Lambing Time

Pasture for Life celebrated its 10th year this month.  Over those 10 years, the certification scheme has greatly advanced understanding of the benefits of pasture fed meat, yet as Easter approaches I am gnashing my teeth whilst reading all the articles in the press that recommend “Spring Lamb” as the centrepiece for your Easter celebrations.  Open your eyes and look around – or just look at the pictures on social media – in Britain lambs are just being born in the spring, they are not ready to eat!

A very defined breeding cycle exists for lamb, only the Dorset Horn (and its polled variant) can breed all year round.  The various breeds have developed to reflect their local climatic conditions, with the first lambs being born early in the year in warmer parts of the south, gradually being followed by the Scottish Lowlands, the Welsh hills and finally the Highlands. Each of these areas produces lamb with its own distinctive flavour,  due in part to the breed and partly to their forage.

Even lamb which is not reared to Pasture for Life standards remains relatively immune to intensive farming methods and is usually reared outdoors, after all grass is cheaper than buying sheep nuts, although it has become common practice to finish them on cereals.  This has a detrimental effect on its Omega 3 content as well fuelling the criticism that in place of animals we could grow crops for human consumption.  This criticism of course only bears weight if the land is suitable for growing crops which most upland areas are not.

So, what would be involved in producing a lamb that was ready to eat at Easter?  Well in Britain that would, as I have already mentioned, only be possible with the Dorset breed.  It would be born in the Autumn and would then spend most of its life indoors.  Initially it would drink its mother’s milk, and there is a market abroad for very young, milk fed lambs.  However, by introducing silage, cereals and protein (often soya) it might reach what is considered a marketable weight at around 5 months.  Waitrose does sell a limited amount of this Dorset breed lamb, although there was none available when I searched the internet this week.  What their website does say is “because English and Welsh lamb is seasonal, we source high quality [Spring Lamb] from trusted farmers in New Zealand until June when British Lamb comes into it’s prime”.  So, if you are buying Spring Lamb for Easter, if fresh it will probably have been imported from New Zealand, although it might be possible to buy British frozen.  The option I prefer if I want to serve sheep meat at this time of year is to serve Hogget, which is from a lamb that is slaughtered over a year old.  Pasture for Life certified lamb spends approximately 50% more time grazing (52 weeks on average) than those finished on cereals.  They enjoy a longer and more natural life that enables me to enjoy watching the newly born lambs frolicking in the fields in Spring.


See also The Absolute Importance of Upland Mutton for more information about the characteristics of mutton from different locations and how to cook and serve it.


Despite their tiny size, cured anchovies make a tremendous contribution to the taste of a dish.  This makes them especially important in meat-free dishes although not, of course, for strict vegetarians. In the meat world, bacon performs a similar service.  What they have in common is a high level of the free glutamates that give the taste “umami”.  When eaten fresh anchovies are remarkably mild in flavour but, being a pelagic fish, when they are caught they are caught in large numbers and so preserving them is the norm. Cured fish have been used as a seasoning ingredient since Roman times, although the methods of curing vary.

Anchovies swim mainly in warmer waters.  The Mediterranean is their heartland, they are the staple diet of tuna so you will always find them where tuna swim.  In the summer some anchovies do make it to our shores and as far north as Denmark, but the fact that they feature so often in traditional British cookery is thanks to their being preserved and then transported.  There is an apparent anomaly in one of the best-known anchovy dishes, Jansson’s Temptation, coming from Sweden but this is explained when you learn that the fish used in this dish are not actually anchovies but sprats. If you want to make this dish you need to buy Swedish “anchovies”, apparently Ikea sells them, and you will find they are sweet pickled, like miniature rollmops.

Curing anchovies in vinegar is also a tradition in Spain.  Elisabeth Luard describes their link to the silk trade in European Peasant Cookery.  The mulberry trees on which silk worms feed grow in the hill villages of the Alpujarras above Granada.  As soon as the fresh anchovies were landed on the coast, donkey-boys would set out for the hills with their panniers laden, arriving by mid-day.  There, they would trade the fish for silk worm cocoons and return to the silk merchants in town.  The highly perishable fish were then cleaned, beheaded and gutted in one swift move – by pulling the head through the belly with the backbone still attached. Laid open and skin side up in a shallow dish the anchovies were then sprinkled with salt and covered with sherry vinegar, diluted with an equal quantity of water.  Covered and kept cool the fish were ready to eat in a couple of days and would keep for a week.  Prepared this way, anchovies are known as Boquerones and are still popular in every tapas bar.  They can be bought here, but the quality depends very much on the vinegar that has been used as sometimes this overpowers any taste of the fish.  Good examples can be found, but more usually where they have been freshly prepared.  They also differ from the Swedish variant, firstly in being the true anchovy rather than the larger sprat and secondly in the cure.

The form of anchovy with which we will most be familiar is filleted, salted and then stored in oil. Actually there is another form, bone in and salted, which need soaking and filleting before using.  I find these too salty.  And sometimes unsalted anchovies (and therefore grey rather than red/brown in colour) stored in sunflower oil are imported from Holland.  But back to those stored in olive oil. Italy tends to pack them in jars whilst Spain favours cans.  From a taste point of view it doesn’t matter which vessel is used, but personally I prefer to buy by the jar so that I can use just a couple at a time.  Unlike sardines, anchovies do not improve with storage so checking the date and buying the freshest is one quality consideration.  Prices do vary considerably and this is mainly dependent on the size of the fish, the quality of the filleting and the oil in which they are stored.  If you are going to eat the anchovies whole it is worth paying more, and Ortiz is widely recognised as the best, although you may well find others that suit your palate just as well.  If you are using the anchovies in cooking it is nigh on impossible to detect differences so you can save your money here.  There are also several readymade options that you can use to bring the umami flavour of anchovies to your cooking, e.g. Patum Peperium’s Gentleman’s Relish, Watkin’s Anchovy Sauce and Lea and Perrin’s Worcestershire Sauce, all of which have long established positions in the English kitchen. Nam pla is the Indonesian equivalent that has found its way into several dishes here.

So when would you use anchovies in cooking?  You can see from the list of proprietary preparations that it is very wide ranging.  Although an anchovy is a fish, it does not add a particularly fishy flavour, in fact it enhances meat better than it does fish.  As I mentioned at the outset of this article, it is their contribution to non-meat dishes that I have focused on in my recipe selection.  From classic summer salads such as Caesar and Niçoise, to the hot Bagna Caoda dip for winter vegetables, broccoli & anchovy sauce for pasta, Pissaladière and British savouries such as Scotch Woodcock, the anchovy provides a depth of flavour that compensates for the absence of meat.



