You know that feeling, when you suddenly see something in your freezer and you think, bloody hell, I wonder how long that’s been there? Well, I was looking for something suitable to keep up my strength during the recent White Hell, when Storm Emma met the Beast from the East, something with substance, oomph and gravity. And that’s when I spotted the package labelled Mutton Breast.
I’m very fond of mutton. When it comes to delivering the kind of comfort needed when foul chill stalks the land, lamb is ok, hogget is better and mutton, particularly mutton breast, is best of all, mighty, meaty, padded with fat and collagen. It takes a bit of cooking, but what else are you going to do when snow traps you in, the temperature plummets, and it’s too miserable even to think of tobogganing.
Breast is one of those cuts that’s too often ignored by generations brought up on primary cuts. The advantage of breast, whether lamb (up to 1 year), hogget (1-2 years) or mutton (over 2 years), is that it’s easy to cook, immeasurably cheering and cheap.
If it’s lamb or hogget, I braise the breast. When properly tender, take it out and let it cool down. When cold, I plaster it with Dijon mustard mixed with beaten egg and then coat that with breadcrumbs. Then into the oven in goes at 175C/350 F/Gas 4 for 20 minutes. When it’s all crisp and crunchy on the outside and oozing fat and delicious grease I cut it into fingers and serve it with a chicory salad. The bitterness of the chicory and the sharpness of the mustard work as keen foils to the richness of the rest. This is what Elizabeth David calls Breast of Lamb Ste. Ménéhould (see An Omelette and a Glass of Wine),
However, this time I wanted something different, something to counter the bitter blasts outside and bolster the inner man. So what I did was: –
Braising the Breast
1 breast of mutton
2 sticks celery
1 large carrot
1 large onion
4 cloves garlic
tsp black pepper corns
2 or 3 cloves
3 bay leaves
1/2 bottle red wine (or white will do; I was just using up stuff that was sitting around)
water (1 lt?)
Turn on the oven to 175C/350 F/Gas 4. Cut the carrot in half lengthways; the celery into 3 crossways; and the onion in half any ways. Put them all into a roasting pan along with all the other ingredients. Cut the mutton breast in half if you need to. Pour over the wine and cover with water. Cover with foil and put it int the oven for 2 hours.
Wrap the celeriac in foil and put it in the oven with the braising breast. It should take about the same time to cook.
Strip the hard ribs out of the kale and chop the rest quite finely.
When the breast is cooked to subtle tenderness, pour the liquid into a saucepan and keep the meat warm. Turn up the heat under the mutton-infused stock until boiling and add the barley. Keep boiling. This will reduce and so intensify the liquid and cook the barley at the same time. This should take about 30 or minutes. If it looks as if you’re going to have too little liquid by the end, either turn down to a simmer or add more boiling water. At the end the barley should be resting in a decent amount of liquid.
While that’s going on, shave off the outside of the celeriac with a sharp knife and the cut into small cubes. Cut half the breast into strips and then into mutton lardons. You can always add the rest of the breast, but I think that’s too much, so I keep some back either to give it the Ste. Ménéhould treatment or to have cold with pickled walnuts.
Add the celeriac cubs, mutton lardons and chopped kale to the barley and mutton stock about 5 minutes before serving.
And there you have something that’s heart-lifting, tummy-filling and extremity-warming, a cross between a soup and a stew or a sewp (or possibly stoup) in other words.