If English soap Coronation Street had a signature flavour it would be the homely savouriness of Betty’s Lancashire hotpot. In the fictional redbrick town of Weatherfield the Rover’s Return pub has provided a gossip-filled sanctuary from modern life for 50 years. Betty’s hotpot was the lunch that got Coro residents through another afternoon sewing knickers at t’factory, or selling schoolchildren crisps at the minimarket, or having a naughty afternoon with someone else’s missus.
The dish is a simple lamb and onion stew layered with sliced potatoes and baked in a slow oven until the meat is falling apart and the potatoes are crisp. Accompanied by a pint of bitter, cracking a fork through the golden potato topping is sufficient to clear the heavy skies outside.
Betty Driver, the actor who played Betty Turpin, died in 2011 aged 91, still a member of the Coro cast until the end. Betty has become so closely associated with her eponymous hotpot that when you google her, every story or blog article references the hotpot in its first paragraph. Fans collectively used the hash tag bettyshotpot on twitter as a tribute to the actor on her death in October.
Although Betty has given the hotpot a renewed prominence at the soapy end of English popular culture, the hotpot had a life in Lancashire before Betty.
The origins of this dish are from the rapidly industrialising north-west England, when this region was at the centre of the industrial revolution.
The women of the household would prepare a hotpot before heading out for work in the factories. It would cook slowly in the range and be ready by dinnertime when they traipsed back in for refueling before heading back out again for another bout of life-endangering hard labour.
The hotpot features in the novel North and South (written in 1854 by Elizabeth Gaskell), which charts an uneasy romance set against the gritty backdrop of urbanising northern England. It is more than anything a critique of the exploitation of workers, the poor working standards, and the unsanitary living conditions.
But the complicated love interest – a mill-owner – while on a short lunch break from capitalism, does find time to sample his mill-hands’ dinners.
‘”I never made a better dinner in my life. I told them (my next neighbours I mean, for I’m no speech-maker) how much I’d enjoyed it; and for some time, whenever that especial dinner recurred in their dietary, I was sure to be met by these men, with a “Master, there’s hot-pot for dinner to-day, win yo’ come?”‘
It is believed this is the first time the term ‘hotpot’, meaning a meat stew, appeared in print.
Of course there are local variations – they used to chuck in oysters back in the days these were plentiful in England.
A famous proponent today is the chef at Northcote Manor who cooked hotpot while representing the north-west region on major BBC show, the Great British Menu. I’ve used his recipe – here (reprinted by the Lancashire Tourism Board and extolling the qualities of Lancashire lamb – I’m pretty sure in New Zealand we can find some decent lamb too…)
It makes quite a soupy, oniony stew – a bit like French onion soup – underneath the thick layer of potato.
May each mouthful go on to be as comforting as Betty Driver’s words: “I’ll fetch you a hotpot, love.”