During the second half of the 20th Century, a culinary flavour that had been synonymous with British cuisine for centuries, virtually disappeared from its cultural landscape. A series of events and economic dynamics 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 support 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.
As part of the series, we are exploring mutton’s place in the 21st Century, through the eyes of some of its most passionate champions. Along with individuals like Bob Kennard and Tony Davies, Andrew ‘Farmer’ Sharp is a one-man mutton marketing machine. A founding member of the Mutton Renaissance campaign, Andrew has worked in both farming and the meat industry for well over 30 years. During that time, he has built a reputation for producing, preparing and selling renaissance quality mutton that would be hard to rival. We caught up with him while he was teaching a course in Artisan Butchery at The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, to talk about mutton’s growing renaissance and his love of the Herdwick sheep breed.
With over three decades of experience within the farming and meat industries, Andrew Sharp wears many industry related caps. Farmer and butcher by trade, food campaigner and tutor by necessity. Both his career and reputation have been built upon the practices of producing and preparing high quality meat, resurrecting traditional methods of butchery and championing rare breed livestock. His passion for the Cumbrian Herdwick sheep breed, and the lamb and mutton that is produced by it, is known throughout the land. Mention the name ‘Farmer Sharp’ and both his customers and associates will tell you exactly what you are getting; high quality meat with a large pinch of strong northern wit.
Andrew first entered the meat trade before he had even left school, working for a local butcher at the age of thirteen. Having been born into a family of farmers and butchers, it was in someway inevitable that he would follow in the footsteps of his seniors. “I had a very, very odd upbringing, because I had to go up the Lakeland fells and you would see the farmer and you would speak to him and say, ‘Now, how’s you going on, a bit tough at the minute, the sheep not making a lot of money and is that dog any good?’ When I first started, at the age of thirteen in a butcher’s shop, in a small town called Grange-over-Sands, the boss had a farm and an abattoir and I worked in the abattoir.”
Andrew used these early opportunities to develop a broad range of butchery skills. By the time he had reached his twenties he had worked in a number of environments within the meat industry, from high street butchers to small and large abattoirs, gathering much experience on the way. He was fortunate in that his apprenticeship, and the early part of his career, came at a time that would perhaps now look like a by-gone age; a time when his trade was ultimately represented by the figure of the Master Butcher. “Our definition of a Master Butcher is someone that can buy an animal, take it to a facility and slaughter it, process it, mature it and sell it to the end user.” Unfortunately, over the last 20 years or so, this figure has itself become something of a rare breed, a fact that Andrew himself can testify to.
After building up a significant reputation for producing and preparing high quality meat across the north of England, Andrew soon attracted the attention of food journalists from up and down the country, and in particular, Sheila Dillion of the BBC’s Food Programme. This meeting would eventually provide Andrew with the impetus to experiment with London. “It took the BBC about 20 times to twist my arm to go to London…we had no way of delivering it [the meat], no fridge van, no infrastructure, nowhere to stay, no fridge to store the stuff when I got there.” Eventually he would set up, along with fellow Cumbrians, Peter Gott and Les Salisbury, at Borough Market and the second phase of his career would begin to take shape.
Far from the bustling food nirvana that it is today, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Borough market, in its wholesale guise, was in serious financial trouble and almost disappeared from its historical site in south London. It had been in decline for the best part of a decade and needed something significant to resurrect it. Being a charitable organisation, it was managed by a board of trustees and they decided to try and breathe new life into the market by introducing a retail element to sit alongside the wholesale market. Peter Gott, of Sillfield Farm, was one of the first Cumbrians to take a stall there, and along with Sheila Dillion, quickly convinced Andrew of the opportunities that the market had to offer. “I went to London in September 1999…Peter Gott had said to me, ‘just come down for a day, you’ll be fine’, he had been trying to get me to go to Borough Market for about 6 or 8 months. He was one of the first traders there, he did the Apple Festival in the October previous to my September.” Following a very memorable exchange with one customer, over the price of a leg of lamb, Andrew quickly realised that Peter was right and he set about building a business based on bringing the finest meat that Cumbria had to offer to the streets of south London.
