Sheep come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, but among them, the British longwool breeds are considered royalty. The Lincoln is the largest of the longwools, and over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several flocks in the U.S. and Canada. I still remember the first time I looked at one of their fleeces, so brilliant it shined like foil in the sun. But fleece alone doesn’t make a sheep, and this old British breed also offers some culinary delights. Good things can come in big packages, and the Lincoln seems to have it all, wrapped up in one versatile sheep breed.
The history of British longwools dates back to the Roman occupation of Great Britain. Longwool sheep were documented on the European continent as early as the second century, and the Romans are thought to have brought them over to Britain, though the sheep persisted for centuries after the Romans left. They were famously depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, an illuminated manuscript commissioned by Sir Geoffrey Luttrell, Lord of the Manor of Irnham in Lincolnshire in the 1300s.
In the 1700s, famous livestock breeder Robert Bakewell became interested in Lincoln Longwools. Bakewell was intent on creating a new and improved Leicester sheep breed, which we know today as the Leicester Longwool. He crossed Lincolns with other native stock to breed productive animals with unbelievably lustrous coats. New Leicester rams were later crossed with old Lincoln ewes to produce an improved breed of Lincoln. More refinements and improvements were made to the breed over time to produce today’s highly productive meat animals with glorious fleeces that made many flock owners in Lincolnshire rich.
A Hefty Heritage Breed
Lincoln Longwools are massive, with rams topping 300 pounds and ewes weighing in at just over 200 pounds. Thankfully, despite their impressive size, they have a gentle disposition. Their wool grows quickly, reaching lengths of about 12 inches per year, with each animal producing 12 to 16 pounds of wool annually, if managed properly. Good nutrition and careful management of the fleece will produce strong and lustrous fiber. Renowned author and fiber artist Deborah Robson writes in The Fleece & Fiber Sourcebook: “For sturdiness in a wool, for length, and for large fleeces, it’s hard (dare we say, impossible?) to beat a Lincoln Longwool.”
My first encounter with Lincolns was on the farm of Brian Larson in Michigan. Larson is a former president of the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association and a recognized master breeder. He described the Lincoln as “high volume” sheep with big rumens, large bodies, strong and wide loins, and good bone mass. The breed comes in white or natural-colored fleece. Larson prefers the white because it accepts dye beautifully and can be more versatile. For those not wanting to use dye, the naturally colored sheep offer some beautiful choices, with some including silver, brown, and even black in the same fleece. The British don’t recognize the natural-colored Lincolns, but fortunately all colors are accepted in the U.S. and are managed separately in two studbooks for the breed.
“The Lincoln is a large breed, so you have to be ready to handle animals of their size, and have enough space to accommodate them properly,” Larson says. They’re easy keepers, he says, and the lambs are born long and lean, which allows for ease of birthing.
The Fall of the House of Mutton
No discussion of the Lincoln would be complete without exploring the culinary properties of its meat. The sheep are particularly famous for hogget, which is most often defined as the meat from a sheep between 1 and 2 years of age. Larson was kind enough to share half legs and a shoulder roast of his Lincoln hogget so I could experience the taste and aroma of this amazing meat. I did quite a bit of homework and came up with a cooking strategy based on the low-and-slow philosophy to bring out the best in this kind of grass-finished meat. The plan was to prepare the meat and then serve it to the staff at The Livestock Conservancy office so we could have a group discussion about its qualities.
I decided to prepare the cuts of meat using two different methods, taking some inspiration from one of my favorite sheep books, Much Ado About Mutton by Bob Kennard. This book is an amazing resource that expertly dispels the myths arising in the mid-20th century that caused hogget and mutton to be viewed as inferior to lamb. Prior to that time, if you wanted to impress someone with a fine dinner, you would serve a nice piece of mutton. A quote in the book from Pierre des Essarts, an 18th-century French actor, sums up the past sentiment of mutton: “Mutton is to lamb what a millionaire uncle is to his poverty-stricken nephew.”
