For many hundreds of years, mutton was the main form of sheep meat eaten in the United Kingdom. Yet over the past 40 years, it has virtually disappeared from our kitchens - and we are in real danger of losing one of our iconic foods.
Mutton production has been entwined with the British landscape, our history, our wealth and our wellbeing since prehistoric times. The story of sheep and mutton is very much part of the story of the United Kingdom.
Mutton was the mainstay of British cuisine right up until the second world war when farmers were called up for duty and replaced in the field by less-skilled workers. It’s no surprise that badly reared native mutton treated brutishly in austere vats of boiling water, meant an entire generation had their palates tainted.
Postwar farming practices spawned our modern love affair with lamb while mutton, tragically, vanished from the nation's tables.
After the war came another food revolution. Vast imports hit our shelves in order to feed a baby boom nation. One of those products was New Zealand lamb. British homes were encouraged to ditch the traditional local meat of choice in favour of “The Meat of Sunshine” with persuasive ads such as “The Housewife looks to New Zealand Lamb, confident in the knowledge that while production increases, the traditional high quality of lamb will be rigidly maintained”.
The increase in cheaper imports put pressure on native farmers to speed up production of lamb, killing it younger and younger, to try and reduce their costs as well as keep up with the new trend for juvenile milky meat.
By this time it had already been ingrained in the retail psyche, as well as the housewives mantra, that consistency is key - something that our commonwealth cousins did exceptionally well.
Today the trend still remains with most modern lambs slaughtered very rarely beyond six months, yet without any doubt, the best sheep meat comes from pasture-fed animals who have lived a proper life.
Meat from older sheep has undeservedly had a bad press for decades. Two-year-old-plus sheep manage to keep their condition thanks to their hardiness and symbiotic relationship with the local landscape. There's a misconception that mutton are ‘old scraggy old ewes’. Actually a lot of care goes into nurturing a well-finished animal.
Our Swaledale mutton are the Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers of our Pipers Farm Lamb. They are an absolute cornerstone of a sustainable farming system. Bred up on the Yorkshire Pennines, or at the very top of Exmoor, the ewes role is to provide the next generation of lambs. They won’t be tupped until the days are shortening, usually around Guy Fawkes night, when they will gestate their crop until early April.
These hardy hill sheep have an incredible ability to survive on fairly marginal land, grazing the rough heather and tussocky moorland vegetation. The mutton sheep play a vital role in nurturing the landscape, eating back grasses and fertilising the soil, which provides a home for millions of insects and billions of bacteria, creating a perfectly harmonious countryside and well balanced ecology.
The ewes will go on lambing for four or five cycles, living out in the wilderness on land with minimal resources. Their tails are left undocked to aid them in keeping their udder warm against brutal biting northerly winds.
Usually, around 5-7 years old the ewes will begin to tire. Often they are unable to produce another crop due to something called ‘black bag’ an infection in the udder, not dissimilar to mastitis in a cow. If they are unable to sufficiently suckle their young, it is time for them to be retired. Sometimes though it’s their teeth that can give out first, losing one or two and forming what’s known as a ‘broken mouth’, you’ll see these ewe’s move down to the lowland pastures which provides less rugged fodder than the top of the moor, grazing softer more manageable grasses - a little like your Grandmother favouring mash potato over a crispy roasted spud. If they don’t get enough nourishment because their teeth have failed it is time for them to be culled.
Ewes with these ailments can start to lose condition quite rapidly. When they come into tup, we’ll put a hand on their backs. If they do not have a significant amount of flesh across the carcass it is not right to turn them back up the hill, as they simply will not survive the depths of winter.
The aim of our Swaledale mutton is for them to play a role in nature for as long as practical. Nurturing the landscape and forging the next generation of lambs in harmony with nature, until nature makes its call.
Our Swaledales will have munched some of the most magnificent unspoiled pasture for many years, building an incredible connection to the terroir. They will pick up the soil biota and thrive off the moorland pastures for their entire lives, creating healthy natural immunity from their gut biome.
As roaming hill sheep, constantly moving across the fells and heathland, they will have built up a fantastically strong carcass, with thick, strong ligaments, rich collagen and healthy ‘proper’ bone marrow.
Like a fine bottle of wine, our mutton sheep simply get better with age. Time is the magic ingredient to produce a complexity of flavour that is simply not present in a younger animal.
Mutton to young/Spring lamb (or New Zealand lamb) is simply the equivalent of veal to our Red Ruby Beef. The key, of course, for mutton to reach its full potential is it that requires proper hanging time. Time for the tendons to relax through maturation, whilst the good bacteria get to work intensifying the flavour. Time is always the magic ingredient when it comes to mutton.
There is another clear satisfaction beyond the question of taste; being able to take an animal to its full potential in life feels like a distinctive gain in terms of welfare. Knowing that what is on our plates has truly been part of nature, nurturing the landscape in some of the locations we all love to visit; the wilds of the Pennines and the unspoiled beauty of Exmoor, where a lung of fresh air is far better than any over the counter tonic. Mutton is providing a dynamic enterprise in areas where there is little resource.
Forgotten no longer, it is our mission to put Mutton back on your table.