Recipe: Lancashire hotpot

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

Nine months ago, after a decade spent in London, I moved to Lancashire. Although I’m a northerner born and bred, I’m from the northeast, between Newcastle and Sunderland, so this was new territory for me. Keen to assimilate, I was ready to get stuck into some of the dishes the area is famous for: Eccles cakes, Manchester tart and Lancashire hotpot.

I was nervous. Regional dishes are integral to the character of a place, and often fiercely protected by those local to it. There are right ways and wrong ways to make them. As a newcomer, I didn’t want to get it wrong.

Lancashire hotpot is a one-pot dish of lamb and potatoes, greater than the sum of its parts, and one of which its people are justifiably proud. I fell down several rabbit holes in the pursuit of the ‘correct’ way of making it. Some use two layers of potatoes, one on the top and one on the bottom, others add turnips but omit carrots. Some swear by black pudding, others by oysters. Should you add more expensive chops or cuts to the mix, or lay them on top of the potatoes?

Of course, like most regional dishes, there isn’t a definitive version. Hotpot evolved gradually, informed by the needs of families and availability of ingredients. It is no surprise it bears strong similarities to Liverpudlian scouse and Irish stew. All use inexpensive cuts of mutton or lamb (or sometimes beef), chunky vegetables and potatoes to create a complete meal in one dish, and all are dishes which feed a hungry family with something hearty, comforting and cheap.

The name itself points to this what-is-to-hand approach and is thought to be a bastardisation of ‘hodge podge’. Food historian Adam Balic has traced the name, finding a reference in Sir Kenelm Digby’s 1677 The Closet Opened to the ‘Queen Mothers Hotchpot of Mutton’; and there is a recipe for neck of mutton, onion, carrot, peas, cauliflower and lettuce in Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Bookunder the name ‘Hotch Potch’ in 1861. The first clear-cut reference to Lancashire hotpot is found in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South(1854), where the mill owner joins his workers for a meal, and is served ‘hodge podge’ from a ‘hot pot’.

As indicated in Mrs Gaskell’s novel, the dish grew in popularity against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. Factory work, which drew people out of their homes, meant workers needed a dish that could be left to its own devices and cooked slowly and steadily. It’s unlikely, though, that those working in the cotton mills would have had their own ovens in which to leave these hotpots during the day. Instead, the dish may have been sent out to local bakers, so as to cook in the residual heat of their ovens at the end of the day. But even this is uncertain.

All this is to say that there is no one true version of Lancashire hotpot. Happily, the non-negotiable parts are simple: chunks of lamb, a tangle of golden onions and a layer of thinly cut potatoes, all cooked slowly. With those things in place, little can go wrong.

What we do know is that hotpot was designed to make the most of those tougher, cheaper cuts of meat. It wasn’t a fancy dish, but one which used less desirable cuts to its advantage. Over a slow, low cook, the chewy, gristly meat breaks down, becoming tender and enriching the sauce. Traditionally, the dish would be made with mutton rather than lamb, but mutton is harder to come by today. If you can get hold of it, lucky you — your braise will be even more deeply flavoured. But using a cheap cut of lamb — I like lamb neck — that’s full of connective tissue and fat will still produce a brilliant dish.

Lancashire hotpot has an advantage over its fellow slow-cooked stews and casseroles: it’s unexpectedly beautiful, with the potatoes radiating outwards to the very edge, burnished where the heat of the oven and the dots of butter have worked their magic. It doesn’t need much to accompany it. I’d go for something simple like cabbage braised and then tossed with salt and pepper, and just a little butter until glossy and pale.

Serves 6 Takes 30 mins Bakes 90 mins

– 2 tbsp vegetable oil

– 900g diced lamb neck

– 4 lamb kidneys, cored and sliced into chunks (optional)

– 2 onions, sliced

– 4 carrots, peeled and cut into semi-circles

– 2 tbsp plain flour

– 900g potatoes (Maris Piper, ideally)

– 60g butter

– Sprig of thyme

– 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce

– 500g lamb stock

  1. Over a medium-high heat, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to a heavy-based frying pan, and brown the diced lamb and kidneys in batches until well-coloured. Set to one side.
  2. Reduce the heat under the pan to low, add the second tablespoon of vegetable oil and gently cook the sliced onions until translucent and soft, but not coloured. Add the flour to the plan, turn the heat up and let the flour sizzle for a couple of minutes.
  3. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Return the lamb and kidneys to the casserole dish, along with the carrots, then add the stock and Worcestershire sauce, and season generously with salt and pepper. Place over a medium-low heat and bring to a gentle simmer while you prepare the potatoes.
  4. Peel the potatoes and slice them into even, thin rounds a couple of millimetres thick — I use a mandolin to do this because it’s quick and better at slicing evenly than I am.
  5. Place the potato discs in concentric circles, overlapping, starting from the edge. You should have enough slices to do two entire layers: keep your most handsome slices for the top and try to take them right up to the edge. Sprinkle with thyme leaves, a generous amount of salt, and dot liberally with the butter. Cover with a lid and cook in the oven for an hour. Then remove the lid and cook for another 30 minutes.

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