Barbados Blackbelly Mutton

Today’s post discusses mutton, often defined as a sheep that was slaughtered at least a few years of age or older. We had recently brought in two elderly ewes (aged 9 and 10 years old) to slaughter. We got standard cuts for one sheep and all-ground for the other. Previously we had only brought sheep to slaughter when they were between 9 months and 18 months of age. There are some notable differences in the meat from the older versus the younger, hence this article for discussion and thoughts.

Lamb and mutton consumption in the United States is very low, about 1 pound per person per year! However this is also highly varied, as the consumption is higher among communities such as Caribbean-Americans, Middle Eastern-Americans, and recently arrived African-American immigrants. Outside the US however, other countries consume lamb more frequently, such as Australia with 7 kilograms (15 pounds roughly) per person per year. But the mutton consumption is quite low, less than 0.5 kilograms (roughly 0.66 pounds) per person per year. So why is mutton consumed much less than lamb?

Several reasons abound for the US’s low lamb, and by extension, mutton consumption. An NPR article highlights how it used to be more common, but after World War II, it fell out of favor. NPR reported that many soldiers came to dislike the rations that contained mutton, who then in turn imposed those taste preferences on their family and it spread generation to generation. Likely for farmers an economic aspect became a large factor as well. The number of sheep raised in the US has declined over many decades: “Sheep numbers peaked in 1884 at 51 million head. Since then, numbers have declined to nearly 5.0 million head in 2016.” to quote from the USDA. Mutton requires sheep who are a few years of age or older, so they are consuming resources such as hay, water, vaccines, shelter space, etc. With the decline in wool production within the US over decades, perhaps that has had a knock-off effect of fewer older sheep within various herds. Another aspect that may be a factor is the stronger taste that mutton imparts in the meat.

Flavor is a very subjective taste, varying not only from person to person, but even across your own lifetime. For many people, typical meat at the store versus meat obtained from grass-fed or pasture-raised animals has a very large difference in taste. This can even be seen in the experiences people report on how they find garden-fresh vegetables to be more flavorful than grocery store produce. I’m definitely in that camp, with the Barbados Blackbelly sheep being milder than average lamb meat with a lot less fat. The mutton meat we got back still maintained that flavor-trend in my opinion, but there were some notable differences which I’ll highlight briefly:

Younger (9 months up to 18 months) Barbados Blackbelly meat:

  • Higher carcass yield
  • Lower amounts of fat compared to grocery lamb meat
  • Mild taste
  • Cooks similar to grocery lamb meat, no big changes to cooking patterns

Older (9 years and 10 years old) Barbados Blackbelly meat:

  • Lower carcass yield
  • Brighter color to the meat, brighter reds, with darker fats
  • Lower amounts of fat compared to grocery lamb meat
  • Stronger flavor than young Blackbelly meat
  • Flavor profile is more complex, pairs well with our dinners still
  • Needs some cooking adjustments, may be better cooking with a little extra fat like vegetable oil

For both of us, the flavor of mutton Barbados Blackbelly meat was stronger, but just as delicious as younger Blackbelly lamb. So far we’ve had the mutton meat in our Lamb and Vegetable stuffed pastries, and have eaten a few of the loin chops. We found it be just fine and even somewhat more flavorful in the few meals we’ve had so far. The lamb chops did get cooked to a medium, typically we go a little more, but were still tender and juicy. While the carcass yield was lower for each sheep, likely due to their advanced age, I do think a happy-medium could occur at slaughtering the sheep at three to five years of age. At a younger age, they’ll be able to keep on their weight, but still develop their flavor-profile.

For those who keep sheep small-time, mutton may be a happen-chance opportunity when an older ewe is brought in after several years of lambing, or after years of being sheared for small-time wool. The Barbados Blackbelly would lean into the first, because the wool is non-existent due to the hair texture differences. Going into the future we certainly won’t shy away from the Blackbelly mutton meat, and we encourage others to try out mutton if they can get a hold of it or even try “stronger” meats such as bison and see whether you’ll enjoy it!

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