The Full English
The Full English: Episode 2

The Full English: Episode 2

A Land of Sheep and Glory

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Vittles and The Full English would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this podcast:

Episode 1 (Breakfast): David Edgerton, Kaori O'Connor, Ben Rogers, Paul Freedman, Rowley Leigh

Episode 2 (Sheep): Pen Vogler, Maia Pal, George Comninel, Susan Rose, Ben Rogers, Matt Chatfield, Jeremy Chan, Rezaul Haque

Episode 3 (Tea and Sugar): Seren Charington-Hollins, Markman Ellis, Mathew Mauger, Mukta Das, Catherine Hall, Padraic Scanlan, David Edgerton

Episode 4 (Factory Foods): Matt Chatfield, Lucy Williamson, David Edgerton, Liz Bowles, Michael Clark, Aaron Bastani, Elena Walden, Tess Kelly, Pen Vogler, Tom Kerridge

Episode 5 (Modern European): Shaun Hill, Fay Maschler, Rowley Leigh, Jonathan Meades, Dan Lepard, Margot Henderson, Anna Tobias, Jeremy Lee, Ben Highmore, Fergus Henderson, Trevor Gulliver

Episode 6 (Fish Finger Bhorta): Ash Sarkar, Jason Edwards, Riaz Phillips, Andrew Wong, Catherine Hall, Adam Ramsay, Sunder Katwala, Mike Kenny

Episode 2: A Land of Sheep and Glory


[Street sounds. Sounds of fridges humming]

LB: How do we approach this?

Pen Vogler: I've no idea. I think we go in. 

LB: Yeah

PV: I think we just go in. Let’s go in

LB: Let's find an avenue

It’s 7am and the author Pen Vogler and I are at Smithfield’s meat market in search of mutton.

PV: Do you sell mutton?

Butcher 1: Nah. [Asking colleague] You aint got no mutton have you? Nah.

PV: Does anybody around here do you think?

Butcher 1: Up out on the left

LB: There's a sign here that says there's nothing left. Just blood stains. 

PV: That's because we're late.

LB: I’m not a late riser, but I thought 7am was pretty early to go shopping for meat.

LB: Do you sell mutton? 

Butcher 2: A leg of mutton? No. We've got lamb. No mutton, sorry.

The market is loud and full of carcasses, but as yet we haven’t found any mutton. In Oliver Twist, Smithfield’s is described as a dirty and bloody place where flocks of sheep are crowded into overflowing pens. Dickens campaigned against the slaughter of animals in central London, calling it a French Folly. Today, the market is clean and orderly. It sells meat, but it no longer functions as an abattoir. 

PV: Excuse me do you sell mutton?

Butcher 3: Good question dear. We do but I haven't got any. You want a leg of lamb? Cheaper.

LB: Why is it cheaper? Why would it be cheaper to have a leg of lamb than a leg of mutton?

Butcher 3: Supply and demand really. 

LB: Right. 

Butcher 3: We do legs of lamb for £15, frozen. From New Zealand. Very nice. 

PV: Oh it’s from New Zealand and where's the mutton from? 

Butcher 3: All over. Mostly the British Isles. Not a great seller really. Not a big demand for it. 

There’s a specialist butcher at the market that sells mutton but we’re too late. The trick, we were told, is to drink at a nearby pub till closing time then nip by the market on your way home

LB: So we've basically completed it. And no mutton.

PV: Well potentially.

LB: But yeah, we have to get here at five am.

PV: We have to get here at 5am. And be lucky.

LB: And I suppose this trip, even though it was unsuccessful, tells us that mutton. Even at the biggest meat market in Britain is available, but kind of isn't. It's a bit difficult to get. 

PV: It’s a bit niche isn’t it.

LB: Would you like that change? 

PV: In terms of in terms of, kind of, the national palate. Yeah, I think it should change because it's a great meat. It's a great taste. Of course it tastes like lamb but it’s slightly stronger. I suppose it's like a cross between beef and lamb in a funny kind of way, but it isn't, its really its own thing.

