It is of course traditional to eat “spring” lamb at Easter. It has also become traditional each Easter for the bougie food press to point out that spring lamb is not in fact seasonal for eating in spring. Spring lamb is born in spring. You don’t eat it until late summer/autumn.
And I will be no different.
It is not seasonal to eat lamb in spring. Spring lamb is born in spring. You don’t eat it until late summer/autumn.
This works out quite well for people in the southern hemisphere, who have Easter in the autumn and Christmas in the summer (I note parenthetically as an expatriate southern hemisphereite that I am on the receiving end of incredulity from northern hemisphereites regarding the whole “Christmas in summer??” thing far too often for my own comfort. The first hurdle is getting these otherwise intelligent people to accept that December is in fact a summer month in Australia including the 25th. If you can clear that, the next difficulty is trying to persuade them that it is not necessary to pity us for enjoying a major holiday in relative warmth. “Yes it was horrible growing up with Christmas in summer. All those years of lobster lunches followed by running around in the back yard with my top off really scarred me.” Hardly).
But what to do if you’re English? Well, you can either eat some lamb flown in from New Zealand, or you can just eat the inferior stuff born in winter and sold in spring (rather disingenuously in some cases as “new season” lamb) that has not had the benefit of running around in, and eating, the lush summer grass, and as a consequence tastes nowhere near as happy as lamb born in spring and eaten in autumn. Neither of these is entirely satisfactory.
The answer in my opinion is to eat hogget or mutton instead. Hogget is what lamb becomes on its first birthday, mutton on its second. It is therefore possible to eat at Easter the tasty stuff born in spring, but a year or two previously. I get my mutton from the East London Steak Company, who offer a superb service. It’s all dry-aged, rare breed, hand-cut stuff delivered straight to your door, even on a Saturday.
Hogget and mutton are not tough, contrary to common belief, if cooked the right way. Indeed the tastiest, tenderest meat I’ve eaten this year was roast mutton at Young Turks at Ten Bells. It takes balls to serve mutton, roasted pink, to your diners and give them a butter knife to eat it with, but nothing more was necessary. And the taste is better than lamb, or at least the type of lamb available at the moment. And mutton has the whole “ye olde Henry the Eighth” connotation, so you can bring out your inner Tudor.
Here is a recipe for a spiced mutton pie. I have adapted it from a recipe leaflet I picked up at Canteen, which is pretty much the only thing that can make a trip to Canary Wharf bearable, and even then, only just. It feels like you’re eating in an airport departure lounge, and the service can be a bit weird. (Our waitress delivered three gins and tonics and exclaimed “it’s party time!” as if we were out to get pissed on a hen night. For the avoidance of doubt, we were not). But gee the food is good there. I don’t think I’ve ever had better mackerel paté. I probably could have eaten my weight in it.
For the pastry:
300g plain flour
Pinch of salt
150mL ice-cold water
For the filling:
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 fennel, diced
2tsp curry powder
1tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp ground coriander
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1kg mutton leg meat, in 2-3cm dice. It is easy enough to cut this yourself from a de-boned leg of mutton
400g can of chopped tomatoes
250mL lamb stock (or other meat stock if unavailable)
2tbsp tomato puree
1 small potato, diced
A few tablespoons of plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper
- Heat the oil in a flameproof casserole over medium to high heat. Sweat the onion, carrot and fennel in the oil, stirring occasionally until soft but without colouring – about 15 minutes. Then add the spices and garlic and cook for another 5 minutes, being careful to ensure the spices do not burn.
- Meanwhile dust the meat in the seasoned flour and brown in a separate frying pan in small batches. There are important and specific rules about browning meat for slow cooking in my other recipe, here. Obey them. This step does not feature in Canteen’s recipe, and I don’t know why.
- Add the mutton to the casserole, along with the tomatoes, tomato puree, stock, treacle, and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender but not collapsing. You can do this over a low heat on the hob, or in an oven set to 110C. Then add the potato and cook for another 30 minutes. Allow the filling to cool, preferably overnight. Slow cooked meat always tastes better the next day and in the case of this pie, I found that the quite spicy sauce really mellows by the next day.
- Then make the pastry. (You could use JusRoll Janet if you’re not serious but I like making pastry. The following method is for rough puff. This video does better justice than my words – it’s not quite the same method but you get the idea). Put the butter in the freezer until hard. Grate the butter into the flour and then pulse in a food processor until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the water slowly and pulse until the mixture is brought together in a ball. (I actually prefer to do this last step by hand with a wooden spoon in a bowl as my food processor has an uncanny inability to bring anything together into a ball). Knead the pastry gently just to bring it all together coherently and then wrap in cling film and chill for 30 mins.
- Roll out your pastry ball into a rectangle about 1cm thick with the longer edge facing you. Fold the two outer thirds in over the middle third so that you have a triple layered pastry stack in front of you. Turn the pastry 90 degrees and once again roll out the pastry to a thickness of 1cm and repeat the folding in process. You have now done two “turns” of the pasty. Put it into the fridge and chill for 30 mins. Take it out and do another 2 turns. Put it back into the fridge and chill for 30 mins. Take it out and do another 2 turns. You have now done 6 turns and can use your pastry for its intended purpose.
- Cut off 1/3 of the pastry and set aside for the lid. Roll out the larger piece of pastry to fit a 23cm (ish) pie dish. Line the dish with some pastry hanging over the sides. Brush the rim with beaten egg.
- Fill the pastry with the cooled filling.
- Roll out the lid into a disc to fit the top of the pie. Press down firmly around the edges with a knife or for, to make a pattern. Trim off the excess pastry. If you like, use it to make a decoration for the top. Make 3 steam holes in the lid. Brush the lid with beaten egg.
- Bake at 180C for 35-40mins. Serve with mashed potatoes and greens of your choice.
Wine suggestion: any full bodied red wine. I suspect the best match would be a vigorous Gigondas, from the Southern Rhone, but I already had my heart set on opening a 1996 Chateau Lafon Rochet St Estephe, which was equally good.