Black Forest Trifle


There are many different types of trifle recipes.  If you grew up with the version that contained tinned fruit, packet custard and was sprinkled with hundreds and thousands, you might be surprised to know that it is actually an ancient and venerable dish.

The word trifle comes from “trufle” an old French word meaning something inconsequential.  The earliest desserts made using this name, towards the end of C16th, were actually what we would now call fools; i.e. a mixture of cream and puréed fruit – the words trifle and fool were interchangeable for a long time.

In the mid-18th century what we would now recognise as trifle emerged.  Hannah Glasse, author of The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, gave the following recipe for Trifle in the book’s 4th edition published in 1751:

Cover your dish or bowl with Naples biscuits broken in pieces, mackeroon broke in halves, and ratafia cakes; just wet them all through with sack, then make a good boiled custard, not too thick, and when cold pour it over, then put a syllabub over that.  You may garnish it with ratafia cakes, currant jelly, and flowers and strew different coloured nonpareils over it.

As to whether this, a quite different style of trifle to that which had previously borne the name, was indeed the invention of Hannah Glasse there is some debate, but in the absence of proof to the contrary, she must take the credit.  And so it became established that the English trifle is made with sponge cake, soaked in sweet sherry (sack), real egg custard and syllabub (cream whisked with alcohol – usually sherry or sweet wine). The debate as to what can be included in an “authentic” trifle is a passionate one and the sort of discussion that is too rarely encountered in Britain.

Jane Grigson, writing British Cookery in 1984, gave the trifle recipe from Jonathan’s of Oldbury in Gloucestershire, which won the Trifle Competition organised by the AA in 1983.  She comments that it is a deserved winner on account of there being no flour in the custard, a topping of syllabub, and not a glacé cherry in sight.  In 2001, Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson published their research on the topic in the book Trifle which remains the most comprehensive work on the subject.  In response to this publication, Slow Food organised trifle tastings as described by Sarah Freeman in the second edition of The Best of Modern British Cookery . The first of these tastings endorsed the superiority of Swiss Cream, a version of trifle that enjoyed some popularity in the Victorian era, whilst from the second of these tastings emerged a winning trifle recipe from Silvija Davidson.   All of these recipes can be found here.

Not-quite Trifles

Part of the difficulty in defining what constitutes a trifle is that the concept lends itself to many variations.  You will have noted that the English Trifle is a very alcoholic dish indeed and this aspect gave rise to some of these variations.  Many of these contain the word “tipsy” as in Tipsy Pudding, Tipsy Squire, Tipsy Hedgehog or Tipsy Cake.  These can be traced to the English settlers in the United States. They settled mainly in the south, where the southern planters loved this rich dessert.  Tipsy Parson was so named because of its popularity with the preachers who visited on a Sunday.

Similar recipes are found in several European countries, for example Bizococho Borracho (Drunken Cookie) in Spain.  Zuppa Inglese , from Italy, means English Soup, the name and style acknowledging the dessert’s association with English cooking, however, more recently Italy introduced its own variation on the theme with Tiramisù.

The essential elements of an English Trifle

Despite the thousands of variations in trifle recipes, there are some elements that most people agree are essential to an English trifle.  Although, in the end, I have concluded that I am less concerned with authenticity than taste, which is of course a somewhat personal matter, here is my summary of the key trifle elements:


The Jane Austen Centre in Bath provides some helpful background information about developments in food in Georgian times, especially concerning sponges – the base that is essential to a trifle.  Beaten eggs had begun to replace yeast as the raising agent for cakes, and fatless sponge-cakes were all the rage as evidenced in a letter from Jane Austen to her sister in 1808 where she wrote “You know how interesting the purchase of a sponge-cake is to me”.

The earliest sponge cake recipe in English was recorded by Gervasse Markham in 1615 but these sponge cakes were thin and crisp, more like modern biscuits.  Among the more popular in the 18th century were the European styles of sponge cake known as Biscuit and Genoise, both of which used cornstarch in place of some of the flour giving a closer textured cake that tended to be dry and so was often moisten with syrup.  Naples Biscuits were made with the same batter but poured into individual moulds and were actually pretty much what we would today call Savoiardi Biscuits or Ladies Fingers.

Whilst a homemade, fatless sponge certainly raises the bar as far as the quality of a trifle is concerned, bought Savoiardi biscuits are perfectly acceptable.  If I am making a sponge for a trifle I actually like to make it as a Swiss Roll, filling it with jam.  Using freshly ground almonds in place of flour for the sponge is also, in my view, a nice enhancement.

You will notice in Hannah Glasse’s original recipe for trifle that macaroons and ratafia biscuits are also included and either of these make an excellent additional layer that prevent the overall trifle becoming too sloppy.

Liquor: typically Sherry and/or Brandy, but I frequently vary this to echo the overall flavour theme of the trifle.

Fruits: fresh, puréed fruits or compote can be used whilst fruits preserved in liquor are ideal, providing two of the essential ingredients. Sometimes the fruit is added in the form of jam, which should be used sparingly.  The low-sugar raspberry jam recipe I have given is a great way of getting a relatively fresh but intense fruit flavour.

Jelly: The inclusion of jelly as the second layer, often with fruit set within, is the most strongly divisive topic of debate vis-à-vis trifles.  I had imagined that this was a modern departure until I saw it included in many old recipes.  I should have remembered that wine jellies were another popular 18th century dessert and it does provide some stability to the structure.  However, to my taste the texture of jelly is completely alien in a creamy trifle and I never include it.

Custard: Homemade with fresh eggs is essential if custard is to be used at all (and it is traditional).  Jane Grigson stipulates that no flour must be used; it should be thickened entirely with egg yolks.  However, this results in a very eggy custard which is still quite runny, so I wouldn’t object to a single teaspoonful of cornflour!  In fact, as my husband is allergic to eggs, I usually substitute the custard with mascarpone – as used in Tiramisù, and actually prefer this.

Syllabub: This could warrant a book of recipes of its own.  Syllabubs are absolutely delicious, far superior to just a whipped cream topping, and the wine or liquor used can be an essential part of the overall Trifle flavouring.

In her 1969 booklet Syllabubs and Fruit Fools, Elizabeth David, writing about a description of syllabub in 1882, describes the evolution of Trifle that was soon to come…

Already for nearly a century the syllabub had been keeping company with the trifle, and in due course the trifle came to reign in the syllabubs stead; and before long the party pudding of the English was not any more the fragile whip of cream contained in a little glass, concealing within its innocent white froth a powerful alcoholic punch, but a built-up confection of sponge fingers and ratafias soaked in wine and brandy, spread with jam, clothed in an egg-and-cream custard, topped with syllabub and strewn with little coloured comfits.  Came 1846, the year that Mr Alfred Bird brought forth custard powder; and Mr Birds brain-child grew and grew until all the land was covered with custard wade with custard powder and the Trifle had become custards favourite resting place.  The wine and lemon-flavoured cream whip or syllabub which had crowned the Trifle had begun to disappear.  Kitchen sherry replaced the Rhenish and Madeira and Lisbon wines.  Brandy was banished. The little coloured comfits – sugar-coated coriander seeds and caraways – bright as tiny tiddlywinks, went into decline and in their stead reigned angelica and nicely varnished glace cherries.