Why and when did mutton fall out of fashion? Up to the 19th century eating adult sheep was so common that the phrase ‘to eat your mutton’ was synonymous with ‘having your dinner’. And what does sheep farming have to do with the origins of capitalism? Welcome to the Full English, a podcast that looks at English identity through the lens of food. This is episode two: A Land of Sheep and Glory 

1: Origins of capitalism

Why capitalism appeared in England when it did is a question that has puzzled people for centuries. Why the English stopped eating mutton is a question that has puzzled me, well, for weeks. But the answers are related. 

LB: Should we dive right in then? Should we do the easy one first? So what is capitalism?

Maia Pal: [Laughs]. Well compared to the others, it is probably the easiest one. 

I’m speaking to Maia Pal, a lecturer at Oxford Brooks University. She’s an expert on the what, where, when and why of capitalism: 

MP: So, I guess the one important thing to always say about what is capitalism is that a common mistake is to always assume it's just about greedy profit making. I think an easy way to think about it is it's about the social reproduction of human beings. So human beings have to work to survive, they have to offer themselves on the job market so as to get money to buy goods and services they need from other markets. And that market dependence is essential. It's actually more than essential, it has to be imperative for there to be a capitalism system in place. So if people could get food, they can trade or survive by other means than through a market, then it's not quite a capitalism, or the capitalist market hasn't become predominant over other forms of production. So it's a unique system. And that's also something that tends to be forgotten, people will just assume it's been with us for a very long time, forever, even in various latent forms. But actually, it's really unique system that requires quite specific processes. But basically, it means people losing access to land, common land.

Under capitalism, you can’t get by on the resources you or your community possess, instead you have to engage with profit making markets. And for most of us, this will include selling your labour in order to buy your daily bread. 

MP: It can be a bit abstract, because people think, well, there's always been markets, people would go to a marketplace and buy food, right, that has existed for hundreds of 1000s of years. So, you know, just the incidence of a market is not something new. But it's the fact that production for a market becomes the main impetus, right? So that producers, peasants, people who are actually, you know, tilling the land, or producing food or, or raising cattle, etc, are doing it through dependence on what's happening on a market i.e. prices. So fluctuations of demand, on the market of prices, of specific conditions of various actors along the chain, the supply chain, right, who are the merchants buying their products, where are they selling them to, etc. So all those conditions come into play. 

Think of it like this. Rather than growing turnips in your garden and trading some of your turnips for carrots, it’s growing turnips in someone else’s garden, the owner of which determines whether to grow them and hire you to do so according to the market, and then being paid a wage to grow this other person’s turnips. It’s only with that wage will you be able to buy turnips of your own.

George Comninel: The key thing here is to understand enclosures. What it means and when it happened.

This is George Comninel, a professor at York University in Canada and an expert on the origins of capitalism. And this is where sheep come in.

GC: It’s in the aftermath of the Black Death that we begin to get the first signs of enclosure. There are varations on this but all of Western Europe was pretty much characterised as what’s refered to as the open field system. That means villages were tightly regulated in terms of what could be produced, when and how. Every single act was a matter of custom and custom was law, literally. But when the population droped to 25% or at most 50% of what it had been it threw everything out of wack. And this is the period when you begin to get enclosure. Of course, when you think about the place when you first notice enclosures, well it was in the higher regions of the Yorkshire Dales. What happened? Well the population drops catastrophically and people are lured away from their scrabbling on hill tops to the fertile river valleys. So where there had been fully settled communities, townships controlling production. And what do you do with an empty hilltop? You bring in the sheep. And you know, you bring in a few thousand sheep and you only need a couple of shepherds to take care of them and it’s a very profitable enterprise. But it completely is different from the type of production that is there before. 

George is describing a situation in which areas of common land in England went from being controlled by custom, to being controlled by private ownership for the profitable farming of sheep. Where commoners’ lives in the Middle Ages were once regulated by their feudal masters combined by their common laws and customs, their lives began to be increasingly disrupted by private profit making, specifically to produce wool. This important shift is taking place in the late 14th and 15th Centuries, particularly as the Black Death helped to clear the way for these new patterns of land ownership.

