The Irish have their stew, Lancashire has its hotpot. Both were born as dishes of necessity, made from everyday local ingredients such as potatoes, carrots and lamb, that kept working families going through the winter.
What distinguishes the traditional hotpot, though, is its steep-sided cooking vessel, after which the dish gets its name. The pot cradles the long bones of local sheep, which lend flavour to the sliced potato topping. The traditional protruding bones make it an eye-catching, if slightly spooky looking, dish.
No one knows exactly how or when the hotpot came about, but what’s certain is that it was popular when Lancashire’s cotton industry was at its height in the 19th century. The dish was quick and simple to prepare and could be left to its own devices while its makers – female mill workers – were toiling in the mills and factories that propelled England’s economic prosperity. Hours later, when they returned, the hotpot would have turned into a flavoursome stew, the lamb gently fusing with its bedfellow ingredients. Oysters, which were cheap at that time, were sometimes added to bulk out the mixture.
The hotpot in culture
Hotpot kept miners going too, the pot being wrapped in a blanket to ensure it was still warm at lunchtime. In the novel North and South, Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell described how Mr Thornton, a mill owner, dined on hotpot with his workers : “I never made a better dinner in my life… and for some time, when ever that special dinner recurred in their dietary, I was sure to be met by these men, with a ‘Master, there’s hotpot for dinner today win yo’ come?’”
More recently, the hotpot has starred on the menu of the fictional pub The Rovers Return in Coronation Street
, as much-loved character Betty’s signature dish.
The hotpot tradition continues in Lancashire homes to this day, but recently it has experienced a revival thanks to the enthusiastic efforts of chef Nigel Haworth, who runs a chain of pubs as well as the renowned restaurant at Northcote Manor
, in Langho, near Blackburn
Nigel has been tireless in researching the hotpot’s history, and serves it in all of his establishments. But his crowning moment was in 2009 when his Lancashire lamb hotpot won the main course category in BBC Two’s Great British Menu. Suddenly the red rose county’s humble regional dish was winning accolades. “It’s one of the best feelings of my life,” the triumphant chef said at the time.
I recently joined Nigel in his kitchen at Northcote Manor to witness the crafting of the prize-winning hotpot. “I learned by watching my mother make it,” he says.
“It wasn’t until I was 15 that I tried making it myself. The meat should be a mix of three cuts: shoulder, neck and shin,” he says, while sprinkling the chopped pieces with flour and a smidgeon of sugar. “We like to use hogget [one-year-old lamb], which is every bit as good as lamb. Sadly the health and safety boys have stopped us putting in the bones like we used to; we could get sued if a customer swallowed a splinter.”
Nigel likes to use English onions, sweated off in a bit of butter. But he warns that fat should be kept to a minimum. “One of the sins with hotpot is to put in too much butter, which makes it greasy,” he says.
It’s also vital to get the potato right, he says, layering the 2mm thick discs on top of the meat. “The flavours change from month to month, so we do regular potato tastings in the kitchens. Maris Piper is ok for hotpot, but usually King Edwards are better.”
Worth the wait
Once assembled, the hotpot is ready for the oven where, for two and a half hours, its ingredients will gently do their stuff. Then it needs to be left to rest for half an hour, to allow the flavours to infuse – visitors wanting to eat Nigel’s famous hotpot need to give plenty of warning.
Having eaten a hotpot for lunch in the Clog and Billycock pub
(one of Nigel’s), accompanied by pickled red cabbage, I can vouch for its credentials. It’s simple, savoury and superb; a tasty memory of the sheep-filled fields a few miles north.
Traditional Lancashire hotpot
by Nigel Haworth
1kg (2lb 2oz) under shoulder, neck and shin of lamb • 700g (1lb 8oz) thinly sliced onions • 1kg (2lb 2oz) peeled King Edward potatoes • 25g (1oz) plain flour • 40g (1½oz) salted English butter • 150ml (5fl oz) Chicken stock • 3 tsp sea salt • white pepper
Hotpot dish – stoneware, diameter 21cm (8in), height 9cm (3.5in). However, a basic casserole dish will work well
• Season the lamb with 1 tsp of salt and a pinch of pepper, dust with the flour. Put the lamb into the base of the hotpot dish.
• Sweat the onions in 15g (¾oz) of butter with one tsp of salt for 4-5mins. Spread the onions evenly on the lamb in the dish.
• Slice the potatoes horizontally, 2mm thick. Place in a bowl, add the remaining melted butter, season with
1 tsp of salt and a pinch of pepper; mix well.
• Put the sliced potatoes evenly on top of the onions and add the chicken stock.
• Place the hotpot, covered in a pre-heated oven for 30 mins on 200°C/400°F/Gas 6, then for 2½ hrs on 130°C/250°F/Gas ½.
• Remove from the oven, take off the lid, return to the oven on 200°C/400°F/Gas 6 for 30-40 mins or until golden brown.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 42 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!