Mutton - Ewe got to try it!

Sheep are all right ("sauer er ålreite dyr"), our then Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland said some years back. And they are. Sheep have a long tradition in Norway. They supply us with wool for our cold winters. They take care of our landscape. They can give us milk, and every year the adult females, the ewes, provide new lambs that we feast on when autumn arrives.

We appreciate our sheep at least for as long as they’re alive. Once they’re slaughtered, and turned into mutton, the term for meat from grown sheep, they’re hardly worth a dime. Recently, we’ve seen on NRK and the newspaper Nationen farmers receiving around 2 kr from the slaughterhouse for a whole mature ewe. It would have made more financial sense for the farmer to just kill and discard it. That’s a pity, but it’s a sign of the times. Mutton, like most mature meat, has fallen out of fashion. We want something that cooks quickly and is easy to chew. We prefer young, tender, inoffensive meats: chicken, veal, lamb, young and lean pork.

But our hunger for youth and convenience means that a lot of good food goes to waste. Every year, in Norway alone, over three million egg-laying hens are discarded and ground into concrete or burned for fuel. Mature cows and sows, with fantastic qualities, are sold to slaughterhouses for nearly nothing, ground and processed into the cheapest industrial products. Mutton is piling up in storage, unloved and unsold, waiting to be dumped on markets in the developing world.

Ewes, cows, sows, hens and goats are by-products of meat and dairy production and have little inherent value as food in our food systems. Not only is this disdain for old age wasteful, but we’re also missing out on some of the best food the farmer has to offer. From a sustainability perspective we have a moral obligation to use these resources, but for the enlightened consumer this is really a win-win situation. No altruism or self-denial necessary. On the contrary, if we treat these animals with respect also after they have given their lives, we are the ones who benefit. Those of us in the know, who truly appreciate their qualities will not only be in the lucky situation where we can pay less for meat, since no one else want it, but we will also partake in food experiences on a higher level.

Meat from grown animals has characteristics that are absent in their young offspring. Young animals are small, mildly flavoured, easy to like, but perhaps also easy to forget – all babies look the same. The Norwegian ewe and the lamb are of the same blood, but the ewe has spent many summers climbing up and down steep mountainsides looking for the greenest, lushest herbs and grass. It has built muscle, acquired character and marbling. The meat has a fuller, richer flavour and darker, redder colour. It has had time to acquire distinctive flavour, terroir.

Mutton has a bad rap. In many people’s minds it tastes “goaty” and “pastoral” or like “wet wool”, but this is simply not true. In a recent research project at the food research institute Nofima, none of the testers identified any such flavours. However, mutton was rated as more intense and flavourful, and by some as “beefy”.

There is no denying mutton can be tough. These are often old animals. But proper hanging and maturing of the meat, along with the right cooking techniques ensure great results. The full flavour means the meat can handle a starring role as a meal’s centre of attention, but it can also stand up to spices.

Mutton may demand more from us, but the rewards are higher.

Mutton tartare dressed with lamb’s lettuce
The classic steak tartare has recently undergone a revolution, led by Manfreds & Vin in Copenhagen. Rather than chopping or scraping the meat as is classically done, Manfreds uses a meat grinder. This is not revolutionary in itself, but at Manfreds they first salt and then semi-freeze the meat, ensuring a cleaner grind and allowing the resulting granules to stay separate. The meat is not packed together in a firm patty, but served as a loose and airy, although substantial, mound of raw meat.

Mutton works well in a tartare. I find that chump or leg gives best results. Remove as much fat and sinew as possible for a clean mouth feel and bright flavour. Pickled mustard seeds, with their fun caviar-like consistency, supply acidity and pleasant pungency, toasted breadcrumbs add crunch. Serve with sourdough bread and a light red wine.

