To make a Ragou of Veal or Lamb

February 6, 2014 in Feast or Famine, Outlandish Recipes of the 18th century, Resources and Research by M C

There’s no denying the convenience and overwhelming abundance of the meat case at the grocery store.  The large market to the north of us has a case running half the width of the store, refrigerated meats on one side, frozen on the other, and that doesn’t include the fish or deli counters.  Truely it is unlikely I’ve ever tasted half of what is in the refrigerated meat case, let alone the frozen… and I never go into the deli.

But for all that bounty there’s one thing missing from a modern meat counter and the packages of red meat:


I should be more familiar with bones than I am.  We raise our own lamb, and every autumn I’m confronted with a sheet of paper called a cut list  which allows me to tick off how I want my animals butchered.   Surprisingly few of my customers are interested in stew meat, for example, so I order scraps ground into convenient, grillable, lambburger instead. I order pretty boned rolled leg roasts, trimmed chops, boned butterflied shoulders, the cuts my customers expect and are willing to pay for.

But how much does a modern cut order differ from an 18th century cut?  I recently had to take a ram lamb out of the flock.  He weighed about 100 pounds, of which 60 pounds is hide and entrails, organ meats, head, horns, hooves.. and testicles (which are surprisingly heavy).  Of those “waste” parts a good deal can be salvaged: the liver for pate, the kidneys for steak and kidney pie, the hide can be tanned into a sheepskin, the horns made into buttons.. the testicles fed to the dogs.  He was a particularly obnoxious ram, there’s some satisfaction in that.  But what goes on the truck to be butchered is about 40 pounds of uncut carcass.

I’d expect back about 28 pounds in packaged meat, the large bones removed and saved, not for me, but for the dogs.  This time I had the carcass cut in the best 18th century tradition, what farmers today call “cutting it heavy.”  And I got back 34 pounds of packaged meat.

In Outlander Claire is fresh from the battlefields of World War II.  WWII era and 18th century meat cutters had something in common: WWII butchers, cutting meat in wartime England, would meet quotas by “cutting heavy,” including the bones to make weight on a rationed commodity.  Recipes from the period reflect the need housewives had to make use of every scrap of meat.. not just the pretty ones, but everything, right down to the bone.  But today, awash in a wealth of high quality protean, we don’t need, or use, the bones.

It’s surprising, that it took a war, not a depression, to force early 20th century cooks to rethink their use of bones and scraps.  And once again we find ourselves in an era of such wealth that even though there are households which might welcome and benefit from bones our food distribution system routes lesser cuts of the lamb carcass, meat clinging to the bones, to pet food processors. If my butcher worked in a large meat packing facility he’d be discarding a good portion of the lamb carcass into a barrel, meat and bones, for cat and dog food. Instead he trims what he can off the lesser cuts, then bags the bones for our dogs.

Clinging to those bones are shards of meat.  Intellectually, I know this.  But until embarking on this foray into the 18th century, and being confronted by recipe after recipe calling for bones, (and watching BBC’s Wartime Farm) I hadn’t given the incredible waste associated with modern meat cutting much thought.  My cut list? It is an embarrassment of waste.  An 18th century cook would have seized that mass of bones and discarded fat and toddled off to her kitchen fairly dancing with glee at the bounty.  Even with the trimming the amount of meat left on the bone is scandalous.  Those bones may make the dogs very happy, but they’re a waste of good lamb, now that I’ve started to think about it.

So you can imagine how profligate modern cuts would appear to 18th century cooks where survival and recipes call for cracking even small bones, like ribs, before stewing slowly to cook the meat off the bones and the marrow from them.

But like the loss of heirloom vegetables to hybrids, the loss of bones is more than a waste and nutrition issue:  the loss of bones makes it impossible to accurately reproduce a recipe. Sallying forth to source the ingredients for “Ragou of Veal or Lamb” I discovered there are neither veal nor lamb ribs anywhere in that long, fully stocked, modern meat case, let alone a shoulder bone. For many people Mrs. McLintock’s Receipt CVLI for ragou is not impossible to reproduce because the recipe is difficult to follow.  It is impossible because the bones you need to make it are in a bag of dog food instead of the supermarket meat case.

Take the Back-ribs of Veal or Lamb, and cut them two ribs together, fpread them on a Table and beat them with the rolling Pin., flower them and fry them, take out the fhoulder-bone, and roll up your flefh in a colleur with Spices, and fry it very well ; then drian them from the Greafe, and take the Bignefs of an Egg of Butter, brown it well in teh Sauce Pan, and mix the Broth and Butter together; then put the Meat in the Pan, put in a few Oyfters, fet it on th efire, and put in 3 or 4 Spoonfuls of claret Wine, and fharpen it with a little Vinegar, tofs it in the Pan altogether ; put in the Scape of a Nutmeg and fome Pepper, fprinkle on the Pickles and garnifh your Difh with fried fippets and Pickles.

A “fippet” is a small piece of fried bread, sippet, served with soup.  Fried bread is not “toast.”  Frying bread makes it nice and drippy with butter or bacon fat, crispy and a little greasy on the outside, softer on the inside.  Ah, the days when nobody counted calories, nor had heard of cholesterol..  and while Mrs. McLintock doesn’t specify sweet or sour pickles, I myself have a preference for sour.

Were we to reproduce this recipe for a modern cook, it would look more like this:

1 pound lamb or veal back ribs
1 shoulder, bone in
spices (nutmeg, ginger, cloves to taste)
2 T butter
a few oysters
2 spoonfuls claret
splash of vinegar

Cut your back ribs apart in pairs, lay them on a cutting board, and crack them with sharp whacks from a rolling pin.  Be careful not to create shards of bone, just crack the ribs.  Dredge in flour and fry them on both sides.  Remove the bone from the shoulder roast and roll up the roast with spices.  Brown the roast on all sides, then remove bones and roast from the pan.  Drain the grease and drippings

Add the butter and brown the butter.  Mix the “broth” or grease back into the butter, put the meat back in the pan, add a few oysters, 4 T claret and a splash of vinegar and a 1/4 t nutmet. Cook covered over low heat until your lamb is medium rare, checking and turning the lamb to make certain it doesn’t stick.

When done, remove from pan, slice lamb, pour glaze with an oyster or two over a serving and garnish with pickles and fried bread.

I’m embarrassed to admit.. I haven’t made this recipe.  I have a freezer full of meat… and no bones.  The ram lamb went to a customer who was good humored enough to accept an 18th century cut, provided it was vacuum wrapped in 21st century plastic.  Perhaps I can persuade her to squander a portion of her cherished lamb on an 18th century experiment, but more likely this recipe will have to sit on my bucket list for another year.

Until next autumn, when I write an 18th century cut list for our freezers.  Bone in.  The dogs will just have to make do with their lamb and rice kibble.


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