Mutton has been getting a bad rap over the years as old fashioned, tough and unappetising meat.
But Perth chefs, following the lead of a sheep farmer from the state’s Southwest, are attempting to bring it back into popularity by showcasing the meat as a quality product.
Mr Thompson, a sheep farmer from Katanning and owner of ‘Moojepin’, a merino sheep stud, is the brains behind this idea.
He has devoted the past 20 years of his life to developing a genetically unique merino sheep and is now specialising in ‘farm to table’ dry-aged mutton.
“It’s different I guess and restaurants are always looking for something different,’ he says.
“I want to get paid for breeding a better product.”
Melissa Palinkas, head chef at the Young George bar and kitchen in Fremantle was the first to bring Moojepin’s mutton onto perth menus.
Ms Palinkas says there is an age-old stigma surrounding mutton.
“People think of lamb and they think of ‘fresh’ and ‘spring’, you know, ‘tender’ and braised lamb,” she says.
“They think of mutton as … fatty.
“There’s a stigma surrounding it cause people associate it with the olden days.”
She discovered Mr Thompson’s mutton when celebrity Perth chef Don Hancey dropped an entire, prepared, sheep carcass on her kitchen table with some local ingredients such as salt bush and succulents to experiment with.
“We tried it and loved it so much,” Ms Palinkas says.
“It was so full of flavour and was such good quality that we put it straight on the menu.”
Mr Thompson had given away 22 sheep in the early days in order to get the product out there to see whether it would gather interest from local chefs.
Mutton is a poorly understood, often completely foreign term to most meat eaters today.
The meat that comes from a sheep is stereotypically considered to be exclusively ‘lamb’. However, what many people don’t understand is that lamb comes from an animal that is one to two years old.
Mutton is from an older sheep that has reached two to five years of age before slaughter.
Mutton is darker than lamb with a full, gamey flavour.
Mr Thompson says there is evidence that mutton is healthier than lamb due to the increased amount of grazing days, allowing the sheep to absorb more nutrients like zinc and iron.
“We think there would be more value in our older sheep then our younger sheep,” he said.
“The older the sheep are the more they have grazed, and you can tell a bit more of a story about them.”
The merinos raised on Mr Thompson’s property have a diet of natural grasses and saltbush, which can eventually get incorporated as ingredients when the mutton is put on the plate at the end of the process.
Dan Fisher, executive chef at Perth’s Print Hall has become Mr Thompson’s biggest customer.
Print Hall chefs are able to hang whole carcasses in their own cool room, a particularly exciting prospect for Mr Thompson.
“I think there’s great potential for some of these really old sheep, to age them for 50 or 60 days, just to see what happens,” he says.
The dry aging process occurs when the meat is hung in a cool room set to a certain temperature and humidity.
This allows the meat to break down and become more tender, so that the consumer is able to enjoy its unique flavour without being discouraged by an unpleasant, tough texture typical of older meat.
Ms Palinkas is particularly inventive in finding new ways to tenderise the meat.
“People think that mutton is just tough, but its not all tough,” she says.
“I’ve got ribs in sous vide that have been there for two days… they take 48 hours to break down in the sous vide.”
Mr Thompson says he wants to encourage different ideas such as this, and has been avoiding typical cuts such as racks or cutlets.
At Young George, Ms Palinkas came up with the idea of putting the mutton onto a charcuterie board as cured meat.
“Its really, really full of depth,” she says.
“You can taste that its mutton straight out.
She says she loves to turn the most obscure cuts of meat into something beautiful, and is using the mutton alongside wild boar and venison.
“I like to take odd cuts of meat, odd flavours, put them in and make them extraordinary,” she says.
“I want all the offal.
“[Mr Thompson] was giving me tongues and all that … ’cause the flavour, you’re not going to get anything better.”
“I always stick to my own … What I do is what I do and I don’t follow what other people are doing.”
The re-muttonisation of Perth palates has been a labour of love for David whose passion and hard work is reflected in extremely positive feedback from chefs.
“You get these emails, you’re reading about this old sheep that you’ve sent and it’ll just about bring a tear to your eye,” he says.
“I really, really just enjoy following where your food goes.”
Photos by Lizzie Ayers