn't all about having these amazing and fancy producers on your menu. It's also about getting your front of house staff excited about the produce to so they can sell it with conviction to the customers."

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 16:  Gaslight Bistro - Mutton backstrap, macadamia milk, pomegranate and cauliflower - on Bruswick Street in New Farm on Friday October 16, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Michelle Smith/Fairfax Media)

Mutton backstrap, macadamia milk, pomegranate and cauliflower at Gaslight Bistro, Brisbane. Photo: Michelle Smith

If you ever see "long-tooth lamb" on a menu, guess what? You're probably eating mutton! Or perhaps hogget - it's "two-tooth lamb". I'd also wager decent money that many restaurants are slow-cooking mature sheep and calling it "lamb" on the menu as this a much sexier word than "mutton". This shouldn't have to happen. Embrace the mutt.

OK, you have my attention. Where do I find it and how do I cook it?

For maximum mutton good times you want a carcass that, like beef, has been aged to break down its protein structure. Feather and Bone dry ages its mutton up to four weeks, improving the tenderness and developing flavours. If you don't live near Marrickville, any butcher worth their salt should be able source a good bit of mutton for you with enough notice.

Roast lamb could easily be roast mutton.

Roast lamb could easily be roast mutton. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

For the most part, mutton can be substituted for lamb in recipes, although you might want to braise it lower and slower. That bleater should be falling apart at the clap of a butterfly wing.

And, just like lamb, it pairs wonderfully well with tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and take-no-prisoners Barossa shiraz. But - and this is very important - you must also know that mutton stew with a heathery Highland whisky is one of winter's - and life's - great pleasures.