Roast mutton and other stories

"I had lately acquired a leg of gigantic lamb, last in the shop, a birthday treat capable of feeding at least eight hungry revellers, destined for a sad lockdown twosome"

Carolyn Hart

“Vicarage mutton,” food historian Dorothy Hartley wrote in her book Food in England. “Hot on Sunday, cold on Monday, hashed on Tuesday, minced on Wednesday, curried on Thursday, broth on Friday, cottage pie Saturday.”

I was thinking about Dorothy Hartley and her Vicarage roast, because I had lately acquired my own version—a leg of gigantic lamb, last in the shop, a birthday treat capable of feeding at least eight hungry revellers, destined for a sad lockdown twosome. It was astonishingly expensive too, but by dint of employing the cost-per-wear theory/excuse of the fashion world (i.e. you buy a fancy thread for Priti Patel amounts of money and then carefully whittle the cost down by wearing it at every opportunity), my leg produced a further eighteen meals (including one for the dog) at roughly £1.50 per person per meal.

It turned out to be one of the most cost-effective lumps of meat I’ve bought in ages, giving rise to numerous old-fashioned suppers and also made me think of mutton in general—a meat once revered by people like Dr Johnson and Mrs Beeton but which fell out of fashion towards the end of the 20th century. Its recent small revival has been helped by Prince Charles’s strenuous campaign for a Mutton Renaissance which he launched in 2004 at the Ritz.

Food in England, a celebration of old-fashioned English food, came out in 1954, coincidentally the same year that the American francophile and partner of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, published her own bestselling cookbook. The two could hardly be more dissimilar.

The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is famous for its hash brownies, but is more of an eccentric disquisition on life, love and the elaborate art of French food and cooking—a kind of autobiography recounted through recipes. It describes a very different attitude to food and eating from that which was to be found in post-war England—especially when it came to mutton.

Amongst references to octopus, fennel sauce and other “little known French dishes suitable for American Kitchens”, Toklas recounts the eccentric instructions for the preparation of a leg of mutton given during the war to her friend Madame Pierlot by “a surgeon living in the French Provinces”.

The surgeon’s directions begin: Eight days in advance “cover the leg of mutton with a marinade of old Burgundy, Beaune or Chambertin and virgin olive oil. Into this balm to which you have already added salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, an atom of ginger root, put a pinch of cayenne, a nutmeg cut into small pieces, a handful of crushed juniper berries and a dessertspoon of powdered sugar. Twice a day you will turn the gigot.”

But before you get on to the turning, the instructions continue, “arm yourself with a surgical syringe of a size to hold half a pint which you will fill with half a cup of cognac and half a cup of fresh orange juice. Inject the contents of the syringe into the gigot in three different spots. Each day you will refill the syringe with the marinade and inject the contents into the gigot. At the end of the week, the leg of mutton is ready to be roasted.”

Toklas assumed that the daily injections with a syringe full of cognac had been a kind of Gallic joke, but years later and much to her surprise, she found the exact recipe in Bertrand Guégan’s Le cuisinier français.

Gigot de la Clinique couldn’t be further removed from the vicarage leg whose virtue resides in simplicity. This British staple shares a much greater affinity with another French recipe for mutton originating from the Auvergne. This is a stew described by Marthe Pampille Daudet in her book Pampille’s Table (1919), an attempt to group together some of the best traditional recipes of French cooking.

When not collecting recipes, Mme Daudet had a much racier life as wife to the poet Alphonse Daudet’s son Léon. Proust makes several references to her in À la recherche du temps perdu, usually through the persona of a nostalgic Mme de Guermantes but once with a side swipe at the snobbish salonnier, M Verdurin who “died at the right moment, àpoint, as the lobsters, grilled according to Pampille’s incomparable recipe, are going to be”.

The stew in Pampille’s Table was from the Auvergne and considered by Pampille to err on the plain side. The Auvergnat is “stingy without much ambition beyond a bowl of soupe aux choux” she notes. “But for more festive occasions, he will cook up a leg of mutton with potatoes . . .” though he is “quite likely to do this without the leg of mutton”.

Life being what it is, one is more likely to encounter an Auvergnian or clerical leg of mutton than the tipsy Toklas leg which seems more like a magnificent one-off, never to be recreated. And anyway, would its leftovers feed another eighteen people? Alice B. does not let on, but Dorothy Hartley had one more trick up her sleeve for the Vicarage roast to perform.

“If you use mutton fat for cake making,” she writes, “(and it makes farmhouse gingerbread, apple cake and the homelier kinds of cake very well), beat it to a cream with the lemon juice, or a spoonful of cider, till it whips like snow.”


Thursday mutton curry

A variation on a dish first published by the London Oriental Club in their cookbook Indian Cookery by Richard Terry (1861).

Feeds 2—4.

1 large onion, finely chopped

olive oil


2 tbsp curry powder

1 tbsp curry paste

leftovers from a leg of mutton, cubed

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 tsp salt

Heat the oil in a deep frying pan, add the onions and fry for a couple of minutes. Add a knob of butter, cover the pan and cook for 10–15 minutes until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the curry powder and paste to the pan and stir. Add the mutton, and the tomatoes, stir together and pour in enough water to cover, season with salt, and simmer on a low heat until all is cooked through and you have a thick aromatic gravy. Serve with rice.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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