The transformation of Borough Market provided one element of a perfect storm for Andrew, and as it grew, so did Andrew’s co-operative business, bringing together many farmers from the Lake District and Cumbria and providing them with a market for their produce. However, it wasn’t all ‘plain sailing’. Things at the start were very difficult from a practical perspective, even finding a bed for the night, following a trading day, presented problems. However, the bigger problems seemed to be more cultural. Reviving the fortunes of mutton was slow at first, and changing people’s perceptions of rare breed animals, and in particular Andrew’s beloved Herdwicks, was difficult, even with the sheep farmers of the fells. “I can’t remember the occasion, but there were this group of farmers in a small room and I was doing a positive presentation on Herdwicks, because at the time they were rock bottom, everyone was saying they were no good, they don’t fit the supermarket model, they don’t fit any model, the wool was rubbish, everything was negative. And I’m there saying, look, this Herdwick sheep is the best sheep you’ll ever get, and we are just talking about giving the consumer something very characterful, very distinctive, very different, very unlike anything they have got.” Despite the negativity, there were some break throughs. Andrew remembers one farmer in particular, “this one guy stood up at the end of the meeting and said, ‘ay lad, I’m going home now, but I’m going home to change everything I do…because I have had DEFRA and every other pillock come to advise me and you’ve talked more sense than anyone I’ve ever met’. He went away and started finishing ewes and eventually he became a supplier of ours.”
It’s hard to imagine, given today’s interest, that the promotion of rare breed animals would be so difficult, but this was all over 15 years ago. However, along with people like Peter Gott, Andrew had an intuitive sense for the changing times ahead, and even with the outbreak of foot-and-mouth a few years later, his confidence never waned. “I was right and I knew I was right, had it have been the wrong time, I knew it wouldn’t have worked, but it just seemed like it was ‘carpe diem’, the opportunity was there, we’d had BSE for years, followed by foot-and-mouth, and the public were starting to say ‘hang on a minute, this is serious…we need to think about where our food comes from, whether it is going to kill us, who’s poisoning this food, are these processes, is this supermarket the devil, who’s the devil in here?’”
Despite Andrew’s well placed confidence, the years of BSE and the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth did take their toll. Foot-and-mouth, in particular, had far reaching effects on the Herdwick sheep breed and the local communities of the Lake District. “When the first foot-and-mouth [outbreak] occurred, our MP for Lower Furness was John Hutton, and I went to see him in his Junior Minister for Health position on the Mall…and what I tried to get him to understand was that Herdwick sheep were going to disappear from the fells and this was a serious issue, a vast level of the employment, in a multifarious way, was reliant on the Herdwick sheep [breed]. People that worked in tourism, people that worked in ancillary jobs in agriculture and tourism…the Herdwick sheep was keeping the fells clear for walkers, creating the environment that is the Lake District, because it’s a managed environment.”
It was in the years following the 2001 outbreak that the Mutton Renaissance campaign emerged. The price of sheep at the markets had plummeted, and everyone’s confidence in English livestock had hit ‘rock bottom’. “A lot of famers would have shot them [the sheep] and fed them to a dog. No farmer would like that, no farmer would encourage that, it’s a bit like shooting bull calves, no farmer thinks ‘I’ll be happy to get rid of these’. He would have loved to have turned that into a product. Farmers do a job, that has low margin, high risk, and involves hard work, it’s a passion and a vocation.” It was this situation that provided the impetus for the Mutton Renaissance campaign, and it was why “Prince Charles went to the Academy of the Culinary Arts and the National Sheep Association and said ‘look, these sheep aren’t making a £1.’”
In the early days, the campaign was driven more by motivation than organisation. “All the players came together to make it work and it was a real ‘ragtag’ and ‘bobtail’ group of people that you would never put together in a normal social or business situation, but we were drawn together by the prince [of Wales]. Things were in jeopardy, things were in real, real trouble, auctions were full of sheep that nobody wanted to buy and farms were having to pay people to take the sheep away.” Andrew remembers that the quality of ‘finished’ sheep had really suffered and the impetus of the prince’s campaign was to try and turn this situation around. “You have to understand that they were ‘hat racks’, they had no meat on them, they weren’t great quality mutton. Given time, being fed up and fattened, they would have been great quality.”
