During the second half of the 20th Century, a culinary flavour that had been synonymous with British cuisine for centuries, virtually disappeared from our cultural landscape. A unique series of historical events and economic pressures almost conspired to consign the long established tradition, of producing and cooking good quality mutton, to the annals of British folklore.
However, it has now been over a decade since the desire to revive the tradition of eating mutton in the UK was given the inspiration and impetus it needed, in the form of the Mutton Renaissance campaign. With royal patronage at its base, coupled with the passion and dedication of a small group of farmers, butchers and chefs, mutton is once again starting to find its way into restaurants and onto the dining-tables of English, Welsh and Scottish households. Its renaissance has been slow, but certain.
In this series of articles we want to explore the story of mutton from its very beginnings, its highs, its lows, and all the things in-between; how it went from being the staple food of many a century, to its almost complete demise during the last 50 years or so. We want to explore what role the English Midlands has played is this long, winding story, and what the future may hold for the sheep meat that was once celebrated by the likes of Eliza Acton and Dorothy Hartley.
In this introductory article, we shall explore the changing nature of British sheep farming over the centuries, and mutton’s historical place in the supply and demand dynamics of the British economy.
As Marwood Yeatman recently wrote ‘The history of sheep is the history of England’.♣ However, the story of how the humble sheep first made its way to the shores of England is a slightly more complicated affair. Unfortunately, history only offers us a series of ‘best guesses’ as opposed to definite facts, but the simple truth remains that British farmers have been domesticating sheep for the purpose of producing wool, tallow (fat), meat and milk for at least 6000 years.
Throughout the ages and centuries the importance of the products and by-products, produced through farming sheep, has changed with the social and economic demands of the time. For instance, during the Roman occupation, wool was considered to be the most important product produced by sheep, with sheep farming in this period growing significantly. However, by the early Middle Ages, the Domesday Book offers us evidence that milk had overtaken wool in its importance, and that manure (sheep dung) had also become a very important by-product of farming sheep.
It was during the middle of the medieval period that we started to see the broader development of the British wool industry. With the growth of the English monasteries and the accompanying surge in sheep farming, the wool trade in England began to flourish. From the 12th to the 18th Century, wool would play an extremely important role within the British economy. It was also during this period that mutton began to find its cultural place at the heart of the English diet. In one of the first cookbooks to be written in English, The Forme of Cury, which was written by Richard II’s master cooks in around 1390, there are a number of mutton based recipes and dishes. Mutton was seemingly eaten by every strata of society, Kings and peasants alike.
At the end of the Middle Ages, around the time of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the demand for mutton began to increase. With both towns and cities growing at a significant rate, the need to feed an increasing population provided the impetus to farm sheep for both wool and meat. It was around the same time that first enclosures also began to take shape, which despite causing broader social upheaval, had the effect of creating much better pasture to aid the growth of sheep farming.
As the population grew during the 17th and 18th Centuries, sheep farming, once again, evolved to meet the social and economic needs of the time. The primary product emphasis shifted again, this time to meat. This change presented a number of problems to the culture of British sheep farming, as sheep bred for meat required very different characteristics to those bred for wool. The growing demand required larger and heavier animals, which had the consequence of compromising the quality of the wool they produced. This problem was also exacerbated by the increasing rate of enclosures and improving practices of pasture management, which on one side meant greater yields, but on the other, meant a tipping point would soon be reached. Supply was beginning to overhaul demand, and the price of English wool was beginning to fall.
By the beginning of the 19th Century, mutton consumption had increased dramatically in the UK. With the price of wool falling and the price of mutton steadily increasing, the sheep farming industry had gone full circle. A lucrative market had opened up for pioneering sheep breeders, such as Robert Bakewell and John Ellman, who at this time, were producing a greater number of breeds selected purely for meat. Mutton was quickly becoming the staple food of the English diet.
However, during the first quarter of the 19th Century, imports of mutton started to arrive from the ‘New World’. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were amongst the first importers, with North and South America soon following. With better climates and the possibility of producing grass all year round, British sheep farming would soon start to feel the effects of these growing competitors. Initially, the imports consisted of live animals, but as the century rolled on and with the advent of refrigeration, frozen produce quickly became more common. By the turn of the century, these imports accounted for over a third of the sheep meat being consumed in the UK.
As the 20th Century gained momentum, produce arriving from the New World continued to increase. At the beginning of First Wold War, it accounted for more than 40% of the sheep meat consumed in the UK. The increasing volumes were now starting to have broader effects on both the British sheep farming industry and the culture of how meat was being consumed. It was during the same period that the early signs that lamb was becoming a popular alternative to mutton started to emerge, and by the mid 1920s, imports of lamb from the New World, were equal to that of mutton.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain was still the world’s largest consumer of mutton. However, an ever increasing need to compete with the speed in which farmers in the New World could produce lamb, had forced the quality of British mutton to steadily decline. Wool prices were also continuing to fall and the length of ageing time, before a sheep passed into consumption, was becoming much shorter.
The Second World War was to prove instrumental in the demise of mutton consumption in the UK. With the need for quantity being greater than that of quality, the traditions and delicacies of well hung mutton faded rapidly, and fatter, poorer quality mutton became the staple meal of the many. Unfortunately, the collective memory of the many would endure for a number of years after the war had ended, and mutton’s place in the culinary traditions of England was seemingly lost in the desire to forget the experiences of the most recent past.
Despite efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mutton never really recovered from the poor reputation it had gained during the war. Wool prices continued to fall, with competition from the rise in man-made fibres, and British sheep farming followed the path of its New World counterparts, by focussing its efforts on producing good quality lamb. The wilderness years for the delicacy of mutton would last for at least a quarter of a century.
However, at the beginning of the 21st Century, modern life’s ever increasing thirst for speed had started to wain. Retrospection had reentered the vocabulary of our daily lives, and the conditions for a renaissance in mutton consumption in the UK had presented themselves. With royal support, a group of pioneering farmers, butchers and chefs grasped the opportunity and began to try and revive the long established traditions of producing and cooking good quality mutton.
As we have seen many times throughout history, British sheep farming once again responded and adapted to the social and economic needs of its time, providing the knowledge, skills and passion that would give rise to a renaissance of one of its most famous culinary products. With the historical tide finally beginning to turn in favour of mutton, the future for one of Britain’s long established agricultural and culinary traditions has been given the opportunity it needed, an opportunity that it appears to have grasped with both hands.♦
In the next article in this series we shall look at the diversity of sheep breeds across the UK, and explore the legacy of one of the English Midlands’ greatest breeders, Robert Bakewell.