GC: This is the whole point, as the population began to grow again, nobody thought that what they should do is introduce the open fields. Once the traditional structure of common practices disappeared, people took initiative. And now what happened is once the profitability of this sheep and corn farming became clear, the enclosures not only continued but they spread as more and more people – lords primarily – wanted to have private property in their hands. And the market for mutton and for wool that was growing, there was a lot of economic demand for sheep and their products and in fact that same structure of what was called improved agriculture became the basis for self-sustaining population growth into the late modern age. And the whole point is that transition was fundamental in its effects.

MP: So this process of dispossession was gradually set in motion for various waves of enclosures. Which happens between the 14th and 18th centuries, there are different waves of it. It's quite a gradual process. But by 1700, we've got 70% of England being enclosed. That's obviously an estimated figure. But you know, by the end of the 17th century, we are in a new country. England has moved to being closed rather than not.

2: History of wool farming

Susan Rose: if you go to the House of Lords, you'll see that there's a throne at one end there's what looks like a very large red Ottoman / sofa.

This is Susan Rose. She wrote a book on how wool made England rich, and she’s describing the Wool Sack in Parliament

SR: It's in fact the seat of the Speaker of the House of Lords nowadays – it used to be the Lord Chancellor who sat on it – but now it's the Speaker of the House of Lords. And okay, it looks like a large squashy red sofa with a kind of backrest in the middle. And it was put there earlier as a symbol of the fact that the trade in raw wool was the basis of the wealth of the country. 

So how did wool make England rich, and when?

SR: Well, I mean, the first records of a trade in raw wool are from Anglo Saxon times before the Norman Conquest. The Anglo Saxons were exporting, in fact, not so much raw wool, as apparently they had a good line in cloaks, and they were exporting woollen cloaks to Charlemagne’s France. By the 15th century the cloth trade was more important than the wool trade. But together the cloth and World Trade customs duties made up a hefty proportion of the Royal income. Its economic importance largely came from the fact that it produced an elastic form of income for the crown. If you compare France and England, the French king was, by all accounts ever so much richer than the King of England. He had a much larger territory with much more varied agriculture and products. But the fact was his control over his more remote provinces was not strong. And it was very difficult for him to tax country to produce the kind of income that you need to wage war. Because if you like the main function of medieval kings was to wage war or defend from wars.

In contrast to France, England was relatively centralised and had the benefit of raising tax revenue through improving the wool trade. This, combined with the fact that parliament was stuffed full of land owners who benefited from the wool economy, meant the wool trade was encouraged, which in turn, meant that the wool economy percolated through English politics and culture.

SR: So you got a political system, which had a large mercantile element in it, and which was a powerful mercantile element, because the English nobility had no inhibitions against indulging in buying and selling sheep and running big sheep flocks. They are quite happy to do that. And you even got the situation where by the time you get to the 16th century, you can see that village people who'd managed to hang on did have sheep and sold the fleeces. So, you had an element of commerce and participation in what was a pretty large market going right down to the bottom of society, as well as involving the upper levels of society. And that, in my view anyway, produced a different mindset from other European nations where there was not quite such a, where the participation in the market was not so widely spread. And this, you know, affected the kind of politics that developed

3: Wool and meat consumption

So because of the boom in the late medieval wool trade, people are also eating a lot of sheep. Like grown up sheep, not lamb. They’re also making candles from the fat, or tallow, and of course sheep’s milk and cheese. The drive for wool and the enclosures also led to more land being used to rear cows as well.

Ben Rogers: So I think that Britain was by 1700 very much a nation of meat eaters and foreign observers when they came to the country and then went back home or wrote letters to people back home or, or printed books about their travels, always remarked on the vast quantities of meat eaten in cook shops and chop houses like the one we're currently in.

This is Ben Rogers who we met in episode one at the Quality Chop House in London.

BR: Britain was a very affluent country by global and European standards at that point. And meat was part of that. I think it's traceable back to the enclosures. It's in century which were first of all about enclosing land for wool production, but that produced, you know, meat and then it was a sort of short hop from that to rearing cows as well.

As Ben tells me, the English were famous for roasting their beef and mutton on great spits by open fires, or at home on spits power by clockwork or even, sometimes, spits driven by dogs

BR: It was not about roasting in the way that we understand it, you know, we don't really roast it today, we actually sort of part roast part steam it, you know, the way we do it. There’s was about putting in front of a fire and turning on a spit. There are a series of technologies that were developed at this time to make roasting your meat easier, including a sort of Clockwork Spirit and a device which involve putting a dog in like a hamster wheel. The dog would run around the wheel and turn the roast. And this this was, it was a bit like having a fridge or an oven or a washing machine, it was pretty much the sort of staple of every seventeenth century English household.