Being one of the very few people, along with Bob Kennard, that sold mutton back in the early days, Andrew helped to supply the mutton for the dinner that launched the campaign at The Ritz in 2004. During the years that followed the campaign gathered a great deal of momentum, enlisting the support of individuals like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Clarissa Dickson Wright. Its bedrock of farmers, butchers and chefs mobilised as much interest as they could muster. Mutton was slowly starting to find its way back onto British menus and kitchen tables. The campaign was the ideal platform for Andrew, he knew instinctively what was required, how to change both the perceived and actual value of the produce that was being produced. “I think society has changed to think that we can get protein from many different sources, we have a market access like has never been known in the history of the world. So to continue to grow sheep and make a profit you have to increase its value, its perceived value, its actual value, and to do that, it has got to compete with New Zealand’s fast, cheap production system.” Andrew believes that to do this you have to start with a very different question. “So what sets you apart? What sets you apart is something different…what will give the consumer some way of setting you apart and judging that you have superior quality and judging you have the knowledge and ability to deliver something special.”
For Andrew, the element that sets you apart is always the breed. “The breed is the foundation of everything, genetics are the foundation, and you build upon foundation. There are probably 5000 breeds of sheep in the world, and these are defined breeds and then are sub-divisions in some of those breeds, like Cheviot, where it’s a north country Cheviot and south country Cheviot. One is more modern than the other, one is bigger than the other. The nuances are vast and many, and if you take it out of its expected situation, like bringing a Welsh Mountain to Leicester, it would get too fat, if the food value is too good, the culture for that animal is to live in a poor food value area, a hill area where it eats and eats and never stops, because the food value is so negative that it needs to.”
The knowledge that is embedded in these unique husbandry practices has been developed over centuries. Like his good friend and food historian, Ivan Day, Andrew is acutely aware of the importance of historical knowledge and what it can teach us about both the past and the future. During our discussion he references the work of William Youatt, the 19th Century veterinarian and author of Sheep, their breeds, management and diseases (1837), in relation to Welsh Mountain farmers visiting Cumberland for ‘tups’ to improve aspects of their Welsh Mountain breeds. “It always comes back to raw materials, whether you paint a picture, bake a cake or cook a steak, raw materials are everything. You start with the foundations…the quality comes from the breed, the foundation is what makes the quality.”
Andrew’s reason for promoting regional breeds fits precisely with his call for producing difference, because difference creates distinct variations of flavour and taste. “If you look at, what I call, those Southdown type sheep, like the Lincoln Longwool, you can see in the carcass, when that animal has been slaughtered, it has very pronounced herringbone markings on the last layer of the dermis that they leave on the fat, which in the meat trade is called ‘the bark’. So you can see a defined herringbone mark that you don’t see in hill sheep, you see them in very fat Southdown older sheep.” It is these regional nuances that create the distinct differences in flavour and taste that Andrew is keen to promote. He remarks that wine producers treat their produce in similar way, and that this allows them to add value to their products. “When you look at grape varieties, when you look at particular cuvées, when you look at particular vintages, you’re starting to build a multi-faceted profile for that wine, that gives it its class, quality and value, to which you can attach added value to make profitability, because if nobody makes any money out of the chain, then that bit of the food chain falls off and disappears.”
Despite his love of sheep farming and the Herdwick breed in particular, philosophically, Andrew is a realist. He is acutely aware that without the commercial growth of the produce that is being produced, the future of English sheep farming will be less than secure. However, as he has already stated, the ability to add value to a product is always about the quality of the raw materials that are invested at the outset. He recalls a conversation with the proprietors of Cannon & Cannon (where Andrew is also a tutor at their Meat School) about a development sample of mutton prosciutto, where he was asked his opinion on its taste. He said, “it was a fantastic product, but the sheep was not old enough. It was only 2 years old, which means it was only just mutton, it needs to have had a little bit of adversity and some life that gives it collagen content, a depth and strength of muscle that makes it have some consistency to stand up to that process.” Andrew’s preferred age for mutton is five years plus, and hung for no less than two weeks.
Over the last decade, because of committed people like Andrew, the emphasis that has been placed on the importance or uniqueness of regional breeds has grown considerably, and the signal that promoting meat by breed has really started to capture the imagination of the broader meat buying public has finally started to emerge. In the last couple of years, even the supermarkets have shifted from marketing their meat by nation (British beef and New Zealand lamb) to marketing it by breed. Both Waitrose and Booths now market a considerable proportion of their meat products by breed, a sure sign that the ‘big four’ will follow shortly.
