Corned mutton

There was a crisis in Toronto eighteen years ago. Few were privy to the story. I may have been the only journalist fully aware of it at the time. For many weeks, perhaps several months, the city was entirely without a commercial supply of corned mutton. I had searched everywhere: through all the shops in Kensington Market, to St Lawrence, and far beyond; resorted even to a telephone. The degree of this crisis may be conveyed in a contemporary note (which fell out of a book, up here in the High Doganate). It was the handwritten original for a fax transmission:

“Oh Fraser, what are we to do? I have just used the last corner of the last tin of corned mutton from Australia in making a celery-and-mutton soup, and the beauty and the plum-blossom transience of it brings tears to my eyes. I have searched every Guyanese and West Indian shop in Toronto, surely, and it must no longer be imported. I can be happy enough with a lamb, I suppose, but would so much prefer to have a sheep hanging. I like my meat old, and ripe, and knowing; the innocence of a lamb is trite, beside the rich experience of his aged parent. And surely corned mutton is the old stuff, the concentrated wisdom of the Outback.”

The recipe which followed was conveyed with desolation: for without corned mutton, what use could it be? Among the other ingredients, the celery of course, the dry white wine, light cream, a crumbled sharp cheddar, grated Pecorino Romano, a spoon of Spanish paprika, crushed Hontaka peppers, perhaps some Ancho too, dabs of garlic butter Provençal, and the corned mutton diced, shredded, and folded into all this. The three kinds of chilli to accord with the “three ages of mutton,” as I have understood them.

Better yet than the corned, tinned substance would be real mutton, could it only be found. It has long been utterly unavailable from butchers throughout the Western world, and according to my informants, it has now almost disappeared from India. (The “mutton curries” offered on Indian restaurant menus are today almost invariably goat instead, as elsewhere and for another reason pork is sold as rabbit.)

Lamb, as veal, is preferred by our post-industrial stockyards, and I’m told even bison and boar, ostrich and emu, and venison grow younger and younger. It is a cost/benefit thing, and for what does our advertising industry exist than to persuade the consumer that he likes his meat, as he likes his supermodels, young and lean? Only the magnificently wealthy (in the strictest Aristotelian sense) could consider the investment in sheep, allowed to grow to their full maturity and to be indulged, expressly for their flesh and not their wool.

There are, as I understand, three stages in life beyond lamb-hood when a sheep is very commendably edible: each of these stages adding a dimension to the flavour, while retaining what was added in each stage before. There are thus long periods between these stages, when the shepherd must continue to feed and lead his animals, with no prospect of a quick sale.

Corned mutton, to my knowledge, was originally designed as the retirement plan for the wool-bearers. It is crude, as retirement plans go, but at least it is not wasteful. The corning process is not to be deprecated: designed as it was to dissolve the toughest, grittiest meat. (The brighter reds we see are the product of pink salts; not the preserved flush of youth.) The flavouring of the brine can be admirably complementary, and as I hope to have made clear, corned mutton must not be sneered at. That we must receive it only in tins is a penance; but at least these will keep for decades on our shelves.

I must be old now. I can remember foods that my children will never know, and can never know — removed from the market before they were born, for failing to repay expenses. Foods which required life and love to produce, and have therefore had to be eliminated from a world that despises inefficiency, and worships money. Let this corned mutton never run out; let it long remain somehow “economically viable”: for it is among the links to another world, in which there was life and love and plenty.