Well, not every household. But certainly in the households of the very rich and often in the homes the tenant farmers, or Yeomen, who as former peasants had benefited from the privatisation of land and who could in turn afford to hire their own labourers. Eventually in the cities and towns on the 17th Century, the figure of the free born, beef eating Yeoman played a central role in how the English middle classes viewed themselves. Tales of the strength and good standing of medieval Yeomen are central to the proto-nationalism of this time. But to get to this point wasn’t straight forward. As Maia mentioned previously, many of those had their access to common land removed resisted the change. There were uprisings and riots across the areas where enclosures took place. There was legislation from parliament both to promote enclosure and legislation meant to restrain it. And in the early 16th century there was widespread panic about enclosure and the growth of sheep runs. Writing at that time, Thomas Moore referred to this in his book Utopia.

David Webb: Your sheep,

Thomas Moore wrote

DW: That were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers, and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.

Sheep were devouring men

MP: People might think of capitalism first as industrial capitalism, right? I mean, the big factories, the big mills, you know, intensive labour. But that's, that's more the end part of the process. And before we have these agricultural transformations that are happening, based on enclosures, on dispossession, and on sheep farming, which is really transforming the way people relate to their basic means of survival. But people didn't just go into industries in factories and towns, for no reason they went there because they've been dispossessed from their land. 

4: Why mutton disappeared

But men were devouring sheep as well. In fact, the rise of wool farming made eating mutton so common that references to it litter English literature from Shakespeare to Jane Austen. But then, as many of you listening will know from your own diets, it almost disappears. 

Pen Vogler: In the 19th century, everybody ate mutton. It wasn't the meat of the poor. It was the meat of the kind of middle, normal middle class table. It was the most common meat so I think people didn't even talk about lamb. I suspect what happened is when the bottom fell out of the wool market, what's the point of growing sheep up to full size, you know, when you're not getting anything for fleeces? And also, I think kind of around in the middle of the century, sheep breeding enabled lambs to kind of just put on weight much faster. 

While wool farming may have created the conditions for industrial capitalism, once factory production came along, raising sheep for wool failed to make much sense. Particularly as cotton poured into Northern England from the slave plantations in America. And if, as a sheep farmer, wool is no longer your objective, then why raise sheep any longer than is profitable? Consider the fact that a chicken can live for around six years but they are typically killed for meat at the age of six weeks. Sheep can live for up to twelve years, but are slaughtered for meat at around 6 months. And so once England lost its interest in wool, our taste for mutton was replaced by a taste for lamb.

5: Cornwall visit

[Sound of a car window opening]

LB & Evelina: How are you doing Matt. Hi!

Matt Chatfield: Hi! You can park in here tonight.

I’ve come down to Cornwall with my partner Eve to visit the farm of Matt Chatfield. Unlike conventional sheep farmers who raise their flocks for lamb, Matt is focused on making delicious tasting mutton for high end retailers and restaurants.  

[Outside field sounds]

MC: Greeting the sheep

MC: So this is Lou Lou. 

Lou Lou: Bahhhh. 

Eve: Hi Lou Lou. 

LL: Bahhhh. 

LB: She's so friendly with you. 

MC: Oh we're very good buddies. 

Eve: Can I touch Lou Lou? 

MC: Yeah ofc you can. 

MC: Lou Lou was brought at the market. Lou Lou came running up to me. Basically I was like I can't kill him. 

LB: It's kinda like a retirement community

MC: Yeah It's pretty chilled. Rule number one is they have a brilliant retirement. Rule number 2 is flavour. Rule number 3 is that I work in balance with nature.

MC: So with my system, we get the sheep that are too old for breading. Or meant to be. For some reason the farmer's decided they're no use for breading. So the farmer replaces the flock. So I buy those and I keep them for a good three to six months. Fatten them on grass and then hang them and sell them. So it’s a bit of a new thing. And with my system I want to put fat on them as quickly as possible. And so they’ll go out and graze. Then you want them lying flat out and just fermenting. And the more relaxed they are the more nutrients that go into building fat. And flavour. 

