I grew up around sheep, in the rolling hills that lie to the west of London. I was born in Room 10 of a post-war commune – a utopian experiment in communal living housed in a rundown, gothic mansion with a small farm attached. Both the house and the farm were run by a group of eccentric and confused idealists looking for a better way to live. My earliest memories are helping my parents in the spring with the lambing. Carrying the fresh, still-wet lambs back to the barn from the early morning fields. The cruel tool that snapped a bright orange ring onto the skinny lamb’s tails – the tails that we would later find lying among the nettles in summer. And on a Sunday, when paying guests arrived, we would sometimes get to eat one of these lambs.
Shepherd’s Pie can be the worst of bland British cooking but when pimped with more spices and herbs than existed in 1970’s England, it is a potent remedy for the melancholia of autumn. A ragu of minced lamb, with heaps of rosemary from the balcony, a little chilli, tons of garlic, slow-cooked onions and still bite-able carrots – all lying beneath billowing clouds of creamy mashed potato (with a golden surface from the oven). We didn’t often eat meat in the 70’s commune and when we did it had to go a long way. When cooked right, a shepherd’s pie stretches the earthy taste of a small amount of lamb, through a rich tomatoey sauce, sealed under a sky of soft potato.
Recipe (serves 3):
200g minced lamb
2 cloves of garlic
1 large onion
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
400g fresh tomatoes
A large knob of butter
A big dash of milk.
Smash the cloves of garlic beneath the flat of a large knife (frightening dogs and children). Chop the smashed garlic and add to a large frying pan with a little olive oil, the stripped leaves of rosemary and a small amount of chilli (it shouldn’t end up hot – just with a little background zing). Start slowly frying the mixture and add a large, finely chopped white onion. Cook slowly for about 15min until the onion has become sweet and golden. Add the minced lamb and fry further till the mince is cooked through. Then add the carrots and soon after the shopped tomatoes. Slowly cook until the sauce has become something similar to a Bolognese but with added slices of carrots that are just starting to soften. Season to taste.
Parallel to this, prepare mashed potato with heaps of butter and enough milk to make the finely mashed results ‘spreadable’. Season to taste.
Pour the ragu of lamb into a deep oven-proof dish and carefully add dollops of the mashed potato onto the top of the sauce until there is a complete layer of potato covering the meat sauce below (you need to do this carefully, bit by bit, so that the mashed potato doesn’t get mixed with, and discoloured by, the deep orange sauce). Riffle the surface of the mashed potato with a fork in concentric circles (or whatever pattern takes your fancy). Bake in the top of the oven for about 20min at 200C until the tips of the mashed potato ridges have just begun to become golden* If done right, the carrot should not be wet and soggy, but still have a last bit of bite. I find the rich, warm results can hold back the thick grey clouds of an approaching Berlin winter.
[*Most people add a little grated cheese to the top that helps the surface to brown – but I hate cheese…]