Ingredients (four portions)
300 g lean mutton, cubed
1 tsp salt
75 g lamb’s lettuce or other leafy greens, rinsed
2 slices sourdough bread

For the pickled mustard seeds
100 ml white wine vinegar
50 ml water
50 g yellow mustard seeds
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp fine sea salt

For the vinaigrette
1 tbsp pickling brine from the mustard
3 tbsp rapeseed oil
2 tsp mustard
1 tbsp pickled mustard seeds
Salt to taste

For best results the pickled mustard seeds should be made several days in advance. The recipe will give you lots left over. The seeds are versatile and will keep for months in the fridge. Mix vinegar, water, sugar and salt and stir until all the sugar and salt is dissolved. Put the seeds in a small pot and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, and let boil for about ten minutes. Strain off the seeds and add them to the pickle.

Slice the bread in batons that will fit in your meat grinder. Separate the resulting strands and toast them in the oven at 150 C until crunchy, about 20 minutes. Crumble the strands into smaller pieces.

Put the meat in a bowl and add the salt. Mix well. Cover and leave in the refrigerator for one hour. Spread the salted meat on a tray and put it in the freezer for about two hours. The meat should be firm, but not completely frozen. Grind the meat in a meat grinder with a 6 mm plate.

To serve, dress the lamb’s lettuce with the vinaigrette and mix loosely with the ground mutton and most of the crunchy bread. Top with a few teaspoonfuls of the pickled mustard seeds and sprinkle the rest of the bread on top along with some flaky sea salt.

Seven hour roast with mint sauce

This is a well known French way to roast a leg of lamb, but it is even more suitable for mutton, which especially benefits from extended cooking. In order to get a nice crust I like to give the roast fifteen minutes of very high heat to start with, but then turn the heat way down in order to get tender and succulent meat that you should be able to cut with a spoon.

I like to remove the chump from the roast before cooking. This looks nice, makes it easier to carve and I can use the chump for tartare.

For the sauce, I’ve borrowed inspiration from the British Isles, where they really used to value mutton. The mint sauce helps to cut through the rich meat, and is a better match for mutton than for lamb.

Roast mutton
1 leg of mutton
4 onions
4 carrots
2 stalks celery
8 cloves garlic
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp butter
Sea salt
Black pepper
300 ml white wine
300 ml water

Mint sauce
1 bunch fresh thyme
4 tbsp water
1 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp vinegar

Turn on your oven as high as it will go. Peel the onions and the carrots. Wash the celery and coarsely chop all the vegetables into pieces. Put the vegetables in an ovenproof dish along with the garlic cloves (leave the skin on) and the thyme, and place the roast on top. Rub in salt and pepper.

Put the dish in the oven. After 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 100 C. Add wine and water to the pan. Cover with a lid or with aluminium foil and leave for six hours and forty-five minutes, or longer.

While the roast is in the oven you have plenty of time to make the mint sauce. Peel the leaves off the stalks and rinse them well. Chop them finely. Bring the water to the boil, stir in the sugar and the vinegar and mix with the chopped mint.

Roasted or mashed potatoes and bitter greens are good sides.

Jamaican curry mutton
Spicy mutton or goat stew must be one of the most common dishes on the planet, eaten from South Asia through Africa to the West Indies and Mexico. I like West-Indian curries, distinguished from many other curries through their use of allspice, thyme and fiery but fruity scotch bonnet chillies. Although goat is most common in this dish, I find mutton works really well in this type of dish. The flavourful meat can stand up to the spices, and the aromas have time to blend through the long cooking.

2 kg shoulder of mutton, in chunks
6 tbsp curry powder
3 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
2 tbsp ground allspice seeds
1 1/2 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
2 bay leaves
2 scotch bonnet or habanero chillies, finely chopped
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp vegetable oil
3 onions, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
6 tomatoes, chopped
Water to cover

Put the meat in a bowl. Pour over the spices and salt and mix well together, rubbing the spices into the meat. Leave in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight. Heat the oil in a pan and brown the meat thoroughly. Remove the meat, add the onions and let them soften in the oil. Add the garlic, stir a couple of times and put in the tomatoes. Stir in the meat and add water to cover. Bring to the boil and turn down the heat. Let simmer for 2-3 hours or until the meat is tender. Serve with rice and peas.

Text: Magnus Thorsvik
Photo: Alexander Benjaminsen

Published in Hauste vol. 3 Community