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20 March 2024

Easter is not the right time to eat lamb

Meat from older animals is more obviously in season. Where did this hasty culinary tradition come from?

By Pen Vogler

Some years ago I gave a talk in Keswick, Cumbria, in March. To a question about the lost foods of Britain, I suggested we should rediscover the gamey meat of sheep older than two years: mutton. Oh no, my audience assured me: in the Lake District the hills were alive with the sound of mouton –you could find it in every butcher’s. I visited every shop in town only to discover the usual mutton-free zone.

This threw up a crucial question: why could (or would) butchers, even in sheep-farming districts, no longer sell mutton when, for centuries, it had been Britain’s most commonly eaten fresh meat? What was a food historian, attempting to recreate a Dickensian dinner, to do? It was in the early days of online butchers, but I eventually discovered that they would deliver a leg or shoulder of mutton for me to stuff with oysters, minced onion, parsley and sweet herbs, according to a recipe from Mrs Dickens’ cookbook. (I later learned you get the same rich, umami result with anchovies rather than oysters, for rather less expense.) 

Looking back now, what was just as peculiar as the lack of mutton was that the white trays of the butchers held such meaty chops and substantial legs of lamb, when, out in the fields, the tiny, living things were wobbling around their mothers on pipe-cleaner legs. Delicate roast lamb, without the barnyard-y taste of the older animal, is what people in many parts of the world expect as the centrepiece of the religious spring feast. It is served with something zesty or acidic to cut the fat: lemon and bay in the Balkans; garlic and rosemary in France; white wine in Spain. In Britain, the 18th-century “salad” of mint dressed with vinegar and sugar was reinvented as “mint sauce” when “roast lamb” began to appear alongside the ubiquitous mutton in cookbooks. 

Everyone is happy. Except, perhaps, the sheep – and, it turns out, the shepherds. A Herefordshire farmer once told me that he couldn’t face eating lamb during the spring months he spent as midwife to his ewes, and nor should we. Lambs simply haven’t eaten enough grass to be flavourful until summer or early autumn. There are dark mutterings from those excellent butchers on the internet that this idea of Easter lamb is a recent invention masterminded by certain Antipodean marketing forces, whose animals have a six-month head start. The association of lamb with Easter has origins several millennia older than the venerable New Zealand Meat Board (established in 1922), however.

The Jewish tradition of the Passover lamb – part sacrifice, part symbol of the deliverance of God’s chosen people – dates back to Exodus. Christians came to view this as the Old Testament prefiguration of the self-sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God, which gave us Easter. The roast lamb at Easter wasn’t simply the fleshly reward for those weary of the meat-free Lenten fast – it had spiritual significance. 

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Even by Victorian times, when the Lenten fast had lost its grip on the population, Easter was seen as the time for new-season lamb. That bellwether (to borrow an ovine metaphor) of culinary practices, Mrs Beeton, considered that, while Irish stew or roast leg or haunch of mutton was best in the cooler months, lamb – roast or breaded cutlets – was in season “from Easter to Michaelmas”. Tellingly, however, she is troubled by this timing and “the artificial system, so much pursued now to please the appetite of luxury” which saw “house lamb” (or “milk-fed lamb”) bred and raised indoors, “foddered on soft hay, and part fed on cow’s milk”. 

In Exodus, the Lord’s instructions to Moses and Aaron for Passover are to take a lamb “without blemish, a male of the first year”. Nowadays, we might call this a “hogget”, meaning a lamb of one to two years old. Originally meaning a hog, the word begins to apply to a “young sheep” in the early 18th century. Had it been in use when the Bible was first translated into English, we would be looking forward to our Easter Hogget. In this, at least, British farmers would be happy.

Pen Vogler is the author of “Stuffed: A History of Good Food and Hard Times in Britain” (Atlantic)

[See also: Welsh food is potted social history]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024

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