When Roger Brown rings late at night, you know it is something special.
In hushed tones, the butcher tells me he has pulled off a coup. After years’ of negotiation, he has convinced a local farmer to let him have his prized possession: a quartet of four-year-old Dorset Poll. This, Roger assures me, will deliver a unique culinary experience – Victorian-era mutton.
The carcasses are currently hanging in Roger’s shop in Harborne, Birmingham, and will be offered for sale from Friday (January 22).
I pop along to Northfield Road for a sneak preview. Two sides are hanging in the shop next to the game birds. The colour, a milky red flesh with incredible fat coverage, and the size – these are big beasts – are a surprise.
The biggest animal weighs in at 51.6 kilograms. Roger explains that an average lamb (he sources Welsh salt marsh lamb) might weigh 18-20 kilos.
Dorset ewes, medium-sized white sheep, are good milk producers and their offspring have well muscled carcasses. They are also valued for their high-quality wool.
Roger spotted these Dorset Polls (no horns) at a farm near Alcester in Warwickshire, and was forced to play the long game.
The butcher explains: “The farmer had them as show ewes as part of his herd. He kept them on for lambing. They make big, spectacular lambs.
“I have been pestering him for two years to get them and he finally ‘Yes.’ It was time for them to go.”
On the rare occasions I have had mutton in the past, it has been a slightly chewy experience with an accompanying “high” taste. Roger is quick to disabuse me of my view.
“Good mutton is more digestible than beef. It is softer in the mouth. It will have a fairly sweet taste, like salt marsh lamb. It will not be coarse, harsh or bitter,” he says.
“It will be smooth on the palate with a deep flavour – like a good red wine.”
Cooking will be crucial to get the best eating quality, and to avoid wrecking this meat treat. In the modern parlance, think “low and slow.” Roger says it is vital to respect the age of the meat: it is from a mature animal, so it needs time, and plenty of it.
“It needs slow and gentle cooking. Cooking traditionally was slow, on a range. This meat needs that kind of treatment, Victorian style. We are stepping back in time with this mutton.”
Don’t just take Roger’s word for the quality, and scarcity, of this product. Mrs Beeton extols the wonders of mutton in her “Household Management” (1896):
“It is said to be in perfection at three to five years old, but it is the rarest thing to taste any such English mutton; for no one can afford to feed a sheep for two years to improve its flavour when wholesome mutton can be produced from sheep a year old or even less.”
Mrs B believes legs are “more advantageous” to the cook than shoulder or loin due to the lower proportion of fat and bones and the fact it “wastes less in cooking owing to it being covered throughout with a skin.”
So get in the mutton queue in Harborne. Like they say, when it’s gone, it’s gone.
But don’t panic too much. There’s always Roger’s longhorn beef.