Those Poor Elizabethans...

Shepherds Pie is an old English dish. If you are British you will have always been served Shepherds Pie as a child(or a vegetarian variant of it, if you are a non-meat eater). At Primary School we were served up Synthetic Mashed Potato served on top of a grayish brown meat sauce (origins of meat unknown), padded out with marrow fat peas and tinned carrots. I still shudder at the thought of it. I remember on more than one occasion unscrewing the lid of the ketchup dispenser so that when I went to squirt 'just a little' tomato sauce on my plate, everything was flooded with watered down sauce. "Miss, I can't eat this, it's covered in ketchup!"
My first culinary Get Out Of Jail Card.
The true origins of Shepherds (or Cottage) Pie go back even further than my own schooldays (and that was sometime in the 1980s!), although it is not as archaeic as I had expected. Of course, the Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in the 15th century but those choosy Elizabethans and the so-hard to please Jacobeans chose NOT to utilise the humble potato (or any vegetable for that matter), preferring the higher protein meals.
At some point though, some wily old-timer discovered the joy of the potato and henceforth the joy of the potato combined with protein (i.e. meat). Shepherds Pie came into being in the 1800s, the first official naming of the dish not until the 1870s.
Technically it is not a pie; it doesn' t have a pastry crush and is not baked in a pie tin (although it could be). It is simply a layer of rich meat sauce, topped with creamy mashed potatoes. Whilst you can make this dish as luxurious as you like, it is a one-pot meal that sprang out of the need for frugality. In the olden days, leftover meat from the Sunday Roast would be finely ground to make the saucy layer, made to go further with leftover carrots, turnips, parsnips, whatever.
Whilst researching this dish, I asked Paul if they ate Shepherds Pie in the US, to which he gave me a dubious "yeeeeeah" which means something like "I don't know but I'll say yes because it seems like something we might eat". I don't think he had eaten it until he came to England(Pauls enlightened comment: As Freya knows, my favourite version is one my mom always made the night after meatloaf night: Slice the meatloaf and layer the bottom of a pan. Pour over ketchup. Add a layer of leftover peas. Top with leftover mashed potatoes. Grate Cheddar on top. Bake in the oven. Awesome!).
Actually, a cursory glance on Google reveals any number of transatlantic variants, a scary number of them using the ubiquitous mushroom soup and green beans that Americans seem to love so much, some replacing the potato with noodles, others pepping it up with chipotles.
Do a search of English recipes and they are all much the same as each other, very little wavering from grandmas original recipe. I'm not here to state which is right or wrong. I think that creativity is the mother of invention and all dishes naturally evolve, regionally, culturally and financially.
Our version of Shepherds Pie is for the most part traditional apart from the use of beef instead of lamb. I deviated slightly by using fried pancetta in the meat sauce because I love the flavour it so generously donates to whatever dish it inhabits. Paul was, as usual, in charge of the mashed potato. We had recently seen a Gary Rhodes show where he made Shepherds Pie, treating it like it was a rare deity. He finished off the mashed potato in such a way that Paul and I laughingly mocked, decorating it with the back of a palette knife so that it resembled shingles on a roof.
Suffice to say, that was how Paul finished his Mashed Potato layer off.
And, with a tip of the hat to Gary Rhodes, the final dish was particularly auspicious. The potato had crisped on top but was still fluffy beneath and the meat sauce had dyed the potato with it's oily goodness. And as for the meat sauce? Rich, dense and delicious.
And probably better than a deep fried bears paw.

