Preserving Food Preserves Life, or, Mutton in the Pot

Sheep 2
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

I harbor a dirty little secret.

I quite dislike the taste of mutton. For a writer who writes about food, that’s almost as bad as saying “I hate liver.” That’s also true and makes me quite suspect, especially when I mumble about French cuisine.

Anyway, fortunately for me when I was kid, mutton never crossed the threshold of my mother’s kitchen. No, sheep remained their frolicking, fuzzy selves in my world.

But it is true that the flesh of sheep played – and still plays – a large role in the diets and cultures of many, many people across the globe.

At first blush, it appears that people chose to slaughter sheep – sheep being smaller than cattle or pigs – to cook and eat them in their entirety for feasts, or perhaps in times of famine. There was a larger chance that there’d be no need to preserve any fresh flesh, because a significant portion could be eaten at one go. There was, of course, haggis, which in spite of a strong Scots ancestry on my part, I have never eaten, even though the principle of production of that gem followed the general techniques of pork preservation.

A closer look at the literature reveals that people adapted many of the methods used for preserving pork to mutton, including something called Macon, which took the place of bacon in Britain during the Second World War.*

Many other ways for preserving mutton stem from the British Isles. Dry curing was one way, in much the same manner as pork hams. The well-known cookbook author, Hannah Glasse (1708-1770), provided detailed instructions for dry-curing mutton hams, placing the meat in a dry cure with salt and sugar for three weeks, then cold-smoking it over oak and juniper, followed by a maturation period of eight months, a practice stemming from Cumbria in the northwest of England. According to Jennifer Stead, this practice apparently dated from Elizabethan times or earlier.

Mama and lambs
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Drying lamb flesh, observed in the Faroe Islands by G. Landt in 1810 (A Description of the Feroe Islands), entailed splitting lambs in half and spreading them out, “butterflying” them if you will, and leaving them to hang in the cold dry air for several months. Mutton could undergo the same treatment, but took much longer to dry properly. A similar product was reestit mutton, hung on rafters (reestit) in croft houses with open peat fire in the Shetland Islands.

Another technique, quite ancient, was potting. Peter Brears devoted a whole chapter to this topic in “Pots for Potting.” Interestingly enough, the process of boiling or frying meat to rend out fat and then packing the meat into a pot, covering the meat with the rendered fat, is one practiced in Lebanon, France, and England. Brears quotes the Bedford Mss. 432/4, p. 39 – 40, from Leeds University’s Brotherton Library, where a Mr. Wood of Slaidburn says that all mutton except legs was treated in pots, topped with melted butter, even until the early twentieth century. Many Lebanese still consider Qawrama, or spiced mutton preserved in fat a jar, a real treat. And what would France’s signature cassoulet be without duck confit, duck legs preserved in the same manner?

Rarely do we find accounts of the experiments that people no doubt conducted as they searched for procedures for best preserving their food, for hoarding the excesses of their harvests and hunts. The following newspaper articles summarize the early attempts of Australians to ship fresh sheep meat to England. A Professor Gamgee suggested the following method:

The animal is made to inhale carbonic oxide gas, and when it has become insensible is bled to death in the usual way. The carcass is dressed, and then suspended in an air-tight chamber; the air is exhausted, and the receiver is filled with the gas before mentioned. After remaining exposed to the vapour for from twenty-four to forty-eight hours it is removed and hung in a dry atmosphere; that is all.

From: The McIvor Times and Rodney Advertiser,  Friday 17 July, 1868

It sounded plausible to a number of businessmen and so they tried it, with quite unsatisfactory results:

A NUMBER of gentlemen interested in meat-preserving assembled at the custom-house, Melbourne, on the 30th June, for the purpose of inspecting a parcel of meat consigned to Messrs. McCulloch, Sellar, and Co., by the ship “Crusader,” and preserved by Professor Gamgee’s process. The Telegraph reports that the meat, which consisted of mutton and pork, had been placed in wooden cases, barrels, and some in a vessel made of boiler plates with a hermetically-fitting lid. Portions of the preserved-meat were packed in tallow, some in oat husks, and the remaining joints were sewn in canvas, and also packed in oat husks. On opening the wooden case the tallow was found to be mildewed and emitted a decidedly unpleasant odour. The meat, as well as that in the barrels and iron vessel, was either tainted or quite bad. Of the two the pork was in the better condition; but it, as well as the mutton, was quite unfitted for human consumption. The trial cannot be regarded other than unfavourable.

