"It's an easy, irresistible, almost childish pleasure: the ground meat dissolved into a dark blood-red sauce until they are one and the same; no hacking, slicing or cutting needed; a slurpy goodness; the oily bolognese hanging on to the slippery pasta; guaranteed joy in a world that's just ruled it out." Simon Schama
Yes Simon Schama - an intellectual if ever there was one - talking about spaghetti bolognaise. Waxing lyrical in fact. Now he was writing about the true, the authentic ragú bolognaise but even so, note that last sentence: "guaranteed joy in a world that's just ruled it out." Because, as we all know, spag bol is what we have all been cooking in days of lockdown. Besides toilet paper the supermarket shelves were cleared of pasta, mince, and flour - the flour being either for making pasta or sourdough. (Apparently we all got into baking sourdough too.) But yes we were all making spag bol - or variations thereof. In our house it's spag bol lasagne. I call it that because my lasagne is by no means authentic.
"If this pandemic has done one thing, it has answered the question that has perplexed Australian food commentary for years. Our national dish isn't a meat pie, or a lamb roast, or salt and pepper squid. In 2020 the national dish of Australia is spag bol. End of discussion." Adam Liaw
Yes spag bol, not ragú Bolognaise or even spaghetti bolognaise - spag bol. And they were doing it over in England too which is where the inspiration for this post has come from - specifically from Jay Rayner of The Guardian. (I have recently subscribed to The Guardian's foodie newsletter Word of Mouth - it's often a source of inspiration for this blog.) Jay Rayner's contention was that spag bol was now a dish in itself,. The anglicised version of the authentic ragú has been made for so long now that it should be appreciated for its own virtues. The two dishes are just: "cousins in a now-distant family". Incidentally the Americans do not seem to use the term - just the British and the Australians (maybe the New Zealanders too). The Americans just call it 'spaghetti' which is weird because there is no reference to the sauce - just the pasta. And yes spag bol is not really very American sounding is it? It's much more ocker Ozzie or working class British.
"No one cooking it in Luton or Carlisle is making a culturally insensitive mockery of Italian culture, or making any claim to authenticity. They are just cooking tea. Thanks for the hybrid inspiration." Jay Rayner - The Guardian
I have written before about the real thing and the controversies surrounding it. The only extra thing I will add to that is that Simon Schama thinks that the Marcella Hazan and Elizabeth David recipes - shown below, are the real deal.
But spag bol - now a dish in its own right and so developing it's own lengthening list of controversies, not all to do with what goes into it. Let's talk about that.
I guess at its most basic it's onions fried with garlic in olive oil, mince added and stirred, a tin of tomatoes and some tomato purée poured in with some herbs of some kind and then moistened with whatever you have to hand - wine, stock- water even. Cooked for half an hour or so - or while you cook the spaghetti.
Before I come to the variations in how it is cooked spare a thought for the how you actually eat it controversy. Do you toss the sauce with the spaghetti, serve with the sauce on top of the spaghetti, or if you were like my very picky young son at the age of about ten - the sauce on the side of the plate, not contaminated by the spaghetti at all?
General opinion seems to be that it should be served on top of the pasta - which should always be spaghetti - well it's called spag bol isn't it? With a spoon, a fork - somebody even suggested scissors, and to protect - just be very careful, lean well over the plate, or use a napkin as a bib. I hope my friend Mike won't mind my posting this photo, taken in a genuine Italian restaurant in Italy, where he was given a bib before he ate his spag bol. I'm sure he felt somewhat foolish but it would have been very practical. It's difficult not to spray the sauce on to your clothes as you suck up the spaghetti.
The sauce, though is morphing. The main thing that people now do is 'hide' a whole lot of extra vegetables in with the onions and garlic - particularly when feeding children. Sometimes these are puréed or grated so that they disappear into the sauce, sometimes people make a feature of them - particularly the mushrooms I suppose. If you want to be 'posh' for example you can add porcini or exotic mushrooms. It's become a sort of throw in whatever you have to hand kind of dish. Leftover gravy, Worcestershire sauce, tins of beans ...