SHEPHERDS PIE serves 2, generously
500g Minced Beef (minus one 100g burger pinched by Paul for a snack), not entirely fat free, you need some fat for flavour
1 Medium Onion, finely chopped
1 Clove Garlic, finely chopped
1 Stick Celery, finely diced
1 Carrot, peeled and finely diced
Half a yellow pepper, finely diced
1 Dozen mushrooms sliced
100g Pancetta, cut into cubes
2 or 3 Tablespoons Tomato Puree, Ketchup or Passata
Leaves of a small spring Thyme
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
100ml Red Wine
100ml Milk
Dash Worcestershire Sauce
6 Medium Potatoes, red skinned in this case but I think that white would be better
Butter, milk and seasoning
Grated Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 230c.
Gently heat the olive oil in a deep frying pan and saute the onion and garlic until softly translucent. Add the pancetta and fry gently until the fat has rendered down and crisped a little. Take care not to let the onions and garlic burn though.
Add the celery, pepper and carrot. Cook over medium low heat until softened.
Add the meat, mushrooms, and thyme leaves, cooking until the mince is no longer pink.
Pour over the red wine and let reduce.
Once the alcoholic vapours have died down and the wine has all but evaporated, add the milk and simmer until it has reduced once more, about 5-10 minutes.
Add the tomato puree/ketchup/passata, Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper,
Bring to the boil and add 100ml or so of water.
Turn down to a gentle simmer and leave for half an hour for the flavours to mingle.
When time is up, the fat from the meat will have separated and be sitting on top of the sauce. Do not drain off. Instead, turn the heat up quite high and let the sauce bubble and blip quite fast until it thickens up to a rich gravy.
Pour into an oven-proof baking dish.
Mashed Potatoes (Paul's contribution)
Peel and boil the potatoes until just soft. Drain. Put butter in a pan adding milk when the butter has melted. Season with salt, pepper, AND paprika. Add potatoes back to the pan and mash to the desired consistency.
Using a palette knife, pick up some of the potato and scrape off on the edge of the baking dish. Repeat this procedure until the entire periphery of the dish is covered with potato. Close up the remainder of the pie with the rest of the potato. Working from one end, firmly press the tip of the knife into the potato leaving a semi-circular indentation repeating the process across the dish left to right. Repeat the procedure until the entire surface is scalloped.

(This is a funny story. I was in the process of adding the paprika when I was accosted by Freya. F: "You know I don't like paprika in mash!"
P: "I always put paprika in the potatoes, your mom said you like it that way."
F: "Well, I don't and now you've ruined them!"
P: "You haven't tasted..."
Freya grabs the spoon and sticks it in her mouth.
F: "You're lucky, this time."
What makes the story funny is that we have had this conversation numerous times.)


Kathryn said...

It looks lovely - I am a shepherds pie fan, and the potatoes look delicious.

I am puzzled though - using beef rather than lamb means cottage pie, doesn't it? Should you not be also giving us a history of cottage pie?!

Joyce said...

Beautiful treatment on the spuds!
As an American kid, we had the equivalent and called it "Chinese Pie". A layer of chopped meat that had been scrambled with onion, then a layer of corn topped with the mashed potatoes. Baked, of course, with butter melting over the potato topping which did indeed include a dusting of paprika! Yum. Yours looks fabulous.

Susan said...

Oh, Freya, thanks for the great read! It's funny, my husband will eat anything, except for Sheperd's pie. Too many bad American versions as a kid. But pancetta, red wine, and cheese? Even he would like this one. You've made the Elizabethans proud.

mickey said...

Sherherd's Pies is so nostalgic-my mom's always had ground beef, green beans, tomato sauce, and mashed potatoes-we all loved it.

Homesick Texan said...

It's been too long since I've had Shepherd's Pie, and it's such a perfect one-pot dish. And thanks for the great history of the dish, a great read!

sher said...

Beautiful pics! Sheperd's Pie (or Cottage Pie) usually hits the spot with most people. When I made mine, I reserved some of the meat and potatoes and made a few small ones in ramekins, to stash in the freezer.

Patricia Scarpin said...


I always enjoy reading your texts, you're very witty, my friend!

I've been meaning to make shepherd's pie for my husband forever, yours look delicious - I'm amazed by the beautiful golden color of you mashed potatoes!

Paulie said...

Wow that looks great. I have a freezer full of cottage pies for lazy weekday dinners.
P :)

Kristen said...

I'm not a big fan of having all of my food mixed together in one dish, but Shephard's Pie is an exception for me. I love that stuff!

Gattina said...

I made the pie pretty much the same as your recipe (except cheese and paprika... but really sound good, got to try next time!). My sister- and brother-in-laws ate up the whole pie (right, just like your photo :D) last time even they're on diet (no red meat).

Linda said...

i'd venture to say that Shepard's pie is just about the only meat dish i miss as a vegetarian -- and yours looks wonderful!

valentina said...

Freya, I love shepperds pie and just loved reading about it here. Wow, this one did taste delicious.The picture is here to prove it.f ;o )