NOTE: An updated version of this recipe appears in my cookbook, The Ancestral Table.
Although meat pies have been eaten in the British Isles since the Middle Ages (14th Century, last I heard), Shepherd’s Pie as we know it today coincided with the arrival of the potato in Europe. The Spanish brought potatoes to Europe in 1520, but they didn’t catch on until the 18th Century in Great Britain. Shepherd’s Pie appeared shortly thereafter – although under its original name, Cottage Pie, and made mostly with beef. The term Shepherd’s Pie followed about a hundred years later, along with the idea that it should be made with mutton. Today, Shepherd’s Pie can be made with beef or lamb, or sometimes both, while Cottage Pie usually refers only to the beef version of the dish.
Another interesting thing about this dish is the fact that it’s prevalent in many other cultures, with some pretty amusing names, like Pâté Chinois (“Chinese Pie”, French Canada), Картофельная Запеканка (“Potato Baked Pudding”, Russia), and Escondidinho (“Hidden”, Brazil).