Syllabubs predate Trifles, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century there were three types – one in which the milkmaid would milk the cow into a punch bowl containing cider or ale, sweetened with sugar and spice; and a second type made with wine and spirits instead of ale or cider and cream in place of milk.  The second type was thicker than the first but both resulted in a separation between the cream and the whey and alcohol, which was drunk rather than spooned.  At some stage it was discovered that if you reduced the proportions of wine and sugar to cream the whip would remain without separating and thus the third version – known as an”everlasting syllabub” was born.  Elizabeth David gives her own recipe for Everlasting Syllabub.

My own introduction to syllabub came in 1983 with the publication of Katie Stewart’s Cookbook. Very much a collection of recipes, it contains no opinion and no history, instead letting the recipes speak for themselves.  Speak to me they certainly did, and to many of my contemporaries.  Her recipe for Syllabub with strawberries was ideal for the beginning of the strawberry season, when prices were high, as she made 8 oz of strawberries serve 6 people!  Nowadays I may increase the quantity of strawberries but the recipe remains a faithful standby.

The syllabub served with the strawberries uses medium-dry sherry but she also gives a recipe for a wine syllabub, which is in very similar to Elizabeth David’s Everlasting Syllabub only without the brandy and nutmeg and twice the quantity of sugar.

Toppings: Here you can let your artistic side run riot.  Ratafia biscuits, fresh flowers, candied fruit or petals and chocolate shavings are just a few examples.  Don’t decorate a trifle until just before serving or you run the risk of colours bleeding or the toppings sinking.

Trifle bowl: early trifle recipes mostly suggested making it in a large china bowl but pretty quickly the Trifle Bowl itself became an important part of this showy dessert.   It needs to be glass so that the layers can be seen, and preferably a good lead crystal.  Some are bowl shaped but many are raised on a stand, so that the layers can be more easily admired! However, a bowl set on a stand cannot be as large as one without, and many trifles are made to feed 12 people.  The bowl you use will determine the quantities required of each ingredient, so bear this in mind when looking at recipes.  Finally there is a question of whether the bowl should have straight or convex sides.  Straight sides do make it easier to arrange fruits around the edge.


Jane Grigson, The Observer Guide to British Cookery, 1984

Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, 1984

Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson, Trifle, Prospect Books, 2001

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 4th edition, 1751

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1845

Katie Stewart’s Cookbook, 1983

Sarah Freeman, The Best of Modern British Cookery, 2nd edition, 2006

Naples Bisket or Sponge Cake


Real Chocolate

The price of Easter eggs sold in supermarkets has been slashed this year, but rather than prop up this dying mode of purchasing food how about making this an opportunity to learn more about how real chocolate is produced?

There has been a real growth in understanding about the difference between quality chocolate and mass-produced poseurs.  Whilst the cocoa beans themselves only grow within a narrow band around the equator, most are actually processed nearer to where they are eaten, often in Europe.  An even larger number of people are choosing to specialise in making chocolate confectionery (as opposed to the chocolate in bar form) so that it is one of the foods of which we in Britain can be proud.  This is a giant leap forward if we remember that for a quarter of a decade we wrangled with the European Union over whether the typical milk chocolate produced in Britain could even be called chocolate at all or should be renamed “Vegelate” owing to the high proportion of vegetable fats it contained.  In the year 2000 a compromise was struck enabling us to continue using the name but with the proviso that if the product was to be exported it had to be described as “family milk chocolate”.  Perhaps the EU did us a favour in this instance, because it certainly helped raise awareness of what goes into a bar of chocolate and now, with the rise in quality British-produced chocolate, learning about the process, from bean to bar, is far easier than it used to be and a tasting box or other learning experience would make a very enjoyable Easter present.  Here is a brief introduction to the subject to whet your appetite.

Taste Quality

Taste is, of course, subjective, and those of us brought up on Cadbury’s, with all its vegetable fat, are likely to still have a soft spot for this type of chocolate with its comforting childhood memories.  However, we have probably learnt that we ought to like chocolate with a higher cocoa solid content and certainly most of us are trying to cut down on our sugar consumption, which is usually in inverse proportion to the cocoa solids.  Hence the British Milk Chocolate we are used to normally has no more than 20% cocoa solids and 80% sugar, whilst a dark chocolate will be likely to have 70% cocoa solids and 30% sugar.  The cocoa solids do confer most of the health benefits that chocolate offers, but let’s face it, we are not really eating it for the health benefits are we?

From a taste point of view the type of cocoa bean and where it is grown will have most bearing on the flavour.  Criollo cocoa beans are the best, but are difficult to grow and rare, making up only 5% of total world production, 80% comes from a variety of the high yielding Forestero bean.  The remaining 15% comes from a hybrid between the two, called Trinitario, which is easier to grow than Criollo but more fruity and aromatic than Forestero.  Criollo is rarely used on its own, but its inclusion will enhance flavour and the use of this or Trinitario may make a more flavoursome chocolate even at 50% cocoa solids than a 70% Forestero.  It is also easier to retrain your palate away from wanting large amounts of sugar if it is done in smaller steps, so begin by increasing your cocoa solids and focusing on the type of bean used.

It is also important to understand why cocoa butter is much better than vegetable fat.  It is not just from a health point of view, although it is true that cocoa butter is generally considered a good fat whilst solidified vegetable fats (trans-fats) are definitely in the bad camp.  One of the most magical things about cocoa butter is that its melting point is only fractionally above blood temperature, so that at 33˚C it is crystalline and solid but at 34˚C it melts, allowing the flavour to flood out over the tongue.  The initial substitution of vegetable fat for cocoa butter was carried out by the American company Hershey, to enable chocolate to be more readily transported as part of the troops’ rations.  Additional pressure to do so comes from the fact that there is intense competition for cocoa butter from the beauty industry, which will often pay more than is paid by the confectionery industries.  But this melting point is critical to the taste sensation of good chocolate.

The fineness of the cocoa solids (through a process known as conching) also adds to the taste experience, whilst where the beans were grown will influence the nuances of flavour in exactly the same way that the same grape variety will taste different when produced in different parts of the world, but let’s concentrate first on checking the basis ingredients.

Ethical Issues

Having just mentioned cocoa butter, let’s start by saying that the fat most frequently used as a substitute is palm oil, demand for which has been responsible for the destruction of huge swathes of rainforest.

