Today's question comes from P.J.:
Where can I find mutton? The reason I'm looking for mature ovine meat is because I really, really, like burgoo. That's a traditional Kentucky stew (rather similar to Brunswick stew), and with the Derby this weekend, it's a way for me to pretend that I'm back in My Old Kentucky Home. [Full text of P.J.'s question after the jump.]
For all the popularity that offal, goat, and other formerly déclassé meats have gained in Western culinary circles over the past decade, mutton ― or meat from sheep older than one year ― seems to stand little chance of coming back in fashion, due mostly to its gaminess. Most of the butchers I called asking for mutton responded like Bob from Guerra Meats: "Good luck!" he said, laughing. "You're going to have to paint your walls afterward, because the smell is so strong. Mutton is the reason most people are afraid of lamb."
I thought, perhaps, that halal butchers serving the Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African communities would sell mutton. And indeed, when I asked the counter guy at Salama Halal Meat (604 Geary, 474-0359) if he sold mutton, he said, "Sure!" Then he clarified: "Mutton is goat."
"What about older sheep meat?" I asked.
Again came the derisive laughter. "It's not going to cook for you," he replied. "No one can eat that."
Golden Gate Meats sent me on to its supplier, Superior Farms
(800-228-5262) in Dixon, which is Northern California's primary processor of lamb meat. There I spoke to Derrek Smalley. "We don't process mutton here," Smalley said. "The thing with sheep is that the older it is, the palatability is going to lessen, and you're going to have more fat content. Comparing lamb to mutton is like comparing filet mignon to the worst beef product you've ever tasted. I don't really understand why people would want to eat it."
So what happens to sheep older than a year? I asked Smalley. "They're mostly slaughtered for dog food and byproducts like shampoos, conditioners, and lotions."
That's going to make you look a little more closely at your bottle of Pantene, isn't it? My suggestion to you would be to substitute goat ― one of my favorite meats, anyway. It won't have the same gaminess you crave, perhaps, but goat meat has a fuller-bodied flavor than lamb and is fattier, especially the way halal butcher shops tend to cut the meat. Of course, if you're determined to make your burgoo with the real thing, you can call Superior Farms. On rare occasions, Smalley says, he'll special order mutton for customers.
It has to be shipped from Australia.
(FYI, here's the full text of P.J.'s question, in case you wanted to know more about burgoo.)
The reason I'm looking for mature ovine meat is because I really, really, like burgoo. That's a traditional Kentucky stew (rather similar to Brunswick stew), and with the Derby this weekend, it's a way for me to pretend that I'm back in My Old Kentucky Home. (I am not a Kentuckian; I grew up in Michigan, but my fiancée's people are from Louisville and Oldham County, which is just upriver.)
Traditionally, burgoo was made with anything you had available, or could shoot: venison, pigeon ― my fiancée's mom jokes about using squirrel. But from the stories I've heard, I'm sure that squirrel was on her family's menu during the Depression.
There is a fairly popular barbecue festival that's held every year in Owensboro, Kent.; they go through about 1,500 gallons of burgoo in one weekend, which works out to a lot of mutton. The classic Owensboro recipes use mutton to get that gamey taste you'd find from squirrel and other wild meats. I've looked in some of the larger meat markets in the Mission for mutton, with no luck. So for Saturday's batch, I'm going to go with beef, pork, and lamb.