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Throwback Thursday: Cottage Pie

Throwback Thursday: Cottage Pie
Tony Jackman’s Cottage Pie. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Once upon a time, there was only Cottage Pie, no matter what meat was used in it. The term ‘Shepherd’s Pie’ would only surface six decades later. So, when next an uppity food snob corrects you for calling a lamb version ‘Cottage Pie’, correct them right back.

Cottage Pie dates to early 1790s England and had been around for six decades before Shepherd’s Pie came along, the latter only appearing in the 1850s. For a very long time both were called Cottage Pie, because regardless of what we call it, it really is the same thing, whether the meat is beef or mutton.

Cottagers in Britain in the late 18th century made potatoes a key part of their diet, so it made its way into various dishes, not least “Cottage Pie”, and whether the meat in it was beef or lamb, or for that matter venison nabbed in the wilds for the pot, it was simply the name of a “pie” the cottagers made and ate. “Pie” being a broader definition, for the British, than merely a description of a dish with a pastry crust; just as “pudding” in the land of Blighty could be savoury or sweet.

By the 1850s people began making a distinction if the meat in its making was lamb/mutton, which explains why even now many people are happy to call either of them “cottage pie”, given that the name does not indicate any type of meat.

The “Shepherd’s Pie” entry in Wikipedia makes the puzzling claim that “since the 21st century” (like, right now), “the term shepherd’s pie is used more commonly when the meat is lamb”. In the UK, that is. Honestly, does it really matter?

Either way, it’s the same thing: A layered “pie” (we would say “bake” in our time) of savoury minced/ground meat below, containing onions, other vegetables and aromatics, almost always including Worcestershire sauce, and creamy mashed potato on top, with or without cheese added.

Some of the better recipes today call for Cheddar cheese to be grated and stirred into the mash before covering the top, and for beaten egg yolk to be brushed over to give it a pleasing golden glow.

But it wasn’t always layered in this way. Wikipedia explains that in earlier forms it was a way to use up leftover roasted meats, which were ground (after having been cooked, obviously). Mashed potato was used to line the bottom and sides of a dish, the meat was spooned in the middle, and it was topped with more mashed potatoes. 

Meanwhile, a Cumberland Pie can be either lamb or beef, with vegetables, but there’s an extra topping of breadcrumbs mixed with grated cheese.

Here’s how I made a Cottage Pie this week:

Ingredients

800 g beef mince/ ground beef

3 Tbsp olive oil

2 medium onions

2 or 3 garlic cloves

1 stick celery

2 carrots

2 lemon leaves (or bay)

Zest of 1 lemon, grated finely

1 x 400 g can chopped tomatoes

2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

700 g potatoes, peeled

2 heaped Tbsp butter

4 Tbsp cream

1 cup/ 225 g grated Cheddar

Salt and pepper to taste

2 egg yolks

Method

Peel the potatoes and cut into smaller chunks. Boil them in plenty of salted water until al dente. Drain and reserve.

Preheat the oven to 220℃ or a little higher.

Chop and dice the onions, garlic, carrots and celery and sauté in olive oil until softened.

Add the lemon leaves (or bay) and grated lemon zest and cook, stirring, for a minute.

Add the tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce, season with salt and pepper, then add the minced beef and work it with a wooden spoon so that it does not form clumps. Simmer on a low heat for about half an hour for the meat to cook through and tenderise. Stir now and then to ensure it does not catch at the bottom of the pot.

Mash the potatoes on a low heat, adding the butter and stirring until it melts and is absorbed, then adding cream and cooking until that has melted into the mash. Season to taste with salt and pepper; it’s important to taste the mash while adding the salt until the right level of saltiness is achieved, so add only a little at a time, taste, add more, and so on, until you’re happy with it. Grate the Cheddar and stir it into the mashed potato.

Grease a suitable oven dish. Spoon in the meat mixture. Spoon the mash over the top and work it to all edges and corners, as evenly as possible.

Beat the egg yolks with a fork and brush it all over the topping.

Use a fork to make patterns on top of the mash. 

Bake until the topping turns golden. For me it took about 40 minutes, but all ovens are different so just check it every five minutes until it looks perfect. It doesn’t need an accompaniment. DM/TGIFood

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected]

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  • Wanda Hennig says:

    Yum. Thanks for reminding me about cottage pie. It’s years since I thought of it or made it. Used to love it. I will be following your recipe soon as the weather turns chilly and it seems there is a cold spell heading for Durban so cottage pie here we come 🙂

  • Brendan Daly says:

    Love cottage pie. We make a slow cooked oxtail then take it off the bone…zhuzzhh it up a bit and it makes a delicious cottage pie. Real wholesome winters dish.

  • Mark Schaufelbuehl says:

    23.05 … getting hungry again 😋

  • Andrew Baigrie says:

    My Scottish mother used to serve homegrown lightly chilled sliced and bottled beetroot with Cottage Pie and I still do, but I did grow up with it. I’m in California and buy it bottled here, but not to everyone’s taste! Locals love our Cottage Pie and Bobotie, Mrs.Balls a necessity.

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