Ladies and gentlemen, today I'm very proud indeed to be wearing the Rare Breed Survival Trust tie which I have been patron of for nearly 20 years now. I really wore it because I wanted to bring attention through this launch, not only to the rare breed of sheep that I think have been abysmally neglected for so long, but also I'm wearing it to draw attention to an increasingly rare breed - which is the family farmer in this country.
I wanted you to know that the main message behind this enterprise which I initiated – I do take full responsibility for involving everyone here today – is to support the family farmer. If we don't have them, then we will have lost something very important indeed in terms of how we look after and manage our very precious landscape.
And so I really could not be more delighted to see so many of you here to share in what I hope is a great day for British farming and for all those who appreciate good food. I can only begin by offering my heartfelt congratulations to John Williams and his colleagues at The Ritz for producing a quite outstanding lunch and for proving, without doubt, mutton's superior taste and its versatility.
I did just think you might want to hear a little more about how this whole campaign has come about. About two years ago, I paid a visit to a remarkable organization in County Durham called the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service which provides invaluable support to farmers needing help to cope with the sheer weight of bureaucracy, let alone some of the other problems of farming.
I met a number of upland sheep farmers there who were telling me about the poor prices they were getting for the older ewes which had come to the end of their productive lives. This started me thinking and I remembered that when I was growing up – and I suspect there were a lot of others here that experienced the same thing – that mutton was one of my favourite dishes, but that it had all but disappeared over the last thirty or forty years. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I thought, if we could help to boost the incomes of our hill farmers by encouraging a mutton renaissance!
It occurred to me that to achieve this, I needed an army of influential allies who might be able to persuade the consumer of the joys of mutton - and so I held a dinner last March for about fifteen of our leading chefs. You can perhaps imagine the trepidation with which I and, more to the point, my chef, approached this evening as some of my own Highgrove mutton was to be served. To my relief, not only were these eminent chefs, many of whom are here today, most generous in their comments about the food, but they were also extremely enthusiastic about the whole idea of reintroducing mutton to the menu.
We had a rivetting conversation debating the definition of mutton (in other words, when does lamb actually become mutton?): when it must be killed, how long it must be hung and, of utmost importance, how to cook it. The result of all these conversations, held under the auspices of the Academy of Culinary Arts, of which I happen to be the patron, and the National Sheep Association, is the campaign we are launching today.
I must just say how enormously grateful I am to the English Beef and Lamb Executive and Meat Promotion Wales for their essential financial support, and to Kabassa for its help in the public relations campaign which is crucial. With this collective expertize, I hope very much that we have every chance of making an impact and I would like to extend my particular thanks to all the farmers, butchers, chefs and restaurants who are taking part in this week. This even includes Aramark, one of Britain's leading contract caterers, which is serving Brian Turner's mutton recipes in more than a hundred and fifty of its outlets this week.
With such a galaxy of culinary stars to support me in this campaign there may be a chance of removing any remaining scepticism about the quality of mutton as a dish. If there is any, then it may be worth recalling what the patron saint of all good cooks, Mrs Beeton herself, said of mutton in 1861:
“Mutton is, undoubtedly, the meat most generally used in families. And, both by connoisseurs and medical men, it stands first in favour, whether its fine flavour, digestible qualifications, or general wholesomeness be considered”.
As many of you will know, agriculture is facing the biggest change since the Second World War. With the decoupling of subsidies from production, farmers are facing enormous challenges – and the challenges are especially severe for the hard-pressed family farmers, who are the veritable backbone of what is left of our rural communities. So there is no doubt that one of the ways that we can help farmers cope with this change is by helping them to develop markets for high quality produce.
I am told that what makes mutton so particularly important today is that many of our native, traditional breeds of sheep are best suited to its production. Be it Southdown, Romney, Shetland, Welsh Mountain, Herdwick or Hebridean - British breeds, or a cross with a native breed, come out best. It is also a fact that most sheep farmers are in the upland or more marginal areas and practically all are family farmers. By creating a new market of real value, we can make a difference to their dwindling incomes and thus assist them and future generations to remain on their farms.
And if we do that, we make a real difference to the continued maintenance of those unique landscapes which attract so many visitors; we keep alive those villages and market towns which depend utterly on a thriving agricultural economy and we preserve a cultural inheritance, I think, as precious as any great and historic building.
Farmers, of course, must adapt so that they can seize opportunities in this new world. With more land likely to come back into grassland, there will be greater opportunities for the grazing animal and for a more natural form of meat production. Mutton could easily fit well into these conditions. But all of us who farm are going to have to become better at marketing, better at working together and, above all, better at producing the highest quality product. Having said that, I have been enormously encouraged by the way the farmers we have been working with have greeted this initiative. I am endlessly grateful to Bob Kennard and Andrew Sharp for allowing themselves – or at least their produce - to be the subject of such scrutiny today. But at least I was prepared to put myself on the rack, too, thanks to my farmer David Wilson by supplying some of the mutton grown at Highgrove…!
As for the definition of mutton (you can't believe how much discussion there has been over this issue!), I think there is now general agreement amongst sheep farming experts that it means meat from wethers or ewes which are two years old or over. (For those of you without an agricultural bent, a wether is a castrated male.) The quality of the mutton depends on the way the animal is fed, and how it is treated before and after slaughter.
Above all, butchers and chefs are agreed that it is absolutely essential the carcass is hung for at least fourteen days and preferably longer – that is what ultimately determines the flavour and texture. After that, of course, it is down to the cooking and I know from what I have seen and heard in the kitchens earlier, from my conversations with the illustrious chefs here today and from the delicious mutton I have been giving my guests at home, that long, slow cooking methods will achieve the best eating experience.
In a world where fast food seems to be the order of the day, this may be a message that takes time to percolate beyond the restaurants, but I know from the huge numbers of people who watch the cooking programmes on television that there are some who truly care about how they prepare and cook their food and so, for them, there is a whole new culinary treat in store.
Obviously, mutton is a seasonal dish and I hope that from now on, in the same way we all look forward to Spring lamb, we will see mutton as one of the delights of Autumn and Winter.
I hope by now I have managed to “ram” home the message about mutton. And I am sorry to go on “bleating” about this issue, (perhaps a “non-ewe” thing to do!) but I owe boundless gratitude to so many people for making this campaign possible. For instance, I could not leave here today without thanking Brian Turner, who sadly could not be with us; Sara Jayne Stanes from the Academy of Culinary Arts and John Thorley from the National Sheep Association. This triumvirate has been extremely powerful and determined. Nor could I possibly say how grateful I am to the Ritz Hotel for letting us launch the Mutton Renaissance in a place that is a byword for taste, style and quality. Let us hope that all of us in this room can continue to work together so that good old British mutton takes its rightful place once again amongst this country's great dishes.