Mutton Worth a Million. Part I.

On Twitter tonight I quoted a morsel from Jane Grigson’s estimable (1974) English Food, to the effect mutton was never the same in England after World War II.

Grigson wrote that the special art butchers had to prepare it was lost under pressures of war austerity, and not regained evidently by the time of writing.

Michael Fullilove’s 2013 book Rendez-vous With Destiny is some validation, as the author quotes an exchange between Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine regarding the fallen quality of mutton as served to an American diplomat (Harry Hopkins) early in the war.

I asked Twitter if this is still the case, all these years after Grigson’s (truly wonderful) book. Nigel Sadler, an East Anglia-based beer sommelier and educator, also highly knowledgeable on food and wine (and cider), responded that his parents source mutton in Kent of evidently good quality.

He included a link to a supplier that distinguished between lamb, hoggett (of intermediate age) and mutton, seeming to reflect all the old learning.

That said, as staple of the English table it seems to have declined. Grigson attributed this in part to the popularity of New Zealand lamb. She liked it well enough although not placing it clearly on the same plane as English-raised.

She implied in other words that less expensive New Zealand lamb ousted English lamb as a frequent meal, with an obvious implication for the restoration of mutton.

Anyone familiar with the 19th century English diet, at least of prosperous classes, knows how important mutton was. Generally it was served in the saddle, a large roast, but also in chops. Mutton chop and a mug of ale was a stand-by of the good old cuisine of Albion.

Then there was haricot of mutton and the many hashes, hot pots, and subsidiary meals made of lesser cuts or left over roasts.

In America too, as I had occasion to note when I wrote my article for Brewery History on American musty ale, the mutton chop was a staple of hearty Northeast eating. It was associated especially with the chop house, the club, the upper echelon saloon.

All this has fallen away in North America except for pockets where sheep meat is still appreciated. Owensboro, KY is an American – probably the – redoubt of mutton, famous for its mutton barbecue, I have written on it earlier. Indeed I ate the article in one of the sacral haunts, Starlite – well worth the trouble.

Of course too some Asian cuisines highlight mutton. In Indian restaurants both here and in the U.K. I have eaten excellent dishes advertised as made with mutton, although to my taste it seemed as lamb, maybe was lamb.

I think too I’ve seen the term on some Szechuan menus, although I never tried the dish.

An index of the admiration of gourmets of the late 1800s for mutton can be found in the travel memoir, England Without and Within, by the American Richard Grant White. I discussed it a few posts ago in connection with his reaction to English beer.

He ate a matchless saddle of mutton in a restaurant off Regent Street in London. So much was it an apotheosis that henceforth all gastronomic experiences, he said, were to be judged by that landmark experience.

He went on to say that no English mutton imported to America, much less the domestic variety, ever matched the in situ taste. This was of course mutton as it should be, fed on the right grasses (Southdown was formerly prized, also Welsh mountain sheep), aged the right time, cooked rather rare, and sliced by expert waiters with sabre-like implements.

You may read White’s extended remarks, here.

Note: Part II continues, here.



2 thoughts on “Mutton Worth a Million. Part I.”

  1. Recollections of mutton are a cultural feature in quite a few places, including lamenting about mutton. I was unaware that people have lamented on the decline of mutton, but in my area of the west its very common for people to recall how they had to eat vast amounts of mutton as a child.

    At least in that recollection, it’s false. My state (Wyoming) raised vast numbers of sheep at one time, but mutton has almost never been commonly consumed in the US at least of of the 20th Century. Lamb was common in some areas, but it ironically wasn’t here, even though we once raised a lot of sheep.

    When we rounded up the last of the sheep in the 1990s and sold them we butchered one that died on the way in, by which we can assume that she wasn’t a young one. While my wife, who claims not to like lamb, was against it, I took part of it. When I went to cook it I did so with some trepidation, but to my surprise, it doesn’t taste much different than lamb. None of which prevents people I know who never had to eat any poverty food in their lives from claiming they were raised on a steady diet of nothing but mutton.


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