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Mutton Is Just Older, Wiser, Tastier Lamb

June 26, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roast a big piece of meat until half-done. Take it out of the oven, gash it to the bone in several places and rub the cuts with salt and cayenne; save the juices. Then throw this multiply-butterflied chunk of protein, like a folio of steaks bound together, on the grill until good and brown. Add the saved juices to a relish of pickled mushrooms.

"The reader will scarcely need to be told," wrote Eliza Acton in "Modern Cooking for Private Families," "that this is an excellent dish."

The year was 1845. The dish was the Cavalier's Broil. And even though its instructions run counter to much of what we now take for granted in cooking meat, it's so utterly efficient and its flavors so modern, it could have been invented yesterday.

In fact, there may not be a better way to cook leg of lamb. The Cavalier's Broil has a dark, tasty crust, a juicy medium-rare interior and an elegant, uncluttered seasoning. Best of all, it needs only 20 minutes on the grill.

It's a traditional recipe for a meat that is scarcely part of our tradition anymore: mutton. You can use lamb instead, just as you can in other mutton recipes of 19th century American cookbooks, but they'd be even better with the real thing. Mutton is richer and meatier than lamb, just as beef is richer and meatier than veal.

These days a lot of people are convinced, without ever having tasted it, that mutton must be coarse, tallowy and rank. But down to the beginning of the 20th century, it was always more popular than lamb, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina being particularly known for their fine mutton. (Where was Scarlett O'Hara going in the first scene of "Gone With the Wind"? To a barbecue of hickory-roasted pork and mutton.)

The typical 19th century American cookbook would include a diagram of the cuts of mutton, but never one for lamb. One reason is that the cuts of lamb didn't matter much. The various parts of mutton might figure in stews and meat pies and other complex dishes, but a lamb went straight to the oven or the roasting spit. "The best way of cooking lamb is to roast it," declared Eliza Leslie in her influential "Directions for Cooking" (1837); "when drest otherwise, it is insipid, and not so good as mutton."

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When Mutton Was King

Back then, by the way, people would have been amazed by the modern cult of rare lamb. "Lamb, like veal and pork, is not eatable unless thoroughly done," wrote Leslie; "no one preferring it rare, as is frequently the case with beef and mutton." Nearly 60 years later, Fannie Farmer would agree.

Of course, much depends on what you mean by "lamb" and "mutton." In the past, a lot of lamb was spring lamb, 6 to 8 weeks old, though the meat of animals up to one year still counted as lamb. The USDA now considers 12 months the dividing line between lamb and mutton. The French raise the bar to 14 months, and on Welsh sheep farms, mutton commonly begins at 18 months. At least everybody agrees that a 5-year-old sheep is probably too old and tough to cook.

There was a whole repertoire of regional mutton dishes, such as Irish stew, Scotch broth and Lancashire hotpot (a casserole of meat layered with potatoes). People of Welsh descent salted legs of mutton like hams. Hotel breakfast menus offered broiled mutton chops; roast saddle of mutton was a special-occasion dish. Even the French knew of Reform cutlets, served at the famous Reform Club in London: butter-sauteed mutton chops in a breading that was half minced ham.

But mutton fell out of favor during the 20th century, even in the British Commonwealth, the traditional home of mutton connoisseurship. "Over the past 40 years, mutton has virtually disappeared from our shops and menus," laments the Web site of Graig Farm, Dolau, Wales. In New Zealand, Horizon Lamb & Mutton reports that it now slaughters four times as many lambs as sheep and sells its mutton mostly to Asia. (In Indian markets you sometimes find New Zealand corned mutton, a canned product invented to satisfy the dietary constraints of Hindus and Muslims.)

Graig Farm blames the decline on changes in farming style and a faster lifestyle. Mutton requires more investment from the farmer, longer aging and more careful handling by the meat industry and longer cooking by the consumer.

All these objections go double in our country, where many people already think lamb is too gamy and fear that mutton will be even worse. (Actually, gaminess can be more noticeable in lamb because it has a milder meat flavor.)

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Real Kentucky Barbecue

The exception to the trend is Owensboro, Ky., located near where Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky meet. To the outside world, Owensboro is probably best known as the hometown of no fewer than 6 NASCAR drivers, including Michael and Darryl Waltrip, or maybe as the headquarters of the International Bluegrass Music Assn. To itself, it's the barbecue capital of the world--and when they say "barbecue" in Owensboro, they mean barbecued mutton.

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