Shepherds or Shepherd’s Pie that is the Question

Am going to cook shepherd’s pie for them all – British home cooking.

Author: Helen Fielding

Pay attention chefs who went to li’l chefs schools and now have their own TV show. Shepherd’s Pie is NOT the same as Cottage Pie.  Shepherd’s Pie contains lamb, mutton, Cottage Pie uses ground beef, or beef stew.  Got it? I decided to search high and low over the Internet to source the perfect Shepherd’s Pie and went to the one website that I thought would give me the answer. Can you guess what page…?

I must say the responses that I received surprised me. Readers sent way too many websites including one designed for mommies.  Several questions arise here. One, why is a man hanging out at a website designed for mommies and two, being British, he should know that beef does not belong in a traditional Shepherd’s pie?

The second response made me question myself on just what I was cooking! Tilly decided to do a Mrs. Beeton on me and suggested I first have to catch a Shepherd. We are not even going to discuss where the peas and carrots would go after I caught said Shepherd, or even if I should be the one providing the whipped cream.

So back to doing more research, I came across a recipe that just might be the earliest form of this delicious dish.  Meat pies are a staple in British history, with many recipes dating to the Middle Ages.  I will have to admit to y’all, the term Cottage Pie is the older of the two, dating back to Reverend James Woodford in 1791, writing about his dinner of “Cottage-Pye and Rost Beef.” The term “Shepherd’s Pie” came into the English language in the 1870’s.

Tilly: I gather it wasn’t the English who devised this dish, but the thrifty Irish in the early 1800s, Shepherd’s pie was a traditional hearty Irish recipe created to use up leftovers and not be wasteful with food.

The earliest recipe was not topped with potatoes even though potatoes had been introduced in England by that time. They did not appeal to the British taste buds.  Instead, they were topped with an aspic jelly.  See the recipe below:

Tilly: The Irish liked potatoes. Sometimes they were all they had to eat.

For to Make Mutton Pies

Mince your mutton and your white together. When it is minced season it with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, prunes, currants, dates and raisins, and hard eggs, boiled and chopped very small, and throw them on top.   The Good Housewife’s Jewel, Thomas Dawson, 1595 [1]

Tilly: White what?

Olive: Well according to some experts on Historic Cookery it could be suet. Thomas Dawson is British and you live on that island. Call him and ask.

Tilly: Dagnamit. His line is permanently engaged …

Tilly: Mutton or lamb pies are an entirely different animal from cottage/shepherd’s pies. These need the aspic topping to help preserve them for longer without the aid of refrigeration or possibly cold rooms, I imagine. The additions make it sound more like mincemeat for Christmas puddings. Also, spices were expensive and these pies were generally a poor man’s meal, I believe.

Olive: Oh my heavens folks, Tilly and I finally agreed again.

Isabella Beeton gave us the best recipe yet:

Baked Minced Mutton

 INGREDIENTS:  The remains of any joint of cold roast mutton, 1 or 2 onions, 1 bunch of savoury herbs, pepper and salt to taste, 2 blades of pounded mace or nutmeg, 2 tablespoonfuls of gravy, mashed potatoes.

Mode: Mince an onion rather fine, and fry it a light-brown colour; add the herbs and mutton, both of which should be also finely minced and well mixed; season with pepper and salt, and a little pounded mace or nutmeg, and moisten with the above proportion of gravy. Put a layer of mashed potatoes at the bottom of a dish, then the mutton, and then another layer of potatoes, and bake for about 1/2 hour.

Note:  If there should be a large quantity of meat, use two onions instead of one.

The Book of Household Management, by Isabella Beeton, 1861

Tilly: Hmm … bit dubious about the mashed potato layer at the bottom. It would soak up the juices/gravy. Two tablespoonsfuI would make for a dry pie. I gave up making either pie because I like plenty of gravy and always forgot to put the surplus in a gravy boat to serve. The damned potato topping sank …

Olive: Well, it is supposed to be a dish that used leftovers, but just not a soup. Which is what you were making.

Tilly: I assure you it was not soup-like – far too substantial … just not a crisp topping!

No matter which recipe you use, whether you add peas and carrots enjoy the beauty and simplicity of this hearty dish. Just remember one thing… IT IS CALLED SHEPHERDS PIE.

Tilly: Never seen peas or carrots added to either pie in the UK. Always served on the side. Cheesy potato topping is a regular, though. My heart sank when I saw a recipe which included dollops of tomato ketchup …

Olive: Tilly, who in their right or left mind puts tomato ketchup in Shepherd’s Pie? Who?

Olive and Tilly

P.S. Tilly missed the humor in the title. Let’s not tell her. – Olive

Tilly: She didn’t … just didn’t think it that funny … so let’s not tell Olive, eh?

Shepherd’s pie and peppered with genuine shepherds on top,

Stephen Sondheim



[1] Maggie Black [Southover Press:East Sussex] 1996 (p. 68)



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