A Christmas Feast of Mutton & More ....
Cooking at Christmas is often a challenge, with large gatherings for family and friends the key to success is to keep it simple. The staff Christmas party at Thyme is a wonderfully traditional affair, the most relevant detail for me is that I do the cooking, and up until now I have always done it on my own. Last year, definitely a challenge, I cooked for 34 people, slow roasting shoulders of pork with fennel, lemon and cardamon. It was, if I say so myself, a triumph. It not only tasted good, everyone was suitably impressed by my solo performance. This year however, the challenge was too great, with 54 yeses from our ever expanding team, I picked up the phone to my son Charlie, a professional chef, who was completely unfazed and enthusiastically we started to plan the menu.
Southrop mutton it was, from the farm of course. Charlie suggested that we slow roasted it on a bed of root vegetables, herbs and white wine. The result would be a deliciously tender offering that fell easily off the bone. We decided to serve it with a rosemary and walnut salsa, mashed potato and a crispy winter leaf salad with a simple citrusy dressing to cut through the rather fattier mutton. Keeping things simple for a larger number was the plan, my only real worry was that the meat was tender and tasty and not too strong.
Mutton by definition is sheep over two years old. It has a stronger flavour and unlike younger animals should be hung for at least two weeks before it is eaten. There is a long standing campaign by the Prince of Wales to promote mutton, ( www.muttonrenaissance.org.uk ) he declares it his favourite dish and if it is good enough for Prince Charles it is definitely good enough for us. It's promotion would also help struggling farmers to achieve a better price for their older ewes which are sold for pitifully little at market and are mainly bought for the Asian restaurants, destined for curry. They will of course make the most delicious curry, my nervousness that the flavour would be too strong for our more simpler recipe was batted confidently away by Charlie who often cooks goat, very similar to mutton and gaining hugely in popularity ( www.cabrito.co.uk ). Importantly too, mutton is a meat that is completely grass fed making it sustainable and environmentally an exemplary choice.
So here is our menu, if you are entertaining at Christmas I highly recommend it, it worked wonderfully for us. One large leg of mutton will comfortably feed 12 to 14 people, a shoulder slightly less – of course if you can’t source mutton it will work equally well with lamb, but remember the cuts are smaller and won't feed so many. The substantially crispy winter salad and hearty mash satisfy the healthy, vegetarian and gluten free guest requirements without the need to worry, roast a little goat’s cheese too if you like. Start with a local English sparkling wine and a dash of rosehip syrup. Serve with nibbles as you like, then there is no need for a starter.