From: Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, Monday, 18 July, 1870, p. 3)

Sheep at trough color edfex
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

As I consider these methods of preservation, I cannot help but think of the joy that people must have felt, the sense of relief that food sat in pantries and root cellars, ready for the lean days and months to come. And then I consider what a disaster it would be to have food go bad, what difficulty another attempt would mean, with the potential waste of food that that entailed.

* So just what is mutton? Darina Allen offers the following definitions:

Suckling: milk-fed lamb available only in the spring

Spring lamb: born before Christmas and ready for cooking by Easter

Lamb: between Easter and the following Christmas

Hogget: lamb that survives through its second Christmas (about 1 year old or more)

Mutton: more than two years old [Note: Also known as “wether”]

For further contemplation:

See also my previous two posts on lamb and mutton – A Glass of Wine and a Bit of Mutton and The Zen of Sheep: More than Just a Photo Shoot

Allen, Darina. Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best (Kyle Books, 2009)

Allen, Gary. Can It! The Perils and Pleasures of Preserving Food (Reakion Books, 2016)

Brears, Peter. Cooking & Dining in Medieval England (Prospect Books, 2008)

_____. “Pots for Potting.” In: C. Anne Wilson, ed. ‘Waste Not, Want Not’: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day (Edinburgh University Press, 1991, p. 32 – 65)

Fischer, David Hackett, “Albion and the Critics: Further Evidence and Reflection.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 260-308.

_____. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford University Press, 1989)

Hilliard, Sam Bowers. Hog Meat and Hoe Cake (Southern Illinois University Press, 1972)

Owensboro, Kentucky Mutton Barbecue

Stead, Jennifer, “Necessities and Luxuries: Food preservation from the Elizabethan to Georgian Times.” In: C. Anne Wilson, ed. ‘Waste Not, Want Not’: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day (Edinburgh University Press, 1991, p. 66 – 103)

Wilson, C. Anne. “Preserving Food to Preserve Life.” In: C. Anne Wilson, ed. ‘Waste Not, Want Not’: Food Preservation from Early Times to the Present Day (Edinburgh University Press, 1991, p. 5 – 31)

Fence with chain
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

© 2013, 2016 C. Bertelsen


8 thoughts on “Preserving Food Preserves Life, or, Mutton in the Pot

  1. Cynthia, you are *so* right about the taste of summer in the middle of winter–no commercially canned tomato sauce can live up to it. And yes, I agree that the kale leaf is *wizard*!!!!!!!!!! Very beautiful background.


  2. Melinda – I’ve yet to can tomatoes, but I recall my parents doing that when I was a child – I adored the taste of the tomato juice months later, when the snow stood knee-high, and the red taste of summer in my mouth made me forget winter.

    Mike – I identify with your wife’s reaction. It’s like one suddenly because a bloodhound on the scent! Thanks for the wizard comment … .

    Tony – The kitchen table is a new one.


  3. Yes Macon, or more properly Mam? I used Elizabeth David’s pickling spice recipe on a leg of Sheep. Here in South Africa it is probably Hogget. Also probably overpriced.
    I boned it, and dry salted it. Every day I would drain off the exuded liquid and rub more salt mixture on and in. It took about two weeks. I should have pressed it more aggressively because it didn’t slice pretty. Sure tasted good , though. With beer!
    It’s dry here in the Winter. Not too cold, maybe 21/3 degrees C. This was done in a bowl on the dining room table.


  4. I love lamb, goat and mutton and order them whenever they appear on a menu. A goat with goat jus that I had one night in an Italian restaurant in Canberra will remain in my culinary memory until I die. The accompanying magnificent shiraz didn’t hurt the cause. I love Chèvre and goat’s milk butter. On the rare occasions when I’ve tried to sneak goat dairy into my cooking for the two of us, my wife always notices and immediately pronounces it “gamy” no matter how sneaky I think I’m being. Whenever she goes away for a few days, my first trip is to the market for a leg of lamb. Judging from our larger circle of family and friends, there really seems to be a fundamental human dichotomy between goat & lamb lovers or haters. Well-aged or preserved mutton sounds fine to me, but you’ve probably established yet another gate here.

    That kale photo is absolutely wizard!


  5. Can’t say I eat lamb or mutton, being more or less vegetarian, but it’s a beautifully written post, nice photos, and an interesting bibliography! And I like the sense of history you conjure up, as well as that remarkable feeling of security when there’s food “put up” for the winter (I feel that way about my canned tomatoes–tried it for the first time last summer!)


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