One of my earliest food memories is stopping at a little cafe restaurant in the blink-and-you-will-miss-it town called Yarck on the Melba Highway.  It was probably a Friday night, and we would have been on our way to Jamieson for the weekend.  We didn’t eat out much as kids, Dad often wanted to, but Mum’s response was almost always ‘I have meat in the fridge Arthur’.  When we did stop somewhere she was always in a fabulous mood, something I see in my housebound covid-era self, so happy to be out, to be eating someone else’s food. 

Yarck was actually to go on to being quite the food destination in later years, and I think that cute little cafe might have been the start of it all.  Anyway, my sister Lilly and I ordered Shepherd’s Pie that night, and I distinctly remember being charmed by how it came out, in individual ceramic dishes with a serve of tomato chutney on the side.  Whether it was actually any better than mum’s own version, which she made as a big pie in a dark brown oven proof dish, I have no memory of. 

Shepherd’s pie is one of the taste memory snapshots from my youth.  It belongs firmly in the food nostalgia with cultural value, not just for me but for thousands, possibly millions of folk from Australia, Ireland and England.  As a dish it encompasses the kind of cook my mother was when we were growing up. Thrifty, resourceful, respectful of the seasons and produce in general.

A real shepherd’s pie is made with lamb, as opposed to a cottage pie, which is made with beef.  Purists will tell you that it should be made with the leftovers of a lamb roast, which is indeed how my mum always made it.  Of course is it is fine to make it with ground lamb, as I have done many times, basically because we don’t have a roast dinner all that often, unlike my childhood where my mother pumped one out every Sunday.  Lots has been written about what makes a good Shepherd’s pie, and I particularly enjoyed this piece by Felicity Cloake in The Guardian, and join with her view that, like many recipes, there are different inclusions family to family, region to region. Historically canned tomatoes would not have been readily available in the Irish or English kitchen, but these days they are, and they do lengthen the stew out nicely.

As a thrifty left-overs dish not a lot of meat is required, and everything is bulked up with cut vegetables, and indeed any leftover roast veg that happens to be on hand can go in to.  The mash makes everything as heartening as a big hug.  I like it with a slosh of tomato sauce or chutney.

Shepherd’s Pie – traditional with tweaks

Flexible quantities for 3 to 5 people

200 – 400 g roast lamb (or lamb mince)
1-2 brown onions
1-2 sticks of celery
1-2 carrots
1 stick of rosemary
2 cloves of garlic
2 tbs olive oil
400 g peeled tomatoes (or beef stock)
1 kg potatoes
75 g butter
100 ml milk
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
Grated parmigiano (optional)

Pull as much meat as you can from the bones of the roast lamb and dice or shred. 

Clean and dice the onion and squash a couple of cloves of garlic. 

Wash, peel and roughly chop (not too small) the celery and carrots.

In a large pan sweat the onions and garlic, and a stick of rosemary in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil.  (Of course this would have been dripping conserved from the very same roast lamb in times past, and this will only add flavour if you have some to hand).  Add the chopped celery and carrots, and indeed any other veg, coat well with oil and let them soften a couple of minutes before adding the lamb (let this brown well if you are using mince) and then a can of tomatoes (peeled or crushed).  Mix everything well and let it cook, on a low heat, for about 15 minutes (30 plus if you are using mince), adding a little water if necessary.  Taste, add extra salt and pepper if it needs it.  

Put the potatoes, peeled and diced, into a large pan of cold, lightly salted water.  Bring to the boil and cook until soft. Drain immediately, tip back into the warm saucepan and mash with butter and about 100 ml of milk.

If the pie is going to be consumed immediately, keep the various ingredients warm and preheat the oven. If you are going to store the pie in the fridge before cooking let the various elements cool down before assembling.

Tip the meat stew into a ceramic, glass or enamel baking dish.  Carefully smooth the mashed potato over the meat using a spatula to smooth out.  Use the back of the fork to make furrows in the mash and sprinkle a spoonful of fine breadcrumbs over the top.  A handful of grated parmesan is also good on top, although completely untraditional.

Bake for between 10 and 30 minutes, depending on the temperature of the ingredients when they went in.  Grill for final few minutes.  To test the heat inside the pie slide a butter knife into the centre and leave it there for 15 seconds, pull out and feel the temperature of the blade to get an idea of how hot the inside is.

Alberto or Emma, can’t remember which one, would say ‘oooh pie’ when this came to the table when they were tiny.  They still love it, with obligatory tomato sauce.  In Italy we buy salsa Rubra, the Italian version of ketchup. 



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