Monday, May 02, 2011

Why is English Mutton So Good?

I understand that mutton is making a come-back in Britain. I do hope I have not been misinformed, as, in the light of this information, I have put mutton on my list of must-eats when I next visit the country of my birth.

I am intrigued by the idea that the flesh of an animal tastes differently depending on its diet. The scientist in me asks “What are these flavourful dietary molecules that become incorporated in muscle tissue – and how do they get there?” I wonder if anyone has actually done taste tests with a panel of experts with discriminating palates on, say, pork reared three ways (solely on peaches? on ginger biscuits? on potato peelings?) If it has not been done, why not? If you have heard of such an event, I would love to know about it.

There was an interesting article on the topic in the New York Times in February 1870, submitted by their Own Correspondent in England. I am unable to detect any tongue in the cheek of this reporter, but surely it must be there?

“I have learned at last what gives its peculiar flavour to English mutton. It is fattened on Egyptian mummies. These are bought from the catacombs on camels to the Nile, loaded on English vessels, and brought to England and ground up for manure. A field of English turnips is only a crowd of ancient Egyptians in a new form, and the sheep eat them with avidity.”

The article also provides our quotation for the day, which I found vastly amusing, and you will find below.

The recipe for the day is for human turnip-eaters (to whom I especially dedicate the quotation). It is from Isabella Beetons’ iconic Household Manual (1861).

TURNIPS, German Mode of Cooking.
Ingredients.8 large turnips, 3 oz. of butter, pepper and salt to taste, rather more than ^ pint of weak stock or broth, 1 tablespoonful of flour.
Mode. Make the butter hot in a stewpan, lay in the turnips, after having pared and cut them into dice, and season them with pepper and salt. Toss them over the fire for a few minutes, then add the broth, and simmer the whole gently till the turnips are tender. Brown the above proportion of flour with a little butter; add this to the turnips, let them simmer another 5 minutes, and serve. Boiled mutton is usually sent to table with this vegetable, and may be cooked with the turnips by placing it in the midst of them: the meat would then be very delicious, as, there being so little liquid with the turnips, it would almost be steamed, and, consequently, very tender.
Time.- 20 minutes. Average cost, 4d. per bunch. Sufficient for 4 persons. Seasonable.- May be had all the year.

Quotation for the Day.
The ethnologists are right. We are all cannibals, only vegetarians who live on the turnips are only one stage nearer direct cannibalism than those who eat the mutton.
Monadnock’: from the article quoted above.


Les said...

My grandfather once gave my family a side of yearling steer that was fed with alfalfa and grass hay. We were used to eating grain fed steers (a blend of sorghum, corn and molasses)and the beef from grandad's steer tasted like grass. I've wondered if all grass fed beef tasted like this or if it was because the steer had been fed alfalfa since alfalfa has a very strong 'green' flavor.

I've read that milk from cows grazing on wild onions tastes like onions.

Unknown said...

That mummy comment might have some basis - ground up mummies were used as a "medicine" (heaven knows what for) for a while, until people realised that there was a roaring black-market trade creating mummies from any old corpse (smallpox, anyone?) and selling it on as authentic. I imagine a lot of people only got sicker! Probably serves them right for wanting to use corpses.

Anonymous said...


Gordon Ramsay did something on his show over a few weeks whereby he had two pigs name, Trinny and Susannah after these two tv personalities:

Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine are two British fashion advisors, presenters and authors. They originally joined to write a weekly style column in The Daily Telegraph which lasted for seven years, but they are best-known for presenting the BBC television series What Not to Wear.

He fed on pig the usual diet and the other one was fed beer, to see if the resulting pork would taste better. Here is a YouTube link:


Keith said...

Good one! We did it right in those days,NOT! They also used them for making paper I believe!

Sarah Jane said...

Pork from the Islands! Apparently in the last few weeks (days?) before the pigs are slaughtered, they are fed exclusively on coconuts - giving the pork fat a delicious coconutty taste. I fully plan on tasting this in the future.