Eating My Words: Ewan McDonald
JUDE loves animals. Specifically, dogs – her whippet, Hush Puppy, is 18 years old, and I defy Winston Peters to convert that into human-years and tell the old dowager she’s not entitled to a Gold Pass on the Waiheke ferries. Though, and maybe it’s an Auckland thing, Hush prefers the Waitakere bush where she grew up and was the scourge of possums, oyster-catchers and … possibly we’re getting into territory that one better not discuss on a website that
someone from DOC might happen across.
Which is possibly why my partner doesn’t find it funny when we’re driving up- or down-country and she looks out into the paddocks – do people still call them paddocks? New Zealand has changed so much since there were overnight trains from Wellington to Auckland, and only one TV channel, and Dad drove a Morris Oxford-full of kids and cousins and suitcases and sleeping bags to Rotorua for the Christmas holidays – and we see little baby sheep skittering
up- and down-country in the spring sun. “They’re so cute,” she says. “Yes,” I reply, “simmered in tomatoes and wine with turnips and carrots. Look at all those little navarins out in the field.”
Before New Zealand changed so much, there was a joke – possibly emanating from Australia – that New Zealand had 3 million people and 60 million sheep. It was true, Statistics NZ agrees: now it’s out of date. The human population passed 4 million some time in 2003. It is now 4.25 million and small change.
But on 30 June 2006 – don’t you just love how specific these numbers-obsessed people can get? – there was a scant 40.1 million “estimated resident sheep”. Please don’t ask: they don’t tell you how many were resident in council flats, or owned their own paddocks, or were just renting. Some of them might have been Romneys and should probably have been deported as overstayers, or exported as bone-in legs.
On those figures there is around about … give me a break, Dad and my sister and my nephew might be accountants, but I live in the world of give and take … 10 sheep per person. In Australia it is less than 5 sheep per person, which possibly accounts for the larger number of single men over there.
It is not cheap to buy, cook and eat our most famous indigenous product. Consumer Affairs figures show that supermarket lamb prices rose 28.4% in the year to April 2009, far – and far and far back again – more than any other item from bananas to sausages and back down the cheese and olives aisle. Or the cleaners.
The export trade (we shall use a polite phrase here, to spare Jude’s feelings) ensures that most of our young lambs go on their OE at a very young age. But what about their mums and dads, the ones that we need to produce that balance of trade? What do we make of them after they have contributed to our oil imports and all those things that we really need to sustain our early-21st Century way of life, that you’ll find on the shelves of The Warehouse?
And why did our iconic meat – the Sunday roast for families up and down the country for the best part of a century – suddenly fall out of flavour? Sometime when the 60s turned into the 70s, or when the 80s turned into the 90s? Surely we can’t blame the Springbok tour, or the abortion law reform bill, or Hogsnort Rupert’s Original Flagon Band.
No, as a chef mate observed to me over lunch the other day, it was about then that tastes turned lighter and sweeter. We couldn’t eat fatty meat anymore. Maybe we couldn’t eat meat anymore. Those big greasy hunks of meat sitting in the Kelvinator for days … Everyone wanted to eat baby: baby carrots, baby turnips, baby onions, baby whatever. Baby sheep. We got over our leg.
We were not alone. Britain faced a parallel situation, just a few years ago. The farmers found an unlikely saviour: though, given his track record, it is probably more fair to say that their hero was staring them right on the backside of their coins or banknotes. In 2004 Prince Charles founded the Mutton Renaissance campaign to advocate for the consumption of mutton (and not lamb) by Britons. The Prince, who calls mutton his favorite dish, also aimed
to support British sheep farmers struggling to sell their older animals.
The immediate conundrum (I thought I should drop the word in, it seems appropriately royal) was to answer the question: what is mutton?
The Mutton Renaissance campaign’s definition is that mutton comes from an animal older than two years, aged for two weeks after slaughter by hanging, and traceable to an origin on a particular farm where it was fed on forage (rather than high-concentration grain).
Others believe the word refers to meat from sheep that are over two years old. Traditionalists argue that mutton is always meat from a wether, a castrated male sheep. Just to complicate matters, the radical fringe on the far left of the spectrum insists mutton comes from a breeding ewe that has reached the end of its productive life.
The Prince defines mutton as a game meat, not unlike venison or boar. He rendered down some interesting supporters, such as Gary Rhodes, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White, Antony Worrall Thompson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Keith Floyd (though Keith’s vote has of late been declared void for reasons of having departed this life. Though Keith was rather well embalmed before he went six feet under). As a result of the Mutton Renaissance, the
meat is on menus at the Ritz, the Ivy, Racine, Langan’s Brasserie and Le Gavroche, though it has yet to make it to the supermarket shelves.
Which could be the difficulty here, too. We are living in an era when those who still eat meat buy it from a supermarket, where it doesn’t bear any resemblance to its state of origin. They would rather not be reminded where their meal came from, before it was vacuum-squished into a nice little square plastic pack, that hopefully doesn’t drip all over the gluten-free bread or the free-radical bearing superfruit before one gets to the checkout.
Thinking about it, this might be one reason that Hush Puppy and I get along so well. We both like meat, preferably on the bone. We are both made of stronger stuff, or tastes.
How to dine like a prince
Poached leg of mutton with a caper cream sauce
2kg half leg of mutton (bone-in)
4 large Spanish onions, peeled and sliced
2 generous tsp sea salt
4 bay leaves
5ml (1tsp) whole black peppercorns
zest of 1 orange
2 litres chicken stock
750ml bottle dry white wine
350g unsalted butter
60ml (4 tbsp) chopped shallots
60ml (4 tbsp) capers
600ml double cream
Place mutton into large saucepan and bury it in sliced onions. Add salt. Tie bay leaves, peppercorns, cinnamon and orange zest in piece of muslin and add this to pan with half of wine.
Cover with chicken stock and bring to gentle simmer. Skim off crust that forms on surface with spoon. Simmer gently for approximately two hours or until tender. After one hour, take saucepan and melt 150g of butter, add shallots and capers and cook gently until softened. Then turn up heat to lightly colour shallots.
Add rest of wine and cook briskly until liquid reduces by half. Draw off approximately 1 litre of poaching liquor from mutton pan and add it to capers and shallots. Bring this to boil and reduce by half. Add double cream and bring back to boil. Reduce mixture further to achieve glossy cream gravy. Adjust seasoning and keep warm. When mutton is ready, transfer to serving dish, cover and keep warm. Strain poaching liquid from onions but retain.
Heat large frying pan and melt remaining butter. Add drained onions and fry briskly until they have begun to caramelise. Place some of golden onions on to plate and slice mutton finely on top of it. Garnish with ladling of caper cream sauce.
* For the information about the Prince’s campaign, the recipe, and that headline, a hat-tip to The Guardian. Heck, it was just too good to pass up.