The campaign to restore sales in mutton still has work to do. Although no less a personage than the Prince of Wales has helped launch the “mutton renaissance” campaign and the Academy of Culinary Arts (of which I am a member) has given it fervent support, it is still quite hard to actually find mutton in a shop. Google “mutton renaissance” and the website will give you a list of suppliers and you will see what I mean. We are still a while away from a sexy voice telling us “this is no ordinary mutton, this is Marks and Spencers’ mutton”. It is hard enough to get mutton dressed as lamb, but to get mutton dressed as mutton will require perseverance on the web or a visit to the local halal butcher – an easy recourse for those of us living in west London.

This prejudice against a great traditional meat is long-standing. Twenty years ago I was a meat buyer and went to London’s Smithfield meat market every morning. One of the chefs expressed a desire for mutton and I promised to secure him some fine plump legs for his boiled leg of mutton with onion and caper sauces. I was quite shocked by the violent antipathy that my request provoked among the market traders.

Perhaps this estrangement was in the offing even in Mrs Beeton’s time. “Although we have heard,” she wrote, “growlings at the inevitable saddle of mutton at the dinner-parties of our middle classes, yet we doubt whether any joint is better liked, when it has been well hung and artistically cooked.” People were fussy about their mutton, preferring well hung, older mountain sheep with little fat and a taste of heather rather than the fattened wethers from the lowlands. Cooking practices varied accordingly. One thing is for sure, however, the Victorians preferred their mutton pinker than their lamb: noted chef Alexis Soyer recommends an hour and 20 minutes for a 10-pound saddle of lamb, a prescription that can only be described as bloody as hell.

Rare mutton might not go down too well at most dinner parties today, and modern orthodoxy is to cook mutton for a good long time. I cannot disagree. I have found that it is not enough to just cook the mutton through but to forget about it and come back tomorrow. For once, gigot sept heures is not an exaggeration but more of an understatement.

The shoulder below I gave nearly five hours, albeit in a moderate oven. We ate with a spoon: despite this indignity, the meat still had tremendous texture and flavour, being both yielding and intensely savoury. My guests said they had never had such good lamb.

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Shoulder of mutton with chickpeas and harissa

Such is the flavour of the sauce, the harissa is almost an afterthought but I like to serve it alongside as a condiment for those – like myself – who like a little extra spice and heat.

Ingredients

250g raw chickpeas

Bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaves and parsley tied together)

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

6 clove heads

6 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons sea salt flakes

1 teaspoon flaked chillies

juice of one lemon

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 shoulder of mutton, weighing 2.5 kg

2 onions

2 celery sticks

1 dessert spoon chopped and peeled ginger

200 grams tinned, chopped and peeled tomatoes

½ litre chicken stock (or bouillon cube)

Harissa sauce

Method

■Soak the chickpeas overnight. The next morning, change their water, bring them to the boil in a saucepan, drain and cover with yet more fresh water. Bring gently to the boil, add the bouquet garni and simmer very gently for three hours. Do not salt and keep well covered in water. Make sure they are truly tender before allowing to cool in their cooking liquor.

■In a dry frying pan, roast the cumin and coriander seeds with the peppercorns and clove heads (the seeds nestling in the end of the cloves, without their stalks). Once they give off a powerful aroma and start to colour, place the spices in a mortar (use a machine if you like but it will take longer and require more washing up) and pound them vigorously until they are ground quite fine. Add three coarsely chopped cloves of garlic and continue to pound until well pulverized. Add the lemon juice and continue pounding to a paste, adding the olive oil in a stream at the end.

■Remove – or ask the butcher to remove – most of the covering fat from the mutton. With a sharp knife, make six long and quite deep (say one centimetre) slashes in the skin-side of the meat. Place, just as is, unseasoned, the shoulder, slashed side uppermost, in a roasting tray in a hot oven, 230°C, 450F.

■After 20 minutes, remove the meat from the oven and proceed to massage the spice paste over the meat, working it into the slashes in the meat that should have opened a little. Return the meat to the oven, turning it down to 200°C, 400F, for 40 minutes. Chop the onion, celery, remaining garlic and ginger finely and add to the roasting tray around the meat after this time. After a further 30 minutes, add the tomatoes and stock, cover the meat with foil and leave to cook at 150°C, 300F, for a further three hours, checking occasionally to make sure there is plenty of liquid around the meat.

■To finish, strain the sauce from around the meat – there should be at least half a litre – and strain through a fine sieve. Whisk a teaspoon of the harissa into the sauce and spoon in the chickpeas, adding a little bit of the liquor if dry. Place the meat in an oven-proof serving dish with the sauce around and gently reheat, if necessary, in a moderate oven. Serve with couscous and a spoon. I also serve some glazed carrots and turnips alongside.

Rowley Leigh’s book, ‘No Place Like Home’ (Fourth Estate), is now available in paperback


rowley.leigh@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/leigh

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