One of the more shady practices of unscrupulous butchers, including those to be found in many supermarkets, is to label young mutton, also known as hoggett, as ‘prime lamb’.
It’s not just that there is a difference in flavor, succulence and tenderness, there is also a considerable price difference at market as any struggling sheep farmer will tell you. In other words, we are being ripped off by paying too much for what should be cheaper cuts of meat. As a class of meat, hoggett sits uncomfortably between true lamb and older mutton. I say ‘uncomfortably’ because its classification is not helped by the fact that there are different interpretations of the term, depending on where you live.
In Australia, ‘lamb’ is only lamb until the animal cuts its first two incisor teeth at the age of about 8 to 12 months. After that it becomes hoggett, and as the meat darkens and becomes tougher it is reclassified as mutton – or not, as the case may be. It is not unusual for the meat to be sold as either lamb or mutton, with the intermediate classification being ignored altogether.
This would be fine, if it didn’t tempt some butchers to continue calling the meat lamb, regardless of age, until it reaches the mutton stage.
In New Zealand, where much of the world’s best lamb comes from, the animal remains a lamb until about 18 months old, when it becomes mutton. Which means that there is a certain amount of pot luck as to the age of the meat you buy. Since the quality of the meat is likely to be high anyway, especially where it comes from the salt-soaked coastal plains, this may not be of great concern to most cooks. Certainly the flavor is second to none and rivals that of Australian ‘true’ lamb.
In the UK shoppers have another marketing ploy to contend with. There the meat is often referred to as ‘new season’s lamb’ and the word ‘hoggett’ is practically unknown, except among producers. But since the lambs there are born in the winter and will mature for slaughter the following spring, the expression is really no indication of either age or quality. If it indicates anything, it is that the animal was born any time in the preceding 20 months.
The way round this problem for the canny cook is to ignore any classification by the vendor and look instead at the meat itself. True lamb is light pink in color with white fat and marbling. It also feels ‘springy’ to the touch. If the fat is at all yellow, or the meat a darker shade of pink going on red, it may still be good to eat, but check the price per kilo or pound. You should not be paying a premium for it.
Equally, if a bargain price is being offered – as supermarkets tend to do with older cuts – check the quality of the meat carefully. You may well find that what appears at first sight to be irresistible is simply hoggett dressed up as lamb.
Michael Sheridan – The Cool Cook – is a former head chef and an acknowledged authority and published writer on cooking matters. His website atAll About Cooking, contains a wealth of information, hints, tips and recipes for busy home cooks, including video based how-to guides.