Being a British thing - spag bol that is - inevitably chips have come into the picture as shown at the top of the page. Chips instead of the spaghetti, so no longer spag bol technically, but bol and chips perhaps. Jay Rayner maintained that although:
"You would not serve bolognese with mash or a jacket potato (too mushy, too worthy); ... with something glistening and fried such as chips or potato waffles, it is revelatory. You need that harder, fried edge as protection from the wet sauce that waterlogs softer delivery vehicles such as toast."
I have to say that I rather cringe at the thought though. A step too far for me. Would you put vinegar on the chips I wonder? Mind you our own Woolworths came up with a rather more Australian take on the same thing in that the chips were replaced by toasted pita chips. They called it: Spag bol with crispy garlic bread dippers and it looked like this:
No spaghetti here, but look - oh so trendy zucchini noodles or zoodles as I see they are being called these days. Could just be tempted by that but it's not really spag bol is it?
Felicity Cloake had a look at various dastardly things that had been done to the authentic and original Italian dish, citing Antonio Carlucci's statement that spaghetti bolognese did not exist in Italy. She mentioned a version by Marco Pierre White - Michelin starred chef - who added chocolate and chilli to his, or
"just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I stumbled upon a totally raw, vegan, gluten-free version from chef Stephanie Jeffs: the noodles are made from courgettes and the “Parmesan” from cashews and nutritional yeast flakes, an ingredient I suspect to be all the rage in Bologna. Meanwhile, instead of beef, there are chia seeds, walnuts and portobello mushrooms. In fact, the tablespoon of “Italian herbs” may well be one of the few ingredients in there that Carluccio would recognise. Suddenly that abominable spaghetti doesn’t seem so bad, eh, Antonio?"
Doesn't look great does it?
Inspired by these two extreme versions I had a look myself and found Japanese pork spag bol with soba noodles and eggplant from Marley Spoon. Somehow very Australian but a long way from traditional spag bol. Yes I think spag bol has been around long enough now for it to be called traditional. I also found Healthier spaghetti bol from a site called Measure up which rather appalled me in its use of of a jar of Leggo's Leggo's roasted vegetable pasta sauce. Surely if you were really a health freak you would not be buying manufactured jars of pasta sauce? It also had no spaghetti, but red lentil spirals. My objection here is not so much the fact that the pasta was made from red lentils, but that it was spirals, because really the pasta should be slim - like spaghetti, or linguine or fettuccine, so that the sauce is tasted first and also clings to it.
It's a thrifty meal that just about anyone will eat. Mince has always been thrifty. We used to have it sometimes at home. It was just called 'mince' and really it wasn't very tasty. I don't know why because there is no reason why it couldn't have been. Perhaps you really do need pasta, or rice, or couscous for such things. I'm not at all sure that we ate ours with anything. Maybe a slice of bread?
But if you have leftovers of spag bol, Woolworths has six equally plebeian ways of using it up. Things that would make the Italians turn in their graves.
COVID19 has given spag bol a moment in the sun. It has even inspired a charity in the UK called the Spag Bol Project, aimed at helping feed the homeless.
“This is where the Spag Bol Project comes in. The charity’s ethos is all about saving money – by cutting down on lavish meals or expensive takeaways in favour of a spag bol, for example – and donating a little of those savings made in lockdown to people who are in desperate need.” Bill Portlock
I'm not quite sure why we Anglos have flocked to spag bol in this time of crisis. I suppose it's easy, it's cheap, it's quick (not the 'real' thing, which takes hours), and the kids will eat it. It was the first 'foreign' food that I learnt to make after all, and it probably is for many other Anglo novice cooks as well. Adam Liaw has a slightly different theory, though I think he is being a bit generous.
"Spaghetti bolognese represents security. Fifty years ago the rise of bolognese was a function of economics. Our domestic production of high-quality, affordable wheat and beef and the shelf-stability of dried pasta and canned tomatoes combined with waves of post-war migration to rocket a relatively unknown "ethnic" dish to national celebrity. Today, in a time of health and economic crisis, we were drawn to sustainable local industries without even considering why." Adam Liaw
Security yes, but in a comfort food kind of way. I don't think we were thinking much about the Australian food industries.
One last crime against spag bol, as decreed by Jay Rayner:
"Serving salads with hot pasta dishes should be a criminal offence."
Well maybe not on the same plate. We always have salad with our spag bol - but, like the French, as a separate course afterwards. It's an excellent palate cleanser.