The reputation of this once highly regarded meat was destroyed through a cruel act of fate during World War II. Sheep were hastily butchered, prepared, and canned to send to the troops, with little regard for hang time. Ultimately, the taste of the meat was ruined, making it barely edible for the hungry soldiers, who were then left with nothing else to eat. Afterward, the mere mention of mutton was an unpleasant reminder of wartime canned meat. Mutton rapidly lost favor as tastes swayed toward the much milder flavor of lamb.
It’s said the keys to good hogget or mutton are breed, diet, and hang time. Lincoln has long been reputed as a fine producer of hogget. Corn-based diets can ruin even the best of breeds, and will tend to give the meat a gamy taste. For ideal flavor, animals should be raised entirely on grass and natural forages — with little to no corn — to ensure the highest quality. After that, it’s a matter of hang time for the carcass at the abattoir. Ideally, 1 to 2 weeks hang time is perfect for mutton and hogget. (Older sheep require longer aging times in the refrigerator. Many butchers don’t like to hang that long, because the meat takes up space needed for incoming product.) We purchased a large cooler to finish aging the meat at home and a commercial-grade vacuum sealer so the meat could be packaged and stored for up to a year in a freezer without the threat of freezer burn.
An Arresting Aroma
I prepared the 2-pound shoulder roast using a modified version of a recipe I found in Much Ado About Mutton for slow-baked mutton shoulder. I started with lightly browning three thickly sliced onions in a little olive oil in a cast-iron Dutch oven. I removed them, and then rubbed the meat with salt and pepper and browned it on all sides in the same pan. Once browned, I added garlic, white wine, and some stock (you can use either lamb or chicken). I then cooked the roast, covered, in the oven at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for about 2 hours, and I basted it every 30 minutes. When it was finished, I made sure the juices from the meat were running fairly clear. Then, while the meat was resting, I took the leftover liquid, along with the onions, and used an immersion blender to mix it into a light and velvety velouté sauce to accompany the meat.
For the 3-pound leg roast, I went with one of my favorite coatings for all things sheep: Julia Child’s recipe for a mustard marinade for lamb. The mixture includes Dijon mustard, soy sauce, ginger, rosemary, and olive oil. I coated the meat with this marinade and placed it, uncovered, on a rack over a pan with stock to keep the roast moist. Since the basting process, cook time, and oven temperature were the same for the leg and shoulder, I was able to cook them at the same time. This produced a well-done shoulder and a medium-rare leg, both of which were moist and perfectly cooked. I also made a sauce for the leg with the remaining liquid. I decided to make it a little heavier than the shoulder sauce, so I mixed a little flour and water, and then poured it into the boiling liquid to produce a thick gravy.
I allowed the meat to rest for about 30 minutes while I made my way to the office filled with eager taste testers awaiting its arrival. The first thing everyone noticed about the meat was its rich aroma, which filled the room almost immediately after I took the meat out. The carving caused more than a couple of mouths to water in anticipation. When we began to sample each roast, it was clear they had very different flavors. Of the two cuts, the shoulder had the stronger flavor. One person noted that the shoulder meat was similar to steak and very flavorful, while others commented on the milder but delicious leg roast. Both cuts had great texture. One taster commented, “I’d be proud to have either of these roasts on my table!” In the end, the group was evenly split but equally satisfied.
The Lincoln breed is blessed to be supported by the National Lincoln Sheep Breeders Association. This active group works to market the breed and cultivate the next generation of breeders, with members who can help mentor newcomers to the breed and put them on a clear path for success. The best piece of advice I can offer is to take time to visit a Lincoln breeder and get to know this majestic sheep up close and personal. They’re beautiful and useful creatures that won’t disappoint.
For more information on Lincoln Longwools and working with hogget or mutton, visit:
Jeannette Beranger is the senior program manager for The Livestock Conservancy. She maintains rare breeds on her North Carolina farm, and is the coauthor of An Introduction to Heritage Breeds.