Despite the interest in rare breed animals growing sharply in the last decade or so, Andrew still thinks there is a large contradiction at the heart of the meat industry, a contradiction that posits a significant obstacle to its further growth. In the last two decades the amount of smaller independent abattoirs that have closed has been something close to alarming. Having contributed to a House of Lords report, alongside Lady Caroline Cranbrook, into the demise of the small abattoirs and infrastructure in the UK, Andrew thinks the opportunities for new abattoirs are becoming more limited. “The barriers to entry are massive, costs to fulfil regulatory requirements of hygiene infrastructure…you could start one for about £750k, but the profitability would be borderline with little margin, because the margin is always in the retail.” Even though the value still resides in the retail element of the chain, the infrastructure that supports the retail element, the farms, farmers and abattoirs, are diminishing at a rate that Andrew thinks, in the long-term, is not sustainable.
It’s no coincidence that the infrastructure that supports the retail element of the meat industry began declining at the same time that the larger supermarkets were experiencing their greatest growth. As you might imagine, Andrew’s view of the growth of the supermarkets, over the last few decades, is not a positive one. He thinks their methods of ‘unitising, bastardising and sterilising’ meat production and retail, have more than contributed to the decline of the type of high street butcher he once served his apprenticeship with. “They [the supermarkets] were able to take a product that was a staple and essential part of your diet and turn it into something that was not respected.” However, he does think there is perhaps a change ‘in the air’, and that some supermarkets (namely Booths) are really starting to support national and local meat producers in a way he would describe as appropriate.
The notion of respect in relation to food is very important to Andrew. The basis of his role as a food campaigner is built upon his view that we should give greater respect to what we produce and eat. “The argument is that food is too expensive, but the facts of the matter are…if you say 100 years ago that 75% of the average income was spent on food, we wouldn’t be far wrong, but now it will be about 9%, so food is too cheap!” He identified that it was in someway inevitable that he would find a role in championing some of the UK’s best produce and producers. “I think inevitably I was always going to end up in the food movement in the way that things were changing, because I was the obsessed person that was always looking and thinking, ‘we have got amazing food in the U.K.’”
As a food campaigner, Andrew’s character is more like Fred Dibnar than Dario Checchini, and he’s probably more likely to quote farmers from the fells than Dante. However, his passion for the art of butchery can certainly compete with Checchini’s. Andrew’s courses at The School of Artisan Food attract budding butchers and artisans from all over the globe. The day we dropped in to see him, there were students there from America, India, Pakistan and New Zealand. The heritage and quality of his butchery skills, skills that have existed for centuries, along with his unique style of teaching, are admired from far and wide.
Education always seemed like a natural bedfellow to his campaigning role, giving him the opportunity to share both his passion and knowledge with a new generation of meat enthusiasts and butchers. It started by just sharing his skills with customers on trading days at Borough Market, but quickly developed into fully fledged classes and courses at places such as The School of Artisan Food and Cannon & Cannon’s Meat School. Like one of his fellow tutors at The School of Artisan Food, Rich Summers, he also provides hands-on help to the growing number of artisan butchers springing up around the country. Around the time we saw him, he was due to support a former student with the opening of a new high street butchers (Heckstall & Smith) in Lewisham. “A lot of the things in the UK have bought us to where we are in our resurgence in food culture…we have just fallen into it, we have lost the skills, the knowledge, the passion, the breeds, that luckily people are trying to rediscover or save or bring to a commercial reality…I’m all about commerciality, I think you have to make something pay or it doesn’t survive…If you ever do anything and think you are just doing it for the sake of the sheep, then you’re an idiot!”
Andrew’s innate ability to see the broader picture within the multiple industries he inhabits, is something that is very rare. His capacity to understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts should not be understated. He possesses a unique sensitivity for the zeitgeist and the changing horizon beyond, a skill that has helped him navigate the many pitfalls that have marred the farming and meat industries in the last two to three decades. In this vastly changing economic landscape, his ability to adapt what he does and how he does it, with a great amount of integrity and care, can only be admired. The continuing legacy of producing and preparing renaissance quality mutton, in the UK, appears to be in very good hands.
Toward the end of our discussion we talked about what might be next for Andrew, and it felt like he was saying that this second phase of his career was perhaps reaching its end, although what might be next was still an unknown. I’m sure that history will eventually repeat itself and he’ll carve a pathway alongside the next perfect storm, it will just be about waiting for that storm to come in over the fells. As the saying goes, ‘you can’t keep a good man down’, a unique English idiom that definitely applies here.