Stendhal (19th century French writer and diarist) “The shepherd always tries to persuade the sheep that their interests and his own are the same”.

On the subject of recipes – words matter. They serve to define expectation.

Shepherd’s pie or Cottage pie, is there a cultural difference? An abiding question for many and uncertainty for a few.

Cottier, from an old French word, cotier, refers to a peasant farmer living in a tied cottage often tending a small beef herd for the lord of the manor. Conversely, the word shepherd comes from the old English sceaphierde, referring to someone who herded sheep and lived in a mobile hut on wheels.

The latter construction not to be confused with expensively repurposed garden huts in Berkshire used by ex Prime Ministers to finesse their memoirs.

In addition, to round off the necessity of authenticating troublesome definitions, I was pleased to come across one clearly irate British citizen who launched an e-petition in 2015 to forbid the use of the word pie for any dish that failed to have an enclosing pastry mantle and was not borne of these sceptered isles. Only garnering a meagre 5000 signatures left the supplication well short of the100,000 needed to prompt a full parliamentary debate. Whilst this deficiency undoubtedly robbed the male Conservative members of one of their favourite debating topics – the cherished ingredients of Matron’s school dinners – the petitioner should not have been too surprised by the scant outcome. Good try though, cultural appropriation being what it is, it’s normally sensible to try and get these emotive descriptions pinned down.

Mediterranean countries garner a bounty of fresh produce to define and embrace their climate. A workaday pie, as we might understand it, isn’t high on their list. Our cuisine tends to be defined by repelling weather conditions head-on, hand to hand fighting rather than Latin embrace. Where the tomato and olive salad in Catalonia has all the bright exuberance of Gaudi’s cathedral, a Cottage pie in East Anglia conjures up the missionary determination of a medieval Gothic cathedral, buttressed against inclemency.

So on a glacial late February afternoon with forbidding clouds the colour of London clay and a sky signaling the onset of a mild frost, my thoughts turned to one of the few dishes that many pollyana Brits invoke as “comfort food”, and that portly epicurean Billy Bunter once decribed as “beezer tuck'” – our peerless Cottage Pie. And the assembly of such a fine pie will always offer purpose to a day such as this.

For an almost perfect recipe, I have never needed to look any further than the Avoca Café Cookbook. (2000) which cites a Shepherd’s Pie (albeit made of beef) on page 84. The mistaken synonym is common. I prefer the incontestable notion that shepherd’s pie should be made with leftover lamb or mutton as no herder of sheep could afford to mistake the species in their care. Although both pies are similar in most other respects, a cottage pie’s essential incorporation is beef, as is Avoca’s recipe misnomer below – a singular fault in this otherwise exemplary dish.

Where was I? Oh yes, words matter.


1 onion (peeled and chopped)
4 tablespoons of vegetable oil
900g minced beef
1 tbsp Bovril (dissolved in a little hot water)
3 tbsp Worcester sauce
2 sprigs of thyme
1 tsp tomato puree
3 carrots (peeled and diced)
400 ml chicken stock

For the topping:

1.3 kg potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks)
200 ml single cream
110 g butter
1 egg yolk

In a large pan, gently sauté the onion in the vegetable oil for about 10 minutes, until soft but not brown. Add the mince a little at a time, and cook until browned. Then add the Bovril water, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, tomato purée, carrots, stock and some salt and pepper.

Cook on a low heat for 50 minutes then transfer to a pie dish ready for the mash potato. Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender. Drain well then return to the pan and add the cream, butter, egg yolk, and a seasoning of salt and pepper.

Mash well, then taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Cover the mince mixture with the potato and run a fork over the top for decoration. Place in an oven, preheated to 180°C / 300°F/gas mark 4 for 20 minutes, or until the potato is nicely browned.

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve. You can prepare the pie in advance, leave to cool, then reheat it later, although it will need more time in the oven – about 40 minutes.

Wine thoughts

For much of Italy’s robust autumnal cooking, one red wine leads the field in gastronomic authority – Barolo. Dense, dark and frequently offering mouth-puckering tannins, Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape whose Base camp 1 is Piedmont in the northwest of the country. Continually referred to by locals as “the wine of kings, the king of wines” – although by now, much of that truth and some of its clichéd humour have long since left the region’s marketing descriptors. Barolo still remains a mighty wine. Expensive if it carries good bottle age, and often something of a challenge for the incautious, but if like me, you cling to this powerful varietal as the days run chilly, Nebbiolo’s other notable wine is Barbaresco. A lighter version, although the term lighter when applied to Nebbiolo might be considered something of an oxymoron, but still displaying an earthy, truffle-like richness coupled with fleeting hints of rose petal and violets. Barbaresco will always provide more than a foil for robust beef and game dishes. It’s not bad with a wedge of Parmesan either.