Recently a customer asked me why the hogget he had ordered was labelled as ‘mutton’ on each package. He wondered (understandably) if we had sent him the wrong box. This led me to think about what we really mean by the terms ‘hogget’ and ‘mutton’, how our butcher defines them and what is most important for ordering and cooking our meat.
Definitions of these terms vary around the country, and have meant different things at different times through history. Even ‘lamb’ is a contested word. However, we don’t sell any lamb, as we think the sheep deserve a bit more time living care free on the farm, and – more importantly – we believe that meat from hogget or mutton is a much more deserving of a place at our (and your) table.
And here we enter the ambiguous world of descriptions. Bob Kennard’s book, ‘Much Ado About Mutton’ (which I recommend) explains that until fairly recently lambs reared during the summer became mutton after Christmas, so when they were just 9 months old. But convention now has it that a lamb becomes a hogget after first shearing (about 15 months old), and then mutton sometime between year 2 and 3. In some places, only culled ewes can be regarded as mutton, and ram lambs are forever hogget. Kennard reckons the deeper, more complex flavour of mutton does not start until the animal is about four years old. It seems that different parts of the country have different traditions on describing lamb, hogget or mutton.
Because we have full traceability for all our meat, we know exactly the age of any animal that we process and pack for you. Generally speaking, a fit male sheep over 16 months old that has never worked we class as hogget, by the fact of no longer being a lamb, but not yet being what customers would expect from mutton. But what do people ‘expect’ from mutton? The perception of mutton is that it is meat from an older ewe, which has been culled for being no longer productive, or no longer able to consume enough grass to keep in a fit condition to produce lambs. Some farms cull ewes simply because they tend to produce single lambs instead of twins, or because the ewe was a bit awkward to deal with. It won’t surprise you to learn that we hardly ever cull ewes, as we feel they have earned the right to a gentle retirement on the farm (we may cull young ewes, that for various reasons cannot produce lambs). Which means we very rarely have the true ‘cull ewe’ mutton meat to sell.
Regardless of what we may want to call it, the label could say ‘lamb’, ‘hogget’ or ‘mutton’ depending on how the butcher set up the printer that morning. Some butchers prefer to use ‘lamb’ as a generic description of meat from any kind of sheep, whilst others think the meat is either lamb or mutton, having no time for ambiguous terms like ‘hogget’.
So, if you buy hogget from us, what are you getting? We do not want to be in the position of killing sheep earlier then necessary, just to meet an arbitrary cut-off date of when they transform from hogget to mutton (or to make labelling easier for our butcher). Therefore, we class hogget as anything up to about 40 months old, which seems to work well for us. Not what some butchers would call hogget, but not really mutton either. Perhaps ‘mogget’ is a better description, but I doubt that will catch on.