Then there is the issue of pay.  Cocoa beans have to be harvested by hand; a very labour intensive process that is frequently low paid and often involves child labour.  Fair Trade outlaws the use of child labour and pays a fair price, for more mass produced chocolate it is a worthy label to support, but it operates only in the poorest areas.  With the exception of the Ivory Coast, small farmers account for the majority of cocoa growing and the long term investment required, problematic in itself, is compounded by fluctuating returns.  Cocoa beans are usually purchased after they have been fermented and dried,  and then the more capital intensive part of chocolate production takes place elsewhere.  Few European producers involve themselves in the labour intensive early stages and yet, according to Hotel Chocolat, one of the few to do so, at least 70% of the flavour has been locked into the beans by the end of the fermenting and drying process.  They purchase the beans “wet”, guaranteeing to purchase the entire crop of each of the 167 farms they have signed up.  This enables the farmers to reinvest and ensures a higher quality cocoa.  Whilst there are few producers involved in the whole process this way, high quality chocolate often comes from single estates where some interest in the farming and living standards comes into play.

Another ethical consideration is the use of pesticides, the most lethal of which has recently been banned but which is still an area of concern and potentially harmful to those working on the plantations.  The best practice is to grow cocoa in conjunction with another crop, such as bananas, so that the even higher trees provide shade, protecting the crop from disease and requiring less irrigation.

How to Taste Chocolate

Listed below are some on-line sources of single origin chocolate bars that will enable you to discover more about the differences that climate and soil can make to the flavour.  For example the Caribbean is generally expected to produce chocolate that is earthy, slightly spicy, and with hints of tobacco.  Central America and Indonesia produce cocoa beans with more acidity and a flavour reminiscent of red berry fruits, whilst those of South America are more floral.

Once you have your chocolate, here is the best method for tasting:

  1. Sight – the chocolate bar should look smooth and glossy with no bloom
  2. Sound – when you break it there should be s distinct “snap”, which indicates that it has been tempered correctly.  You will then also be able to see the texture of the broken bar, which should be distinct, like tree bark.
  3. Now Smell the chocolate, it should obviously smell fresh, but you should also be able to pick up specific aromas such as those mentioned above.
  4. 4. When you hold a square in your hand you should Feel it should begin to melt within seconds, indicating the use of cocoa butter rather than other fats. 
  5. 5. At last you get to Taste – let the chocolate melt over your tongue and try to identify the flavours.

On-line supplies:

Cocoa Runners – monthly tasting club, themed tasting boxes including Best of British

Chocolate Trading Co – A wide range of bars from quality producers around the world.

William Curley –   Five time voted “Britain’s Best Chocolatier”  see recipes for an account of making truffles with them.

Learning to Love Cabbage

At this time of year, when we are still eagerly awaiting the first new vegetables of spring, having plenty of ideas for using good old standbys like cabbage and cauliflower becomes particularly important.  School dinners have a lot to answer for, and memories of soggy over-cooked cabbage, particularly the smell, kept me away from it for years.  British cooks have long since learnt that most vegetables taste better when not cooked in water and there is no more salient a lesson when it comes to cooking cabbage.

The term “cabbage” of course covers a wide variety of types and I don’t intend to go into detail about them all here.  This is a “hungry gap” article, and the types that you are most likely to find at this time are the dark, crinkly Savoy and the pointed Hispi or “spring” cabbage.  Kale hangs on until the end of March, although it is likely to need longer cooking to make it tender than earlier in its season.

My recipes start with the basic waterless method I use most frequently when cooking cabbage, followed by several suggestions for varying the flavourings.  Then I give a completely different method that involves cooking the cabbage very slowly in the oven with a sausage-meat stuffing.  You can serve this cut into wedges as a special accompaniment to a roast, or even enjoy it in its own right as a main course supper dish.  Leftovers are great re-heated with cream and mixed with pasta.  Whilst on the subject of leftovers, let’s not forget that much loved British favourite, Bubble and Squeak.  The same cabbage and potato combination is also the basis of the Irish dish, Colcannon and as this traditional rhyme makes clear the results can be sublime when it is prepared with love and the finest quality ingredients:

Did you ever eat Colcannon,

When twas made with yellow cream,

And the kale and praties blended,

Like the picture in a dream?

Did you ever take a forkful

And dip it in the lake

Of heather flavoured butter

That your mother used to make?

Finally there is a recipe for “Crispy Seaweed” – a dish that appears on almost every Chinese Restaurant menu but that many people don’t realise is actually made with cabbage!

Herb of the Month – Thyme

I’ve chosen thyme as this month’s herb because although there are some new arrivals as the weather warms up, e.g. chives and sorrel, they are unlikely to be large enough to pick until April.  With luck, and as the Queen of Herbs, Jekka McVicar observes, “providing you are not too greedy”, you can pick fresh thyme all year round.

Thyme is an immensely popular herb, both for the cook and the gardener.  There are many, many species within the genus, making them very collectable, but I will concentrate chiefly on Thymus vulgaris – Common Thyme, with a brief mention of a few others that I find particularly useful from a culinary standpoint.


First a word about cultivating thyme.  It is a drought loving plant – especially good news in this year when droughts are expected throughout the UK.  So it needs to be grown in a bed that drains well, and the soil itself should not be too rich in nutrients, otherwise it becomes soft, leggy and lacking in flavour.  This you will be familiar with if you have ever wasted your money on supermarket pot-grown thyme – you can grow thyme in pots very successfully, although they need to be larger than windowsill sized.  Pots could be the solution if your garden is in a very exposed or wet position as the pots can then be given some protection in winter.  It is established by taking softwood cuttings of the new growth when it has reached about 8cm (3″) in the spring.  It is also essential to trim all thymes after flowering, not only to keep them compact, but also to promote new growth.

Culinary Uses

Thyme is in such frequent use in the kitchen that I find it hard to comprehend any cook not having a plant close at hand.  Firstly it is a key member of a bouquet garni, the others being parsley and bay.  This trio is added whenever you make stock and for most casseroles.  As the name suggests, these herbs can be tied together in a bouquet for easy removal.

But thyme is also an extremely popular flavouring all on its own.  It does grow wild, typically being cropped by rabbits, and so this combination was the inspiration for one of my recipe suggestions this month.  However, this is by no means the only combination in which I use thyme as the major flavouring – I love it with trout, particularly the Lemon Thyme variety, and as trout fishing will open on our local lake later this month, the Jamie Oliver recipe for this will be bound come in useful soon after.  Then for, or around, Easter time, I love to cook chicken in a similar way.  Want a vegetarian option?  Stephen Markwick’s Leek and Cream Tart recipe or, later in the year, a red onion tart with thyme, or a goat’s cheese soufflé with thyme all immediately spring to mind.  Thyme works well in sweet dishes too.  It can be used on its own in an ice cream or baked with fruits such as peaches or pears.