What Matt is doing is making flavourful mutton. But he calls it Cull Yaw. I asked him why.

MC: Basically everyone calls it culled sheep. So sheep that aren’t going to bread anymore and are going to slaughter. They’re picked out as culled sheep. And yaw is the colloquial name for ewe. You basically there are different names for ewe around the country. Ewe or yaw or something. But around here it’s cull yaw.

Jeremy Chan: We do a lot of things, we bake the fat and we infuse it with aromatics and then we poach different parts of the meat in its own fat - because there’s so much fat. 

This is Jeremy Chan, head chef at Ikoyi. The Ikoyi team are also down in Cornwall visiting Matt.

JC: We use the fat in different recipes too. We use it to baste fried chicken. Which is incredible, to have beautiful fried chicken with aged sheep fat. It's an interesting type of meat, like a retired, older sheep that can be treated as a kind of luxury, beautiful, product. To cook it whole on the bone that is something very kind of involved and respectful of all the work that has gone into rearing the animal and its life I guess.

And how can that not sound delicious? Because honestly, it really is. Mutton is delicious. 

6: Did mutton disappear? 

[Restaurant sounds]

When setting out to explore the rise and fall of mutton in England I had assumed that the English had more or less stopped eating it. But then, was that even true? Perhaps, I realised, that depends on who you count as English. 

I've come to Brick lane in London to meet Rez, a chef who cooks Bangladeshi food in a traditional way at his pop up Nanizi's. The pop up is named after his grandma.

Rez: I was 18 and I didn't really know how to cook. And my grandma was just like, Okay, come to my house, and I'll teach you how to make a few things. She taught me the basics along with my mum by my side as well. And, yep, so that's kind of what I went off to when I went into university. And so I'm still learning how to properly cook it. As you know, these women have been cooking for 20 plus years. 

For Rez, as for many people of a Bangladeshi heritage, mutton is often on the menu, not necessarily because it can be a cheaper cut of meat, but, as Rez explains, it’s often seen as more desirable. 

Rez: For us, it's, it's that dish that you're always going to find whenever you go to an occasion. Whether it's your wedding, or just like a family gathering is always going to be there. It's like the epitome of dishes I would say. Or the meat dishes. 

LB: So that's what’s at the top basically, that's like the top of the pyramid. The best of the meat?

Rez: Yeah. I think it’s the flavour. It’s a bit stronger than lamb. From my experience it makes the curry richer. We normally spend a couple of hours making it, I would say. So what we do is just, we'll prepare the sauce first. I think a lot of people prepare the meat first, but we prepare the sauce first. So it's like the onions, the garlic, ginger, we use our spices, we cook it for like an hour. And you can either have it with tomatoes, or potatoes, I think. I think it's different with different families. And they use different spices as well. But we just use, like a simple four spice blend that we create. And we just, we stick with that. And we've found that it gives the best sort of flavours. I think less is more, you know, without dissing my friends’ mum’s curries and stuff, I've been to their houses sometimes. And sometimes they use so many spices that actually it smells really nice and fragrant, they put garam masala and all this other stuff, but it's just so complex, right? You don't need to be like that to be flavoursome.

And so while high end producers may be returning to the meat, there are communities in England that have never stopped eating mutton. You might say that these communities are continuing an English tradition as old as the birth of capitalism. Bangladeshi or Caribbean curry mutton, and the Turkish Adana kebab are potentially far more traditionally English than a cheeseburger or a bowl of cornflakes.


You’ve been listening to episode two of the Full English. In this episode we’ve covered the birth of capitalism and the taste for mutton in England. Next we’re covering the dark histories of tea and sugar, so make sure to subscribe to the Full English wherever you get your podcast.

This show was made by me, Lewis Bassett. You can follow the Full English on Twitter and Instagram @fullengpod.

Music and sound engineering for this show was provided by the very talented Forest DLG. You can find him on Twitter and Insta @ForestDLG.

Huge thanks to all our guests. There are more details about them and their work in the show notes.

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The Full English
A podcast by Lewis Bassett and Forrest DLG about food and English national identity.