Meeting Mutton

After a tempestuous Dartmoor hike, I’m huddled in a towel in the back of Poppy RustyBus. One thing is abundantly clear – autumn is upon us. The days are getting shorter and it’s becoming more than acceptable to curl up indoors in front of the fire.

Unless you’re an outdoorsman like me, that is, for we tend to be eking the last of the dwindling daylight hours, refusing to be penned into the house until at least the first frost of winter has bitten. Autumn is definitely a season for getting the most out of what we have left.

For farmers, it’s all about preparing for the oncoming winter. The fattening up of livestock is paramount for either getting through the chilly months ahead, or fetching a decent price at market on the run up to Christmas.

With the seasonal fat comes flavour, particularly in my favourite winter meat – mutton. To this day I remain baffled as to why so many people disregard mutton as a prime meat. I’d sooner use a superior cut of mutton loin than scrag end lamb for the same price.

It’s not just about penny pinching though. Embracing the richer flavours of mutton allows you to pair it with bold and powerful seasonings, giving you far more bang for your buck.

Ian and Gillian Dixon introduced me to their flocks of rare breed sheep at South Yeo Farm East, near Okehampton. Knowing that I was on the hunt for a reliable source of quality mutton, they quickly led me to a nearby field of Balwen sheep. This hardy Welsh mountain breed may be small, but they produce exquisite meat – be it lamb, hogget or mutton – and their calm temperament makes them ideally suited to non-intensive farming.

“Ian and I took over the farm with just 2 fields,” Gill explains “but we are now up to 150 acres and raise rare breeds of sheep – Shropshires, Zwortbles, Jacobs, and a few others – along with rare breed poultry and cattle.”

It’s clear when talking to the Dixons that despite the farm’s size, they maintain that smallholder mentality, often referring to their livestock by given names. This level of care afforded to each and every animal is shown in the quality of the produce. The meat from their Balwen flock is rich, succulent, and gamey – not the tough-textured reputation that mutton wrongly holds.

Cooking at home in the autumn allows us the luxury of a bit of fattening up too. Those cold dark nights that creep in this month bring me cravings for deep bowls of hearty mutton stew, with fluffy suet dumplings and crusty brown loaves. This is how we prepare for winter. These aren’t just foods that warm our bodies, but also nourish our souls.