A brief history of: shepherd’s pie

Understanding Spices

A cheap and cheerful dish, the humble shepherd’s pie is an icon of British and Irish cuisine – one for those cold, dark nights over winter. Whilst recipes do have a lot of variation (and a few spicey additions, if you so wish), there’s the same basic structure that’s followed throughout:

  • A crust of mashed potatoes on both the top and the bottom.
  • Inside, minced meat (always lamb). If it’s beef, then it’s cottage pie – a very close cousin.
  • The meat is simmered in a gravy of onions and other vegetables such as carrots, peas, onion and celery

So, who should take credit for this warm and hearty dish? Once again, like many a famous dish, the origins of shepherd’s pie are a little hard to nail down. You’ll notice in the introductory paragraph that I’ve played it safe, labelling it as an icon of both British and Irish cuisine. It’s hard to know exactly. We only have a few clues and scraps to piece together – like an old, scraggly cookbook that’s lost a fair few pages over the years.

To solve the ‘is it Irish or is it British?’ conundrum, we have to look at the relationship between the two countries. In the 15th century, England officially took control of the Emerald Isles (Ireland) and brought it into the United Kingdom. Consequently, Protestantism became the new official religion, displacing Catholicism. So, this led to British protestants becoming de facto ruling landowners who were protected by the government, while Irish Catholics became the peasant underclass. This underclass were very poor and impoverished, living in small homes called cottages.

‘Where is all this going and what does it have to do with shepherd’s pie?’ you may well ask. Well, fast forward to the 18th century and we find a dish called ‘cottage pie’ that has been birthed into existence somewhere within the United Kingdom or Ireland. Like many fantastic French classics and other great dishes around the world, it’s thought that cottage pie came about as a way for poorer folk to make use of leftovers. If you were poor, you couldn’t afford to waste any food or money. The Irish peasants lived in cottages, hence the name.

Unused meats and veg were all repurposed into this deliciously warm, filling pie. The French dish hachis parmentier is very similar – a great example of an economical way to use leftover meat.

Hachis Parnentier

Interestingly, because the poor could not afford beef at this time, they most likely used mutton as a flavourful alternative instead. Eventually, as time wore on into the 19th century, cottage pie referred to the dish that was made using minced beef, while the shepherd’s pie used minced lamb (for the obvious connection of lamb and shepherd).

Given the socio-political context between the UK and Ireland, it’s largely accepted that shepherd’s pie is most likely an Irish meal (lamb was cheaper). Meanwhile, cottage pie was the British version (using beef which was more expensive and favoured by the British).

So, that’s a very brief history of shepherd’s pie for you. There was no eureka moment. No great chef in his or her kitchen. No identifiable landmark event. It’s just plain and simple (slightly ambiguous) humble origins for a humble dish. To this day, it’s one of the very best you’ll find in British and Irish pubs and homes.

If you fancy having a go at making this dish yourself, have a look at this fantastic authentic recipe on BBC Good Food. As a spicy alternative (that’s what we love around here!) why not check out this Indian-spiced variation.

Shepherds Pie

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