The simple pleasures of spaghetti bolognese

We pay tribute to an inauthentic but delicious treat

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We know by now that spag bol isn’t authentically Italian. That you can go from Turin to Palermo, stopping off at countless trattoria along the way and you’ll never come into contact with the dish which until the River Cafe and Jamie Oliver surfaced was pretty much the only Italian meal that was served up in British homes. 

We’re also aware that the sauce isn’t really called ‘bolognese’, but ragu, and that, as Felicity Cloake reminded us in Umbrella, it should only be served with tagliatelle – the dried stuff, of course, all that fresh pasta is for people trying too hard. And yet, despite all these caveats, this fusion of pasta and sauce is a meal that can sit at the top culinary table with any other on the planet. 

Spaghetti bolognese is like chicken tikka masala or indeed, fish and chips – a domestic interpretation of a foreign dish that’s been tweaked, usually by accident, until it becomes the accepted standard. And done well it is undoubtedly delicious, pandering to the old British culinary lusts of stewed protein, carbohydrate and gravy – lots and lots of gravy. 

While it can never pretend to be authentic there’s no doubt we’ve taken the lessons handed down by the likes of ’60s cooking guru Elizabeth David and got better at making it. When mums – and in those days it was mums – cooked spaghetti bolognese in the 1970s, the main ingredients were minced beef, tomato puree, Oxo and, if you were lucky, a bit of dried oregano. Garlic was for foreigners and if a visiting Italian had wondered about the lack of sofrito (the softly fried mix of celery, carrot and onion that makes the sauce’s base), he’d have been shown the error of his ways with a reference to changing sides at half-time in the war. Now, we know better. 

Today’s spaghetti bolognese is a thing of wonder. Thick tomatoey gravy, soft meat – often both beef and pork – and a rainbow of tastes produced by the veg that go from deeply savoury to sweet. Some versions of the sauces are made with red wine, others – like Felicity Cloake’s – are embellished with milk, but all end up covered in fresh parmesan cheese, a layer of powdery, savoury glitter that makes this meal sing. 

In the end, whether the pasta used is spaghetti or the more correct tagliatelle, it’s the sauce that makes this meal. Its origins may be cloudy, its methods of production conflictory, but there are few things that can beat its comforting, joyous familiarity on a darkening autumn evening. Mangiare!








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