Medicinal Properties

Thyme has strong antiseptic properties so an infusion used as a gargle can help sore throats or gum infections. It also aids digestion, especially by breaking down fatty foods.  Any amount of the fresh plant will be perfectly safe, but do not be tempted to use the essential oil internally.  A few drops can however be added to bath water to ease rheumatic pain or added to a massage oil.

Back to the future for Grain?

Around 4000 BC Continental Neolithic farmers started to arrive in Britain and began the transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of settled farmers.  They domesticated animals and cultivated patchworks of land using primitive ox-drawn ploughs.  The earliest cultivated wheat varieties were Emmer and Einkorn.  Barley was also sown, though rye and oats appeared only as weeds among the crops.  By the Iron Age Triticum spelta (Spelt) had been discovered, thought to be the result of cross pollination between Emmer and Goat Grass.  This hardy relative of wheat was able to survive winter sowing so that grain could be available for the greater part of the year. 

In about 400 BC the rotary quern was invented, removing much of the drudgery of grinding, and grain was being stored either in granaries or sealed pits.  So successful were these early farmers that they even had some grain to export.

When the Romans conquered Britain in AD 43 they continued our farming development.  They cultivated rye and oats alongside the wheat (spelt) and barley that was already being grown.  They introduced water mills and drying furnaces that were so efficient that Britain became the granary of the Roman Empire.  Sadly no remains or record of Romano-British bread has ever been found and the only clues are from the restaurant that was preserved at Pompeii.  This listed 14 different types and showed that the richer you were the whiter your bread and the more likely it was to be flavoured with poppy, celery, anise or caraway seed.

Following the fall of the Roman Empire wheat production fell under the Saxon invaders, who preferred their native Rye.  It was not until the Middle Ages that wheat was once again highly prized for the whiteness of the flour, although it was available only to the rich. Coarse bread for trenchers was made from Barley or Rye, and the bread of the common people was Maslin – a mix of wheat and rye.

The wheat grown at this time was mainly Triticum turgidum, a soft wheat that has since been replaced by Triticum aestivum.  In the second half of the 20th century dwarf cultivars of Triticum aestivum were developed, and many would say this heralded the growing incidence of people developing an intolerance to wheat.  Research is now being undertaken into the potential value of older strains, both for the benefit of our health and also their hardiness, which may be better able to cope with the changes in climate we anticipate.

If we ate less meat we could use the land currently producing animal feed to feed ourselves, or so it has been argued.  Yet around half of all the barley we grow does not make the premium malting grade and 40% of wheat is fed to animals.  The worldwide demand for wheat is growing and if we are to be more self-reliant it appears we will need not only to identify strains that will grow well here but also get reacquainted with the bakery that suits our grains.  For the rest of this article I shall be looking at the potential of Spelt to fulfil our culinary needs, with oats and barley to be considered at a later date.

Spelt may sound a strange choice to start with as it hasn’t been grown in any quantity in this country since Roman times.  However it is now being grown with considerable success in my home county of Somerset and demand is certainly on the up, with several food writers proclaiming it the new “hot thing”.  The reason for this rise in popularity is mainly to do with the growing number of people who have problems eating modern wheat, and Spelt seems to be a more acceptable alternative.  As previously mentioned, spelt is thought to be the result of cross-pollination between the ancient wheat variety Emmer and Goat Grass.  Its protein content is typically 25% higher than the modern wheat grown in this country but, critically, is of a different molecular structure, being more brittle and therefore more easily broken down and digested.

The downsides come with yield and difficulty in grinding Spelt.  It is what is known as a “covered wheat” because of the incredibly hard husk that surrounds it.  This accounts for around 40% of its weight, and so far this has little value, although the possibilities of using it as a bio-fuel are being investigated.  This 40% loss is from a yield that is already about half that of conventional wheat.  What is being grown here in Somerset is being grown organically, as part of a four-year cycle, within a mixed farm.  Sharpham Park is the UK’s main producer, although small amounts of spelt are also grown, and milled into wholegrain flour, by Gilchesters in the North East.  As demand has shot up in recent years the gap has been filled mainly by importing from Europe.  As with conventional wheat there are many strains of Spelt, some of which may be as a result of crosses with modern wheat that could adversely affect the structure of the protein.  Sharpham Park has been careful to grow only from their own seed to ensure the continued purity of the strain.  Growing for seed accounts for the majority of the Spelt grown on the Sharpham Park estate itself, but by guaranteeing other organic farmers a set price, it is spreading throughout Somerset.  Regarding its hardiness, owner Roger Saul, confirmed that his spelt has produced high quality bread flour in two out of the last three notoriously difficult harvests, although interestingly some forays into growing it across the border in Dorset have not produced the same quality. It works for him, he said, but he wouldn’t want to make claims on behalf of others whilst being more than willing to share the benefit of his experiences with anyone interested in starting to grow spelt.

Clearly home-grown Spelt is considerably more expensive than wheat, but I can imagine that if you are not able to eat wheat you would happily pay the price.  What of those who don’t have such health concerns?  I was initially motivated to try Sharpham Park’s spelt products purely by my desire to support local farming but several products in their extensive range have become permanent fixtures in my larder.  My day starts with my own granola blend which includes Sharpham Park’s toasted spelt flakes and puffed spelt (without a honey coating, but you may prefer it with).  Sharpham Park of course blend their own mixes of muesli and granola, but my favourite product in their whole range is the pearled spelt.  Before this became available here I used to import Farro (a Spelt cultivar) from Italy.  It is particularly invaluable at this “in-between potatoes” time of year, but I consider it an essential store cupboard staple all year round.  I use it instead of rice to make a type of “risotto” – perfect for making leftover roast meat go further or as a hearty vegetarian dish in its own right.  I hesitate slightly to describe the dish as risotto or even Speltotto as it is sometimes called, as risotto is a very fine dish in its own right and too much comparison is not always helpful.  But just as there are different types of risotto rice, each with their own characteristics, pearled spelt can be considered an extension of this range.  It is easier to cook than a risotto – more forgiving over timing and does not need such constant stirring.  The end result is more rustic and hearty, but none the less delicious for that.  A more British name for the dish would be Frumenty.  This is one of the oldest ways of cooking wheat in which the natural sweetness of the wheat grain is released by long slow cooking.   It dates back at least to the Roman occupation and something similar can be found wherever the Romans went.  By the Middle Ages it had become a feast day accompaniment for venison, cooked with milk, enriched with eggs, and coloured with saffron, which might sound strange to modern tastes, but its origins are still evident in our use of bread sauce with game today.  It was some time before Frumenty became available to the common people but around the 17th century farmers wives began selling the partially cooked wheat at market so that people could finish the cooking at home, enriched with whatever they could afford.  It was still a dish for special occasions though, being associated with Christmas and Easter in particular.  The origins of Frumenty predate enclosed ovens, but the similarities with rice pudding occurred to me and when making Frumenty with milk as a sweet dish this is the method I prefer.  However, savoury Frumenty, cooked with meat stock, I prepare in a similar way to Risotto.

