When Larry and I went to the slaughterhouse last week, we picked up my six lambs and two old ewes, now in frozen plastic packages.
I had planned to have the meat from Clover and Mary, my two aged ewes, simply ground into burger. In winter I make a great shepherd’s pie — ground meat, corn and peas, topped with mashed potatoes — every couple of weeks. However when I was writing up my choices, John the butcher suggested I have at least half the aged meat made into sweet Italian sausage.
I formed the sausage into patties and grilled it in a pan on the stovetop. It’s not as fatty as pork sausage, so doesn’t sizzle and pop in the same way and could as easily have been baked. The lower fat also makes it slightly less tender, so you have to be careful not to cook it dry. However, without pork as an ingredient there is no reason to grill it to well-done. Lucy and I were both happily surprised. It is delicious.
There was only one thing. Here is the vacuum-sealed package.
Yes, it says “lamb.”
Lamb is the meat from a sheep less than a year old. The meat from a sheep over two years old is called “mutton.” Clover and Mary were almost nine. Their meat is definitely mutton. But there is a powerful prejudice against the idea of mutton these days.
Until the 20th century, mutton was eaten everywhere. Since sheep were kept for wool, few farmers could afford to butcher lambs. It was only old sheep that went to slaughter. Thus through the 1800s mutton was a familiar food in English-speaking countries. (In The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a troll sighs, “Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer.”) References to mutton entered the language: “mutton-chop whiskers,” “leg-of-mutton sleeves.” These people knew their cuts of sheep.
One hundred and fifty years later, sheep as a species are out of favor. Wool is less popular than yarns spun from old soda bottles. Mutton is unknown in the United States. Relatively few Americans even eat lamb. I asked around at a fancy party last Christmas and everyone at my table made a face.
This presents shepherds with a problem. If succulent lamb is hard to market, what to do with aged ewes?
A lot of them go for dog food. That expensive “lamb and rice” kibble? Mutton for sure. Still, dog food alone can’t rescue the sheep industry.
Enter Prince Charles. Now, I’m sneakingly fond of the Prince of Wales. He has a kind of nerdy earnestness that is very familiar to me. He too is passionately dedicated to unpopular and old-fashioned topics that make him the butt of jokes among hipper people. In fact, except for a few hundreds of millions of dollars, we’re practically twins.
In 2004, Price Charles launched The Mutton Renaissance, a campaign with the stated goal: Putting Mutton Back on the Menu.
The Prince held press conferences to announce that mutton is one of his favorite dishes and it’s unbeatable with caper sauce. “When I was your age, I lived off mutton,” he told presumably mystified school children, weaned on Chicken McNuggets.
I am afraid the Prince may be tilting at windmills. Still, I’m grateful to him for his gallant efforts to support small sheep farmers and raise homely mutton’s profile.
In the meantime, my sweet Italian sausage is delicious — though its deceptive packaging will remain a perfect example of the old idiom, “mutton dressed as lamb.”