Shepherd's Pie: The English- Irish Beef (the meat!)

In all of its Irish glory, Shepherd’s Pie lacks a straightforward history of its origins. There doesn’t seem to be a singular person, event, place, or circumstance that gave the world shepherd’s pie. Instead, there are bits and pieces of history that are put together, and once interpreted, allow the emergence of shepherd’s pie to make sense. Here’s a brief rundown of those facts that were gathered from research:

  • With the Norman Invasion of Ireland in the 13th century, a tumultuous, rocky period sparked between England and Ireland, which well is still ongoing as a ‘period’ for many

  • By late the 15th century, Ireland was officially taken control of by England and the island was brought into the United Kingdom

  • As an arm of the United Kingdom, Protestantism became the new official religion, despite Ireland being majority Catholic.

  • The British and Protestant Irish converts became ruling landowners, protected by the government. Irish Catholics became peasant land workers, sanctioned by the government. As a result, they were generally impoverished, living in humble homes called “cottages.”

  • In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh introduced the potato to Ireland, and over time, the potato gained acceptance in Ireland as an edible, affordable piece of produce, particularly for the poor.

  • The British loved beef, and sparked an increase in beef production in Ireland. The Irish were never big beef eaters. Regardless, they couldn’t really afford it while Ireland was under British control

Sometime in the 18th century, a dish called “cottage pie” came about somewhere in the vast expanse of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It seems to have originated as a way for folks to make use of leftovers, in order to avoid waste, both of the food and money varieties. Simply put, after making a weekend roast, unused meat was repurposed into a pie using affordable potatoes as a crust.

This frugal, albeit clever, meal suggests the name “cottage pie” referring to the consumers of the dish—poor Irish peasants (remember, they lived in cottages). Because the Irish, at the time, typically could not afford beef, I suspect the earliest forms of cottage pie contained mutton, since mutton was a cheaper and more flavorful alternative to either beef or lamb.

This cottage pie was the precursor to shepherd’s pie, which was coined in the middle of the 19th century. For a while it was used interchangeably with cottage pie. However, as time went on, a distinction was made: shepherd’s pie referred to a dish made with lamb (because sheep are tended to by shepherds!), and cottage pie referred to a dish made with beef. Shepherd’s pie or cottage pie, or in its French version hachis Parmentier is a savoury dish of cooked minced meat topped with mashed potato and baked.

The term Cottage pie was in use by 1791. Parson Woodforde mentions “Cottage-Pye” in his diary entry for 29 August 1791, and several times thereafter. He records that the meat was veal but he does not say what the topping was. The meat used may be either previously cooked or freshly minced. In British usage however in the 1850s Shepherd’s pie referred to a Scottish dish that contained a mutton and diced potato filling inside a pastry crust. The usual meats are beef or lamb. The two English terms have been used interchangeably since they came into use in the late 18th and the 19th century, although some writers insist that a shepherd’s pie should contain lamb or mutton, and a cottage pie, beef.

A shepherd’s pie seasoning ideally comprises of the following for a fuller, flavourful taste:

  • Salt- 1tsp

  • Garlic Powder – 1tsp

  • Mustard Powder -½ tsp

  • Black Pepper – ½ tsp

  • Thyme, dried – ½ tsp

  • Parsley, dried – ½ tsp

Contemporary recipes have made shepherd’s pie available in vegan and gluten free forms. Lentil shepherd’s pie is known for the vegan counterpart of the regular recipe that can also be made gluten free with gluten free flour that is often used to thicken the pie sauce. The butter used in the recipe must also be checked for gluten in it. A delicious, easy, family friendly classic with a twist, Quorn Shepherd’s pie is another vegetarian recipe that uses Quorn mince instead of the traditional. It is vegetarian and easier to prepare, perfect for busy weeknights!

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