Food by VICE

Why Mutton Actually Tastes Better Than Lamb

Mutton, the meat of an adult sheep, isn’t the tough old meat we spurn in favour of juicy lamb—it’s meat with added flavour. That’s according to the Lake District’s Herdwick sheep farmers.

by Johanna Derry
Apr 7 2016, 10:00am

All photos by the author.

The road literally leads nowhere, a winding lane through a deep-sided valley with two pubs. It stops at the feet of the Langdale Pikes, which form two distinctive humps on the skyline.

It might be lambing season in the Lake District but I'm here to see a man about mutton—that much-derided meat of an adult sheep, long seen as inferior to a nice juicy lamb steak.

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Eric Taylforth's Lake District farm. All photos by the author.

Getting here has been a journey of months as well as miles, one that began when my curiosity was piqued at a butchery workshop at East London restaurant Merchant's Tavern. Like Hamlet holding a skull, Lake District Farmers managing director Dan Austin had delivered an impromptu speech about the nuance of flavour you get from a piece of Herdwick mutton, clutching a chunk of the meat in his hand.

"Mutton has always been considered a lesser meat," he said. "But I would choose mutton over lamb every time."

READ MORE: A Man Named Chicken Gave Me An Education in Lamb

The secret is in the landscape itself, so I took the excuse to come to one of the most beautiful parts of Britain and find out why this meat was so much better than its reputation had led me to believe. Eric Taylforth, a farmer of Herdwick sheep for nearly 40 years, was the man to explain all. It's in this cul-de-sac of countryside that he has his farm.

Herdwick is a breed so particular to the Lake District that 95 percent of all the world's stock are found on farms like Taylforth's in the county of Cumbria. They are as much a feature of the landscape as the lakes and hills themselves.

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Taylforth's flock of Herdwick sheep at the foot of Langdale Pikes in the Lake District.

And the Herdwick bit is important. Most sheep you see dotted in fields around the UK are a breed called Texal, mainly because they're great sheep to keep if you want to make some money from farming. Squeamish vegetarians stop reading here: Texal lambs are ready to be slaughtered for your Sunday roast by the time they're three months old.

A farmer with Herdwicks, on the other hand, has to wait ten months before he can begin to cash in on his flock. But people like Taylforth believe that the wait is worthwhile, and chefs like Merchant Tavern's owner Angela Hartnett obviously agree—even when that wait produces an unpopular meat like mutton.

Mutton's terrible reputation is longstanding, inspiring even Prince Charles to start a campaign to raise and improve its profile, and in doing so, give sheep a shot at a longer life.

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Taylforth (left) and managing director of Lake District Farmers Dan Austin.

"When we first started doing the shows, we made mutton sausages just for people to try them," says Taylforth. "Anybody under 30 would try them. Anyone over 60 wouldn't touch them because they thought they knew what mutton was like, and they never wanted to eat that again."

Having his own share of unfortunate muttom memories, Taylforth can understand diners' apprehensions.

"I can remember as a kid, all we ate was mutton. I was born in '53 and times were hard," he says. "The mutton was grim—slow-cooked for a long time, with a horrible smell to it."

But he discovered that this reputation was misplaced and not just because of the way the meat had been cooked.

"A lot of that meat came from old, fat sheep that had been grazed on lowlands. The meat they put on in that first year they never lost," Taylforth explains. "So after three or four years, it was still the same tough old meat. But the sheep that graze on these fells get very lean. Because they're up and down all the time, they don't hold any flesh left over."

Like wild animals, Herdwicks fatten themselves up for the winter. By the time spring arrives, they hold no flesh over apart from what they need to survive getting up and down the hills. It's a fact that caught my attention during Austin's soliloquy at Merchant's Tavern.

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"This is shoulder shank," he declared of the piece of meat he was wielding, first comparing it to Wagu beef, then handing it over so I could get a closer look.

It wasn't the prettiest piece of meat but that didn't trouble him.

"When you're eating something, instead of focusing on how it looks, if you focus on how it eats, you'd choose shoulder shank everyday," Austin continued. "The harder working the muscle, the more flavour it's going to have. If you imagine that's been running on a 3000-foot peak for a year or more, the work that muscle has done will give the meat incredible character, distinction, and flavour."

Following this logic, it makes sense that Herdwick mutton would be better than Herdwick lamb—imagine the workout those sheep have had. They're a survivalist breed Bear Grylls would be proud of.

READ MORE: Manchego Is the Product of a Sheep's Wet Dream

"Herdwicks are ridiculous animals," Austin added. "If you put them in a field they will go over a fence, through a fence, under a fence. I've seen them jump eight foot walls. They don't like to be housed. We had some ewes that we found had been buried under a snow drift for three weeks that had survived by eating the wool of their own backs."

Mutton isn't old meat, it's new but with added flavour. Taylforth's sheep are athletes, roaming to graze as far north from the Langdale Valley as Buttermere—16 miles, ten mountain peaks, and a 2,500 metre climb away. I couldn't do it, so it's no wonder these sheep are fit.

It's not just the topography of the landscape that gives this meat its flavour, the flora and fauna help too.

"If you think about the fells of the Lake District and all the unique mosses and grasses that grow on them, and the nutrients they give, it's no wonder the meat tastes so good," Austin explained. "If you put an animal in a field with grass and that's the only option that's what it'll eat. If you let it select its own diet, it'll choose all the mosses and different grasses and it'll do better."

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At the start of spring, the sheep get brought down to the valleys for lambing, providing tourists endless photo opportunities—and farmers a stack of work. But Taylforth, at 63-years-old, still clearly loves it.

"When we take them off the fells, they're probably half the weight we want them to be. We feed them, and they put on new meat," he says, leaning forward and grinning. This is the secret. "All the qualities of what they've eaten over the years is still in there for the taste, but the new meat is put on quickly. That meat is actually tenderer than lamb."

It seems counter-intuitive but he's right. Forget what you think you know about mutton and long may Herdwick sheep roam free.