Continuing the analogies with rice, I should mention that the whole spelt grain is also available, which is firmer in texture and nuttier in flavour than the pearled.  It would make a good substitute for wild rice and is at its best served cold.

A recent discovery is that the refined flour makes good pasta.  Yes- honestly, I was sceptical myself when it was first suggested to me, remembering the days before Italian “00” flour was available here and I tried the suggested alternative of bread flour, which was hopeless.  I was also concerned that the nutty flavour would be too dominate, but so far it has worked in all the combinations I have tried.  My recipe for Nettle Ravioli is below.

As far as bread is concerned, a 3-minute loaf has been much promoted for Spelt.  My whole instinct, admittedly based on baking bread with modern wheat, is that however brittle the gluten in Spelt, it would surely still benefit from a period of fermentation.  Not being gluten intolerant I can’t put the health angle to the test, but what I do know is that the flavour and digestive benefits that come from allowing lactic acids to build up will not start to occur until at least 6 hours into fermentation.  So I tend to agree with Shipton Mill’s baker, Clive Mellum, when he says that long fermentation, using small amounts of yeast, is his preferred method when baking with Spelt.  You can see his white spelt recipe here: 

I find a 100% whole meal spelt loaf rather too heavy for my liking so cheat a little by using half white and half wholemeal flour, which you could make using Clive Mellum’s white spelt method.  You will find my own recipe below, in which I have added Rosemary and raisins to emphasise the sweet, nutty flavour of spelt, which I think makes a perfect accompaniment for cheese.  Otherwise you can use spelt as a substitute in pretty much any wheat bread recipe.  The fermentation time will be a little faster, and as with any change in flour, water absorption rates vary, but it handles essentially in the same way as wheat.  I’m afraid I haven’t yet tasted a spelt pastry, cake or biscuit that I have enjoyed – and that surely is their purpose, but I guess that were I unable to eat a wheat alternative they might become more attractive although my thoughts turn first to oats for wheat-free sweet treats.

So could Spelt provide a solution to our future grain production?

 Sharpham Park began growing it when Roger Saul’s sister was ill with cancer and as far as I can read the situation they are still primarily selling it on its health benefits.  From a culinary standpoint what makes it a real winner for me is their wide range of preparations which thankfully mean I need look no further than my home county for my staple grain.


Frumenty with Leeks and Wild Garlic

Frumenty Baked in the Oven

Nettle Ravioli

Spelt, Rosemary and Raisin Bread

Buying British Spelt:

Take Time to make Good Bread

Selection of Traditional British Breads

The archetypal image of a baker working all night so that there would be fresh loaves for the morning put many off entering baking as a profession.  In France, twice daily bakings were the norm so that a second fresh baguette could be purchased on the way home.  This level of turnover once paid the bills, but the Chorleywood Bread-making Process, developed in 1961, mechanised bread-making primarily with high speed mixing, but also with greater amounts of yeast and higher temperatures.  It cut the bulk fermentation time from three hours to about as many minutes with the result that bread can now be baked continuously throughout the day (or night).  It is hard for a traditional baker to compete financially with this mass production.

What of the home baker?  Similar “advances” have been made to help them.  The Chorleywood process has been adapted for home bread makers.  These may not have the same high speed mixing ability, but with the aid of fast-acting yeasts the cook’s involvement in the process now requires little more than tipping in the ingredients.

What affect does cutting fermentation have on the end loaf?  I think of gluten (the protein in flour that enables it to stretch as the dough rises) as being like bubble gum and during the fermentation process it will be partially “digested” making its final digestion by us much easier.  When you cut this stage out, people often report a bloated feeling after eating bread.  The glycaemic value is lowered by this fermentation process, meaning that the body absorbs the energy over a longer period of time.  The bread will have a crisper crust and a chewier crumb and also be likely to stale less quickly.

In Fare Exchange, written in 1963, Dorothy Allen-Gray commented…

Unless you have experimented you cannot realise the difference in the flavour, volume, tenderness and texture between a bread dough allowed to rise slowly and gently and a dough quickened by the use of too much yeast or heat”.

Dorothy Allen-Gray was of course writing in the very early days following the introduction of the Chorleywood Bread-making Process and since then even more has been understood about its implications.  She refers to the use of too much yeast, and in addition to the advantages of long fermentation mentioned above, there are additional reasons for not wanting to use more yeast than is absolutely necessary.  In the past the main reason was cost, but yeast is now very cheaply grown on molasses so that cost is no longer the issue.  However, the by-products of compressed yeast production are not very environmentally friendly, and in fact there is no commercial yeast produced in this country that is certified organic, although you may be able to buy some imported from Germany.  Too much yeast can also upset the natural balance of bacteria within the gut.  How much is too much?  Well, you do not need to increase yeast proportionate to the amount of dough you are trying to raise, but as a rough rule of thumb fresh yeast at a proportion of 1% to the amount of flour would be fine in a plain bread dough (enriched doughs need more), i.e. 10 grammes of fresh yeast to 1kg of flour.  It is not uncommon to find bakers using three times this amount, which is definitely too much.

In English Bread and Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David puts forward the practical advantages of long fermentation for the cook:

To me it seems both convenient and practical to give bread dough a long fermentation.  Rather like meat steeping in a marinade it is looking after itself while you are asleep or busy with other jobs.  What could be less troublesome?”

I find it especially convenient to ferment dough overnight if I want to eat the results sometime in the morning.  For that reason alone I would advocate an overnight fermentation for this month’s Hot Cross Buns recipe, although as Elizabeth David pointed out …”this method for rich cake and fruit bread is against every accepted rule” even though it was a rule she too found convenient to break.

Why should it be an exception to use long fermentation for enriched, sweetened doughs I wonder?  Initially these yeasted cakes were made with leftover dough from the main bread making.  As fats and spices make it harder for the yeast to work (although sugar boosts its rate of action) I would have expected fermentation of enriched dough to have taken longer.  If the dough is made specifically for a sweet cake it is usual for a greater proportion of yeast to be used to counteract the added fats and spices.  After about 5 hours fermentation it is true that some wild yeasts will develop, which give a slightly sour note that may not have been thought desirable in sweet breads.  However, any sourness after this time is very slight.

