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Sarah Ford meets Somerset based celebrity chef Andrew Dixon about cooking mutton

PUBLISHED: 20:39 17 January 2010 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Exmoor Horn sheep is famous for its mutton and produces lamb of outstanding flavour and texture

Exmoor Horn sheep is famous for its mutton and produces lamb of outstanding flavour and texture

When was the last time you ate some mutton? Perhaps it was years ago or maybe never, for while Victorians such as Mrs Beeton may once have sung its praises, mutton has for too long been seen as an inferior alternative to lamb. Its decline in popul...

Sarah Ford meets Somerset based celebrity chef Andrew Dixon about cooking mutton

Mutton can be defined as an animal that has produced its two front teeth (at around 18 months old). Three years ago, the Mutton Renaissance campaign was launched by the Prince of Wales in a bid to get mutton back on the nation's dinner plates, while TV chefs like Anthony Worrall Thompson and Brian Turner have been doing their best to ensure that the meat takes pride of place in top restaurants again.

One of Somerset's own celebrity chefs, Andrew Dixon, regularly uses mutton in his country restaurant, Andrew's on the Weir, overlooking the harbour at Porlock. "We use Exmoor lamb and mutton because it has a great texture and finish, which gives it a flavour that no other lamb offers," says Andrew. "I have found mutton difficult to sell in the past because there is a stigma connected with it. But personally I think it has a lot of flavour - particularly Exmoor mutton - which I see roaming and grazing the moor rather than being cooped up."

"The mutton looked slightly darker than the lamb and, if anything, was slightly more tender, but, more importantly, it tasted superb!"

Andrew uses a different technique for cooking the meat. "Rather than cooking at a high temperature for a short time, we reverse this, cooking it for longer on a low temperature, and this makes a big difference."

Andrew is a keen supporter of a pioneering meat group that is promoting lamb and mutton from the Exmoor Horn sheep, which have roamed the local hills for centuries.

The animals have long been prized for their wool and the flavour of their meat, but changes in farming systems, and the quest for ever-cheaper foods has meant that traditional breeds have become less popular. Yet Exmoor farmers have never lost faith in their horned sheep.

The Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders' Society celebrated its centenary in 2006, and over the years members have improved the breed and maintained commercial numbers to the current level of 19,000 registered breeding ewes.

From within its membership the society has formed a meat group, whose aim is to develop a regional brand, with a view to marketing their succulent lamb and mutton directly to quality restaurants, speciality retail butchers and through farmers' markets. You can meet some of the campaigners for a chat over coffee at the Culbone Stables Inn near Porlock.

Society chair, Pauline Lyle, is quick to point out that the Exmoor Horn is in no way a rare breed. "Although ancient in origin, it has existed since time immemorial in the West of England and is well adapted to modern requirements. When crossed with a Blue Faced Leicester ram, the resultant Exmoor Mule is considered to be one of the most productive sheep around."

Pauline says that with the public now demanding healthy, naturally produced meat, the society aims to be at the forefront of providing the unique Exmoor regional brand. "I am particularly interested in the demand for mutton. Exmoor mutton has always been looked upon as a delicacy," says Pauline.

Through the Exmoor Sustainable Development Fund, the Society has received 42,733 funding to help increase the numbers of Exmoor Horns in their natural habitat - a sign that the breed is considered to be as important as the Exmoor pony in maintaining the local landscape and traditional farming system.

John Richards is a fourth-generation farmer on Exmoor. On a visit to his flock, John's dog dutifully rounds them up for us, and it's clear to see that they have wonderfully calm temperaments. The Exmoor Horn also make excellent mothers. They are considered to be one of the finest wool breeds in the country and are a hardy animal.

The Society has taken on Ian Rigby as Project Management and Meat Marketing Consultant and he has overseen a customer survey of the lamb at four leading restaurants across Exmoor. Diners awarded the meat points for its appearance, tenderness, succulence and flavour, and gave it a big thumbs up, scoring it nine out of ten for its eating quality.

"These results reinforce what many of us who eat Exmoor Horn lamb have known for years, that lamb produced from this breed, that is naturally reared in its native surroundings, is very special and tastes absolutely fantastic," says Ian.

Meanwhile, at a recent press and VIP day, Exmoor Horn lamb and mutton was served side by side.

"The lamb was absolutely delicious but everyone in the room agreed that the mutton was even better," says Ian. "It looked slightly darker than the lamb and, if anything, was slightly more tender, but, more importantly, it tasted superb!

"We are now working on developing the Exmoor Horn brand for both lamb and mutton so people will be able to identify and buy these meats in the future. We are very excited about it. It's Exmoor's best-kept secret at the moment but we want to change that!" BY SARAH FORD

For further information about Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders' Society visit www.exmoorhornbreeders.co.uk/lamb&mutton.htm or call (01643 831593.

For more ideas on buying and preparing mutton, and for recipe ideas, visit www.muttonrenaissance.org.uk.

Do you have a favourite Somerset eatery that has mutton on the menu, or do you have a mutton recipe you would like to share with other readers? Join in the mutton revival on the Forum


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