FoodStuff: Minced words

By John Lethlean
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John Lethlean, culinary critic

John Lethlean, culinary critic


I grew up with a completely and utterly unreasonable aversion to mince. Not the mince in mince pies. And not the mince of Mr Humphries (which carbon dates my puberty pretty accurately). No, I’m talking about the mince you get when you put meat through a mincer. What the Americans call ground meat.

For most of my life, I thought it cheap, grey and foul smelling, particularly when it was loose and wet, as in the international student staple/travesty of chilli con carne. But mostly cheap.

It was, I grew up believing, what people with no money ate when they couldn’t eat chops, which is almost exclusively what we grew up on. Rural Victoria in the 60s and 70s? There was never so little money that we couldn’t have chops, and our local butcher’s – a great, old-fashioned butcher’s with sawdust on the floor and Minties for the kids – sold my mum sheep stations of chops between 1965 and 1980. No wonder he drove a Jag.

We didn’t call them lamb chops, of course; can’t recall any specific discussion on the provenance of our meat. Lambs were cute – our friends were all farmers – and they grew up with daggy backsides to provide us with Onkaparinga blankets and school uniforms. But we ate them by the thousand and we didn’t, as far as I knew, eat anything made of mince (I didn’t for some inexplicable reason associate sausages or burgers with mince: it was free-flowing, unbound wet mince that turned me as grey as the cooked meat).

And I know from whence the aversion sprang, exactly: “shepherd’s pie.”

I use the inverted commas because what I grew up believing to be shepherd’s pie was an abomination, a pale – literally - imitation of the real thing. We just didn’t know any better at the time.

For a period of my childhood, a grey, grey period, school lunches were taken with the boarders in their “dining hall.” It was about as close to dining as Essendon to a flag in 2006. But every school lunchtime, the siren would go and, like lambs to the slaughter, all the boarders and a few poor sucker day students whose mothers couldn’t be bothered making lunches would trot across to the “dining” hall to eat… yes, you guessed it. It is in fact the only dish I can remember from hundreds, if not thousands of lunches.

Jamie Oliver, where were you when I needed you?

It was a putrid-smelling, wet slurry of grey minced beef, cooked no doubt with all sorts of powdered boosters, maybe the occasional onion, poured into big metal rectangular dishes, covered with what I have no doubt was instant potato, and baked. Remember instant potato? I do.

And combined with the dog-sick mince, it left a very deep impression on someone with fairly catholic tastes when it comes to tucker. To the point, in fact, that I never ate Shepherd’s Pie again. And that from someone who has eaten some pretty odd things in his time. Well into my 20s, I stayed away from mince, generally, and wet mince specifically (with the irrational exception of our national dish, Spaghetti Bolognese). And for 30 years – possibly more – nothing called “shepherd’s pie” ever passed my lips. Until last Sunday.

The irony will not be lost on anyone who knows what real shepherd’s pie is: it’s made with leftover roast lamb, either minced or chopped fine, not raw mince of any kind. And having roasted a nice big, pink leg of lamb for dinner on Friday night ($25, two families of four, heaps left over, how can anyone justify junk food on the basis that’s it’s all they can afford?) I thought it time to indulge in a little aversion therapy. I mean, on paper, it’s a ball-tearer: leftover rare-ish lamb - that had been cooked in the first place with garlic, anchovy and rosemary - chopped fine (can’t stand the idea of mincing, it just cheapens it) sautéed quickly with a few things and topped with first class mash, baked and browned in the oven.

I consulted five books before producing a hybrid in both ingredients and cooking method: garlic, onion, celery and carrot chopped fine and sautéed with cumin seeds (Stephanie’s suggestion) before adding finely chopped (not minced) leftover lamb for a few more minutes in the pan (sauté in an oven-proof pan to save on washing up). Dog very happy with Sunday night bone.

Season liberally and add a very good mashed (not pureed) potato full of butter. Put extra bits of butter on top, salt and pepper, and give it 15 minutes in the oven and then maybe another three under the grill alone.

An unqualified triumph. Not just very good, as in my ossobuco; or sensational, like my coq au vin. Fan-bloody-tastic. The Young Gourmand loved it. The Difficult Eater actually ate it without encouragement. The adults had seconds. And one of them even had pause to reflect on prejudices past for dessert.

We will be roasting a lot of lamb legs this winter. Shepherd’s Pie is my new favourite dish. But mince - especially “wet” mince - will, I suspect, forever be something I’m just not that comfortable with.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia


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April 11th, 2010
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