There is another factor in favour of long fermentation for enriched doughs – they tend to be more difficult to knead.  Kneading encourages the protein molecules to bind together to form a web of gluten.  In slow fermentation the molecules would eventually find one another, the process being easier the wetter the mixture. In The Handmade Loaf Master Baker Dan Lepard describes how he stumbled across this by accident when he was responsible for making the bread in a busy restaurant kitchen.  He was frequently interrupted to perform some more immediate task but found on returning to the bread dough that it was as if someone had performed the kneading in his absence.  Eventually he incorporated these breaks into his technique – deliberately mixing flour and water to begin with and then leaving them for a period of at least half an hour before adding the yeast sponge.  Short periods of kneading, sufficient merely to combine the ingredients, were interspersed with longer periods of rest so that the total kneading was minimal.  I have used this method myself ever since reading about it, and taught it in my cookery classes, where it has been especially valued by people who, through age or illness, find kneading difficult.

Any existing recipe can easily be adapted to slow fermentation.  The components that affect the speed of fermentation are yeast and temperature, so it is just a matter of adjusting these.  Compressed yeast appears to have become more “efficient” over the years so that smaller amounts are required than stated in older recipes.  It has become more difficult to buy fresh yeast nowadays and the old rule of thumb used to be that if you substituted dried only half the amount was needed.  However even the dried yeast has changed as the vast majority of what is available was designed for use in bread machines.  These contain one or more of the following to make them faster acting: hydrating agent, ascorbic acid, alpha amylase.   There is only one traditional dried yeast sold now (made by Allinsons) and personally this is the only one I would use, but if you have to use anything else I would halve the quantity again to get a slower fermentation.  All bakers agree that fresh yeast produces better results than dried, but a small amount, left to ferment overnight so that the yeasts multiply, is acceptable.

The main techniques used in long fermentation fall into the following categories:

  • Cool Temperature

This alone can be sufficient to ensure fermentation is slow.  Some bakers prepare their dough and leave it in a refrigerator overnight.  The technique is however usually combined with a reduction of about half the yeast.

  • Sponge and Dough

This is the most popular method.  Half the normal amount of yeast, together with half of the flour and somewhere between half and all of the water, are mixed together and left at room temperature overnight (if all of the water is used the sponge will be quite wet).  During the night the yeast will multiply and some wild yeast (lactobacilli) will develop.  In the morning the sponge is added to the remaining flour, water and salt for a second fermentation, which will be shorter than had all the ingredients been fermented together (two hours is normally sufficient at a warm room temperature).

  • Wild Yeast

Wild yeast is naturally much slower acting than commercial compressed yeast.  It does have a slightly sour flavour (hence the name Sourdough) and produces a much chewier crumb.  Neither of these attributes are usually desirable in sweet doughs although there are exceptions, for example a traditionally made Panettone would be made with wild yeast, the big benefit being that the sour lactobacilli kill bacteria making the enriched dough last for a long time without the need for artificial preservatives.

Developing a wild yeast starter is a lengthy, somewhat hit and miss affair, but once you have this it is easy to keep going and always to hand.  Bread made with wild yeast has an even lower glycaemic value than overnight doughs made with commercial yeast too.

To experience the benefits of long fermentation yourself this month’s recipes, including delicious Hot Cross Buns, are based on the Sponge and Dough technique.

The Great British Banger

British Farmers are reportedly losing an average of £21 a pig at the moment so last week the British Pig Association led a rally to present a giant sausage to Downing Street.  I’m not sure exactly what the government were expected to do about it.   It might have been a good time to open serious debate about pigswill, because in my opinion until we start treating consumers as adults who can understand the issues farmers face, I don’t think we stand much chance of persuading them to spend more of their already strained food budget on higher production standards.

However, my place is to talk about food culture, and whilst the above comment shows how far we still have to go in developing this in the UK, what can be said is that we love our sausages and presenting pork in this form is a good way for farmers to add value to their basic product.

Some years ago I attended a course to learn more about making sausages.  We were given a number of ingredients, including pork with varying degrees of fat, and encouraged to experiment in pairs.  Later we got to taste one another’s sausages and, despite a few differences that can be put down to personal preferences, we achieved a surprisingly high degree of consensus about what makes a good sausage.  These were the main points:

Fat Content

The single most important lesson we learnt was that a reasonable level of fat is required to produce a succulent sausage.  Health considerations had led most people to choose the leanest meat, but the best results came from those sausages that incorporated a percentage of diced back fat.  With the pork we were using on the course, we concluded that equal proportions of shoulder and belly pork gave the best results.  Subsequently I have realised that this depends on the fat content of the pig concerned.  When I made sausages using traditionally reared Tamworth pigs, this 50/50 mix actually gave too much fat and sausages made entirely with shoulder meat were better.  So there will still be a degree of trial and error, but don’t assume lean meat produces the better sausage.

Meat Content

Directly related to the above is the question of whether to include any “filler”.  We found that including 15% of dry breadcrumbs helped retain some of the fat in the sausage giving a more succulent result than 100% meat.


Classic combinations of fresh herbs and spices worked best.  They have become classics for a reason and those who had tried to be too inventive were usually disappointed with the results.  See here for recipes giving some of the classic regional flavourings.

I hope you also noted the adjective fresh in relation to herbs and spices.  Most butchers buy ready mixed flavourings to create a range of popular sausages.  The companies that supply sausage skins usually try to sell these by including a free pack or two with your order.  A mere sniff was enough to confirm how musty and unappetising they were.  Dried herbs also have a tendency to repeat on the eater.


The main reason I know for people making sausages at home is because it is so difficult to buy sausages without preservatives.  The reasons for wanting to avoid preservatives vary – one person swears that she can taste them; others are concerned about the link between nitrosamines and cancer.  My main gripe is that they are so often incorporated as part of the dreaded pre-mixed flavouring packs – although it is possible to buy the preservatives alone.

I can understand why most producers include them.  The very name of the potentially lethal toxin Clostridium botulinum, which gives rise to botulism, is derived from the Latin word for sausage, reminding us that they are a common source of food poisoning.  There is also the issue of shelf-life.  Sausages without preservatives should be used within three days.  I have learnt not assume that all frozen sausages are inferior as very often this is the compromise to which producers who do not use preservatives have to resort.

Without any chemical additions it is of course paramount that you adhere carefully to sound hygiene practices when making sausages.  In particular meat should be kept in the fridge until it is needed as once minced the smaller pieces are already warming providing the ideal conditions in which bacteria breed.  The toxins that develop from the presence of Clostridium botulinum are destroyed by temperatures above 160˚F (71˚C) so ensuring the sausages are cooked through is the final important safeguard.  Providing you follow these guidelines, there is really no need to use chemical additives.

Size of Sausage

We found that larger sausages remained more succulent than thinner ones, i.e. approximately six sausages to the pound rather than the eight that are frequently found.

