It’s hard to write about the meaning of a dish you’ve never grown up with. Write in any sort of meaningful way, I mean, without feeling a fraud. Especially when it’s the sort of recipe that’s so undeniably lived in – the kind that isn’t written down by its owner or even memorised, but internalised as intuitively as a child learns to walk. A dish cooked with such regularity and love that it becomes as much a part of the furniture as the kitchen table itself.
So it is, with tater ‘ash.
The dish, in its many guises, is one that we’ve all known in some form. After all, its elements – beef, potatoes and onions – are almost identical to countless other British stews. Yet, tater ‘ash is not scouse, nor is it lobby, and it’s definitely not casserole. To the people of Cheshire and Lancashire it is simply tater ‘ash. And nothing could be better.
For my boyfriend Dom, tater ‘ash carries with it memories of childhood, and when I asked three generations of his Cheshire family to share their thoughts on the dish, the table came to life with stories. For Dom’s grandad Ken, tater ‘ash evokes memories of his own grandma, who would always have a pot of the stew simmering away on the hearth. Uncle Paul remembered coming home to the dish every Saturday after snooker, and for his mum Kathy it was always the first thing that greeted her when she came home from holiday. Tater ‘ash, for everyone round the table, brought back memories of home.
Unsurprisingly for a dish so intertwined with familial traditions and regional identity, it’s nigh on impossible to find a recipe. There’s even a split at Dom’s table – his grandmother insists on using corned beef, while the rest of the family uses stewing steak, cooked for so long that it almost melts into the gravy. An intensive Google search didn’t much help either. A debate had erupted on a Manchester United online forum a few years ago, with some even arguing for minced beef. A poster who suggested celery was a good addition to tater ‘ash was instantly accused of heresy, or of being a scouse infiltrator.
Even a trip to the British Library reaped only a small reward: a passing reference to tater ‘ash in the Teamsman. Published in 1939 by the little known G. Porteus, the book tells the story of life on a Cheshire farm. After a long day out in the field, Old Tom begins to reminisce about Christmases’ of Old:
“I’ them days every chap as worked on a farm could go shootin’ on Christmas Dee onywheer ‘e’d a mind. An’ when we come whoam we went inta th’ farm’ouse an’ ‘ad a dang fine feed o’ tater’-ash, steamin’ lad, an thick as porridge. It were tater’-ash that.”
When Old Tom finishes his spiel he licks his lips, “as if he could still taste it”.
We decide to cook it with corned beef – the way Dom’s grandma always makes it. Diced potatoes and onions get cooked with a stock cube in plenty of water. No browning beforehand, no herbs. It feels too easy. Once the potatoes begin to marry with the onions in the happiest of unions, I add the corned beef and a good few sloshes of worcestershire sauce.
When it is soupy, seasoned and smelling of childhood, Dom turns off the heat.The accompaniments are, blessedly, more clear cut than the matter of beef: pickled beetroot, red cabbage, a dollop of brown sauce and a round of white bread. The pot we make is good, very good. Perhaps there is room for a southerner to cook tater hash after all.
Just make sure you don’t pronounce the ‘h’. And never, ever, add celery.
1 tin corned beef
1 kilo potatoes
1 beef stock cube
1. Dice the onions and potatoes (you’ll want to be cut fairly unevenly so that half hold their shape and the other half disintegrates.
2. Put the potato and onion in a pan with plenty of water. Add your stock cube and bring to the boil Reduce the heat until simmer.
3. Once you potatoes are cooked, add the chopped corned beef and a good few glugs of worcestershire sauce. Taste and season.Cook for another five minutes. Serve with bread and pickled vegetables.