Shepherds Pie Versus Cottage Pie and Gordon Ramsay's Pet Peeve

Posted on 19 Mar 2012 16:30

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Oh, how I love Shepherd's pie. Or is it Cottage pie? It depends on whether you use lamb or beef. And if Gordon Ramsay catches you using beef and calling it Shepherd's Pie, he might just go all..well, Gordon Ramsay on you. He's mentioned this several times on the boob tube, with more than a trace of his trademark irritation.

Hey, it makes sense. Shepherds deal with sheep, therefore Shepherd's pie better have lamb in it. But while British folks may be fine with lamb, not many Americans are. I've seen even the most manly and diehard meat-eaters shy away from eating lamb, not because of the taste, but because a lamb, in America, is a cute little thing with fleece as white as snow…that follows you to school.

I personally have nothing against cows or sheep and I like the dish with either beef or lamb. But, what about this cottage pie stuff? The truth is, the term cottage pie has been around a lot longer than Shepherd's pie, even before the 1800's, and was referred to as a crust covered pie.

The potato, you may have heard, originated in the Americas, having been eaten by the native Americans before Europeans showed up (they grew wild in some places, like Chile. I believe it was the early conquistadors that took the potato back to Spain, from whence it spread to England and throughout the British Isles and Northern Europe. Although it has also been claimed that Sir Walter Raleigh brought them back from Virginia. Either way, potatoes were introduced to Europe as early as the late 1500's.

shepherd's pie hot from the oven

Shepherd's Pie

shepherd's pie hot from the oven

Shepherd's Pie

That they were introduced that early, however, does not mean they were popular or even economical as a cultivated food right away. Although some questions exist as to just how quickly the potato became a popular part of the English diet, it probably wasn't until at least the early to mid 1800's.1,2

Cottage pie, however, had it's origins way back before Shepherd's pie, and before the potato would ever have been used as a topping. Nope, most likely, pastry "coffin" (pie crust) would have been used originally. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Shepherd's or Cottage pie is that the meat filling is minced fine and mincemeat pies in pastry were nothing new in England, having been around long before Shepherd's pie was ever invented and before the English started liking potatoes.

Only later in the 19th century in the northern part of England where there were lots of sheep and potatoes were popular did lamb and potatoes start being used, probably a variation of the traditional dish using what was available as well as leftover lamb. So, nowadays, cottage pie is made with potatoes, and was in the later 1800's, but it seems that it is really the "original" dish and to quibble over which meat is used might just be older English people being pedantic (I'm not scared, Gordon!)3

The idea that Shepherd's pie must have lamb instead of beef because lamb is what Shepherd's ate, is probably nothing more than a bit of folk etymology. Today, Shepherd's pie is usually made with beef, but you can make it with lamb if you're mean and you hate cute little lambs.

One thing is for sure, whether you make it with beef or lamb, and whatever you call it, it is the best thing ever for comfort food. And, of course, you want to use Ramsay's recipe.

You can get a breakdown of the recipe here at Gordon Ramsay's Recipes.1 But watch the video closely and pay attention to the comments. There are some minor mistakes. I've made this several times, and it was the best Shepherd's pie I ever had. Pay attention to the flavor of the mince at the end and add enough chicken broth to get the taste, and moisture, right. You don't want it too wet but you definitely want a "gravy."

1. Horton, Douglas E. Potatoes: Production, Marketing, and Programs for Developing Countries. Boulder: Westview, 1987. 10-11.
2. Salaman, Redcliffe N., W. G. Burton, and J. G. Hawkes. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
3. "Food Timeline: History Notes-pie & Pastry." Food Timeline: Food History & Vintage Recipes. Web. 19 Mar. 2012. <>.

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