This may be the time to warn that sausages made in this way are likely to cost around £5 per pound – or almost a pound per sausage.  Making them yourself does not usually result in great cost savings, unless you make huge quantities, and it is probably not worth making less than 10lbs of sausages.





Suzanne Wynn describes a traditional way to eat like a prince and help solve the world’s food problems all at the same time.

Plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety – the mantra for Enlightened Agriculture and thankfully, as Colin points out, the basis of traditional cooking the world over. However, meat, and in particular The Roast, has long played a central role in British food culture and so this article begins the exploration of how our current meat consumption needs to change if we are to feed ourselves in 2050 by looking at meat from sheep.

In the Middle Ages Britain’s wealth was founded on the wool trade and even today we have far more sheep than any other country in Europe. We have 40 native pure breeds, more than any other country in the world, which are ideally suited to the terrain where they first evolved. There are also 12 recognised crossbreeds, accounting for about 40 per cent of the national flock.

Sheep play a vital role in managing the countryside, much of which depends on grazing, but 70 per cent of the sheep meat produced in the UK now comes from lowland sheep, even though this is land that is most likely to be suited to other forms of agriculture.

Without income from wool, the economics of sheep farming are particularly difficult for hill farmers, as the breeds that suit these difficult conditions tend to be much smaller and typically take more than a year to reach maturity. Modern preferences for meat served rare have also tended to favour young lamb. However there has now been some revival in interest in mutton, aided by the creation of The Mutton Renaissance Campaign They officially classify mutton as being from sheep of more than 2 years in age. Past its first year lamb is usually described as hogget. Traditionalists argue that mutton is always the meat from a wether (a castrated male sheep). Today it is most likely to come from a breeding ewe that has reached the end of its productive life. Both two-year old wethers and five-year old breeding ewes are available from the Blackface Meat Company:

Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England features a very comprehensive section on mutton beginning with the caution “do not treat all types of mutton in the same way”. This is followed by a discourse on various breeds and rearing methods, then recipes divided into two sections: mountain mutton and fat stock mutton. She observes “whereas in the mountain mutton the job was to get enough fat to cook it with, with the fatter mutton, the job is to keep it from being too greasy”.

This distinction seems to have been forgotten, and most people assume that any mutton must be very fatty. The following picture shows three legs of lamb from different areas of Somerset, each slaughtered at around 15 months of age. The first, and fattest, is a crossbreed from the Brendon Hills, whilst the second and by far the leanest, is a Shetland from the Mendip Hills. The third is also a crossbreed from the salt marshes near Bridgwater Bay.

It is quite obvious when you look at the three together that the Shetland needs more protection than the other two. This is typical of pure breeds as most cross-breeding was intended to increase the meat yield. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is of the opinion that mutton from a two-year old wether can be cooked quickly and served pink, like lamb. However, the only mutton I have ever been served rare was tough and chewy. I confess I have no idea of the age of that mutton, or for how longed it was hung, but long slow cooking is my preferred method for mutton.

Earlier this year I took a group of students from Italy’s University of Gastronomic Sciences to visit some British producers. One of the topics we looked at was this subject of eating older lamb. First they ate two-year old Portland mutton, casseroled in a cream and mushroom sauce. Given their expectation that it would be fatty, the cream was unexpected. However, the Portland breed evolved to live on the scrubby vegetation covering the limestone rock that is the Isle of Portland and, although the beast we ate had been reared on kinder terrain near Lyme Regis, Portlands are genetically slow to fatten and thus very lean and in need of this type of protection during cooking.

Portland Sheep

The students’ second exposure to slow-cooked lamb came from a hogget, reared on the Mendip Hills, and with a good covering of fat, which was completely rendered during the slow cooking. One of the students declared these two meals of lamb to be the best he had ever tasted. I was not surprised. It has long been my view that young lamb is bland. Sheep that have grazed extensively on wild herbage take on additional subtle flavours that can be accentuated by the choice of accompaniments. Ideally I aim to emphasise something of the animal’s natural diet. Dorothy Hartley’s section on mutton ends with a delightful illustration of the various tracklements and the caption: The mountain mutton, the fat valley breeds, the South Down and the marsh or sea-grazed mutton all take different flavours. She recommends the following combinations:

Rosemary fat lamb or mutton

Mint sauce fat lamb

Redcurrant jelly valley mutton (e.g. Gloucester, Leicester, Oxford and Shropshire)

Barberry Jelly Leicester, Norfolk and the uplands

Rowan Jelly Welsh and mountain mutton

Onion Sauce Winter mutton of the garden lands

Laver Sauce Salt-marsh mutton

Samphire Salt-marsh mutton

Caper Sauce Sturdy garden mutton

Thyme For stuffing

These distinctions have been eroded over time by our preference for young lowland lamb but I hope this article has whetted your appetite to taste different breeds from a variety of locations. My conversations with farmers of traditional breeds have often come round to a discussion about cooking. I always make a point of asking how they themselves would cook the meat because I am sure that many of the bad experiences people have had with mutton come down to problems in this area. If I may offer an example, there is now an association to market Exmoor lamb by name. Historically marketing was not the farmer’s job, and it is interesting (although also depressing) to see how many of the new breed of farmers have marketing backgrounds. The ideal scenario seems to me to be when the younger generation bring this aspect to a traditional farming background. Back to the Exmoor lamb, one person has recognised the need for better marketing and is offering to do this role for a number of farmers. What he hasn’t done yet is to sufficiently distinguish between the different farms – there is a great deal of difference to the cook between lamb that has grazed mainly on heather moorland and that which has grazed on the lower pastures. The pure breeds need also to be distinguished from the mules. However I understand that to many consumers this information would be meaningless, but that, to me, is the purpose of the marketing literature, which should always include cooking suggestions.

So, as my own starting point for appreciating mutton, I offer a classic recipe of a steamed mutton and caper suet pudding. I recommend this for a lean upland breed, although by part cooking the meat in advance there is an opportunity to remove any fat that has risen to the surface before steaming the pudding, which would not preclude a fatter lowland breed. The suet pastry gives an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with another marvel afforded by mutton – the hard fat that encases the kidneys and part of the loin. Fresh suet is a rare find nowadays, since most abattoirs destroy it as a waste product, but it is prized for its high burning point and makes pastry that is surprisingly light, non-greasy and fragrant. If you still have access to a butcher that slaughters (lucky you) he will be your best bet for obtaining suet, but by ordering in advance my butcher is able to request that his abattoir returns the suet with their lamb carcases. Suet is also found in beef, and although lamb’s suet would be better for this recipe, it is an alternative that you can consider for other recipes. I always make a point of requesting fresh suet for my Christmas Puddings and Mincemeat.

Fresh grated suet