"The name, often assumed to refer to the cooking vessel used (traditionally a tall, straight-sided earthenware pot) is actually more likely to be connected to what lies within, which originally would have been a hodge-podge or jumble of ingredients – whatever was to hand that day." Felicity Cloake
Well I'm not sure whether confused is the right word, I think I am beginning to get a small amount of clarity on the difference between Irish stew and Lancashire hotpot, and I now think that what I made yesterday was a sort of hybrid. But it has to be said that they are very, very, similar dishes. And it also has to be said that what I made yesterday, whatever it was, was very, very delicious. Quite amazingly so in fact considering the simplicity of the ingredients - and the method too.
Having now looked at Lancashire hotpot on the net and remembering all the images I saw yesterday I am now beginning to think that what I remember from my youth was Lancashire hotpot. Mostly because of the sliced potatoes on the top. When I was looking for recipes and images yesterday, very few of them had sliced potatoes on top. They were just chunky stews. But when I looked for pictures of Lancashire hotpot they all had sliced potatoes on top. But then again when I was young I know that we had both dishes at home but I cannot remember the difference between them.
As to the origins of this one - and herein, I think - lies perhaps the basic difference - the general feeling seems to be that it originated in the Lancashire cotton mill towns. The theory being that the poor workers had no time to cook at the end of their long day and so they would make this dish - from, as Felicity Cloake says - what was to hand, They would put it in the traditional flower pot shaped dish shown at the top of the page and leave it in the oven to cook all day. It has, of course, been pointed out that they probably did not have ovens, but the dish was left in the baker's ovens on the way to work, to be picked up on the way home. Another story is that the dish was baked overnight, wrapped in a blanket and taken to work for lunch. Take your pick. But the crucial thing here is that it was a baked in the oven dish. Irish stew, on the other hand, now appears to me to be cooked on the top of the stove - or hung in a pot over the fire in the Irish peasants's homes. Stewed, not baked. Well it is called Irish stew. And I have to confess that most of the recipes which mentioned the oven option did say this was optional. I baked mine - partly because it seems to me that slow cooking works better in an oven and also it allowed the potatoes on top to brown at the end. It now seems to me that Irish stew does not have browned potatoes on top. One forum participant was absolutely adamant that you did not cook Irish stew in the oven. That said the historical recipe that I found was an either/or recipe.
Now that I have found several recipes for Lancashire hotpot - including Felicity Cloake's How to cook the perfect ... version, there are a few other obvious differences.
The first two are often not maintained these days. In the nineteenth century oysters were a frequent addition, because oysters were the food of the poor, which is hard to imagine these days is it not? One of my potential recipe authors did not include the oysters because she had tried it once and had really not liked the taste. This would go for me too. But it is worth pointing out that several dishes that stem from this period do include oysters. The other addition is kidneys, which as one overseas author remarked, seemed to be a favourite addition to things for the English. True. I don't think my mother did add kidneys to this dish, although we did have Steak and kidney pie and pudding every now and then too. Even the occasional fried or grilled kidney. I was never much of a fan, so am happy to leave them out too.
Like Irish stew, the addition of carrots and other vegetables seems to be frowned upon, but is often added. Like Irish stew the basics are lamb - well mutton - potatoes, onions and water.
The main variants which seem to be fairly consistent are the addition of Worcestershire sauce, and thyme and bay leaf instead of parsley and thyme, and flour. Which brings me to the major difference, found in several recipes - both the meat and the vegetables are fried first and then tossed in flour before the addition of stock - which seems to be the stronger beef stock over veal or chicken. Well for both of the dishes the favourite stock of choice would be lamb. Of course there are those that say it should just be water. As for the frying, although it seems to be common in all the 'modern' recipes I suspect that it was not how the nineteenth century millworkers - or my mother come to that - did it. I think it was just layered like the Irish stew I talked about yesterday.
And of course the major difference is that after the same layering, albeit of browned meat and vegetables, the potatoes are sliced thickly on top and brushed with butter to facilitate the browning. Oh and the favoured accompaniment seems to be braised, pickled red cabbage. Here are three versions - mostly from the usual suspects: Traditional Lancashire Hotpot from Delia, Nigel Slater's and one from The Spruce Eats.
And as you can see they all feature those potatoes on top. There also seems to be less gravy than in Irish stew.
Before leaving the whole thing though let me give you two, very different alternatives. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, in his wonderful book, Love your Leftovers, offers a version made with leftover roast lamb. Which I may well try next time I have leftover lamb, rather than the tried and true shepherd's pie. It looks pretty yummy although not much gravy. He does also have a more traditional version somewhere but I could not find it online.
Finally - just to show that it's not just the British that can do plain things with potatoes and meat, here is a recipe from my, also wonderful, Provence the Beautiful Cookbook. It's called Gardiane, d'agneau and it is very French. Garlic instead of onions - lots of it. And olive oil. No sliced potatoes on top though.
Ingredients 2 tbs olive oil; 1lb (500g) neck chops, superficial fat removed; 4 cloves garlic, crushed; 1lb (500g) russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced; 1 bay leaf; salt; boiling water as needed. Method Fry the chops in the olive oil for 10 mins. Add the rest and cover with boiling water. Simmer until the potatoes begin to fall apart. Simple!
What I did yesterday, was to layer my lamb chops with a mix of sliced potatoes, carrots, onions and chopped parsley and thyme - beginning and ending with the potatoes and herbs. Then I seasoned it with pepper and salt, although I should have done this for each layer. Over this I poured a mix of chicken stock and water - mostly water and cooked in a slow oven with the lid on for 1 1/2 hours. Then I took the lid off and cooked it for a further half an hour so that the potatoes browned. Irish hotpot, Lancashire stew?
Ad did I say that the potatoes should be floury ones - they absorb the juices and the fat better.
It was divine. I have no idea why. Although to be strictly honest, David liked it but was not quite as enthusiastic, though I did see him take some seconds.