What is Shepherds Pie?

Shepherd's PieWhat is Shepherds Pie? This delightful main dish comes to us mainly from England, Scotland and Ireland and in its simplest form is a meat pie topped with mashed potatoes. But that barely scratches the surface when describing this delicious comfort food.

It is amazing how people spell or misspell the name of this hearty one-dish recipe. A little search with Google yielded many spellings but here are seven of the most popular: Shepards Pie Recipe, Shephards Pie Recipe, Sheperds Pie Recipe, Shepperds Pie Recipe and even Sheppards Pie Recipe and Shepherds Pye Recipe.

Where did the “Pye” spelling come from?  Pye is a variant spelling of the word pie, which the Oxford English Dictionary has traced to at least 1303 in reference to food. The following reference comes from Food Timeline.org

“Pie…a word whose meaning has evolved in the course of many centuries and which varies to some extent according to the country or even to region….The derivation of the word may be from magpie, shortened to pie. The explanation offered in favour or this is that the magpie collects a variety of things, and that it was an essential feature of early pies that they contained a variety of ingredients….Early pies were large; but one can now apply the name to something small, as the small pork pies or mutton pies…Early pies had pastry tops, but modern pies may have a topping of something else…or even be topless. If the basic concept of a pie is taken to mean a mixture of ingredients encased and cooked in pastry, then proto-pies were made in the classical world and pies certainly figured in early Arab cookery.” —The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] (p. 602-3)

Meat pyes or Mincemeat Pies refer to shredding or finely chopping cooked meat. Here is a quote from Food Timeline:

The Elizabethans favored minced pies. “A typical Elizabethan recipe ran: Shred your meat (mutton or beef) and suet together fine. Season it with cloves, mace, pepper and some saffron, great raisins and prunes…” (Food and Drink in Britain: From the Stone Age to the 19th Century, C. Anne Wilson, page 273).

Here is an excerpt from the 1595 edition of The Good Housewife’s Jewel by Thomas Dawson:

“For to Make Mutton Pies
Mince your mutton and your white together. When it is minced season it with pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, prunes, currants, dates and raisins, and hard eggs, boiled and chopped very small, and throw them on top.”

The Irish, have a long history of tending sheep and growing potatoes.

When I visited Ireland a few years ago, we saw sheep grazing all over the Irish country-side. Grazing Irish Sheep

Part of this trip provided the opportunity to visit a traditional Irish shepherd and watch him, his sheep and his dog at work. It is amazing to observe the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep he carefully tends. During this visit, I was given the privilege of feeding a very young lamb with a bottle. He was the cutest little darling who wanted to follow me around once he was finished. I guess he thought I was his Mama Innocent.

Posey Feeding Lamb 1 Posey Feeding Lamb 2
MMama Sheep and Baby Lamb Irish Sheep

There is a traditional British tale that shepherd families would occasionally eat mutton or roast lamb. I say occasionally because prior to the twentieth century, most commoners  only ate meat on special occasions because it was so costly.

Back to the tale… when the shepherd families did roast a lamb or sheep there would be left-overs. Remember, they didn’t have freezers or refrigerators so one of the ways to use up the left-over lamb would be to make a mincemeat pye.

The shepherd’s wife would mince or chop up the left-over meat and add fresh or dried herbs and a little seasoning to it. She would boil some potatoes and mash them together with a little butter and cream. This mixture would be spread on top of the meat mixture and the whole thing would be baked in a few small pye crocks or cast iron baking pans.

When the mincemeat pies were finished, she would send the younger children to take them to her husband and any of older children who were out tending the sheep on the hills and dales. The shepherds would eat the pies for dinner (but they wouldn’t tell the sheep “who” was for dinner.)

Beef Shepherds Pie Recipe

It is evident that meat pies have been made for perhaps thousands of years in various places around the globe. For the purposes of this article, we credit the people of the British Isles for passing down the delicious Shepherds Pie recipe. So, what is Shepherds Pie? Traditionally, it is made with lamb or mutton and potatoes.

The alternate main dish pie is named, Cottage Pie and it can incorporate any other meats that you like, such as: beef or chicken. This meat pie has long been made from left-over meat or potatoes and any number of additional ingredients can be added, both left-over or fresh. Because of the lamb that is traditionally used in Shepherds Pie, mint is often included as one the seasonings and other herbs would include, rosemary, parsley, thyme, cracked black pepper and sea salt.

Shepherds or Cottage Pie is one of our family favorites because it is warm and comforting especially on cold fall and winter days. Most often, I make it from good quality ground beef but I have used left-over roast beef and chicken. If you would like to try our version of homemade Shepherds Pie follow this link to Beef Shepherds Pie Recipe. You might also be interested in the related article Shepherds, Sheep and Life in the Flock.

Have you made Shepherds Pie? What ingredients did you include in your recipe?

Please share with us,

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