Spag bol and beyond

"playing with traditional flavours (rich braised meat and tomato)"

Simon Tarlington of Doot Doot Doot


My sources for this post are two, although, of course, since I began looking into it I have found more.


It all began with this quote from Simon Tarlington which I found in The Melbourne Food and Wine Festival Newsletter. The picture is the dish he is talking about:


"I learned to cook Bolognese as a child, and I’d say it’s high on most household rotations. It’s an iconic, approachable and feel-good dish. We’re not serving a traditional Bolognese, but playing with traditional flavours (rich braised meat and tomato) and creating our own play on the way it’s served. Ours is confit wallaby served with tomato jam, fresh Daniel’s Run tomatoes and a parsley tagliatelle.”


I noted it because I thought it was typical of a lot of pretentious twaddle we hear these days, but I have to say the final dish does look pretty delicious. That restaurant by the way is down on the Mornington Peninsula in the Jackalope Hotel - what they call a boutique hotel. I mean 'confit wallaby'! They don't even use kangaroo.


That is a dish at one end of the spectrum. At the other end - the 'spag bol' end was my second source - a recipe for Rainbow bolognaise in the September Coles Magazine. Different audience, different dish. It comes with this, headed 'waste wise' from one of their cooks - Emma Braz:


“Check your fridge and pantry for any leftover veg or legumes before making this recipe. Try it with mushroom, celery, baby spinach or canned lentils – anything goes!”


The recipe is from their Healthier Living section and the hook is: ' with lean mince and seven veg.'. And you would have to say that it also looks extremely tempting if not as fancy. But doable. You don't look at confit wallaby bolognese and think you are going to be able to do that do you? And how can you resist the appeal to providing your family with healthy, nutritious food, whilst being waste conscious at the same time. Moreover it's supposed to take a mere 35 minutes to make from start to finish, as opposed to several hours for an authentic ragù. And 'anything goes' which implies that it doesn't matter what you do - which it doesn't really. Win-win.


Perhaps most tellingly they also say: 'everyone has their own version of 'spag bol'. Well the Bologna Officials at the Italian Academy of Cooking would say no - there is only one version - enshrined in a 1982 recipe that must be followed if you are going to be authentic.


"In 1982, the Italian Academy of Cooking came up with an official recipe that limited its ingredients to beef, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste and wine." Daily Mirror

But that's not what I'm talking about here really - I've done that whole thing before. No - today I'm looking at some of the ordinary, and the weird and extreme things that people do in the name of bolognaise - or bolognese - some spell it one way, some the other. I'm also going to ponder on when even I can't really call bolognaise, bolognaise.


What does bolognaise mean to you? I mean you could wriggle out of a definition by saying it is any dish originating in Bologna, but if that's the way you are going to go you are pretty soon going to come up against the authenticity war. Mostly I think bolognaise to the average non Italian means a dish of pasta - usually spaghetti but not always - with a sauce made of minced beef and tomatoes. Sprinkled with parmesan on top. As our chef Simon Tarlington says (rich braised meat and tomato). Which just about covers the normal dish concocted by most home cooks in around half an hour. Although this is outside another parameter for 'real' bolognaise that I saw:


"The essential element for Bologna’s signature sauce? Time" Laura Chase de Formigny - The Washington Post

In 2019 The Good Food Guide announced that their most popular recipe of the year was Jill Dupleix's Italian-Australian spaghetti bolognaise. She deliberately specified the Italian-Australian in the title so that she wouldn't get done over by the purists because she adds things like anchovies and herbs which are not in the original. Probably, she is being careful too because she is a published cook, not a home cook. Her recipe is still pretty authentic and commits to The Washington Post definition by taking over 2 hours to cook. I doubt that the average 'spag bol' takes very long. By the way the Brits seem to claim the name 'spag bol' and they may be right, but I'm pretty sure the Australians do too. Another war over food.


Anyway I had a look to see what people did and where I parted ways with them over whether you could still really call what you had devised a bolognaise.


First of all there are those that simply change the meat and add in a few other things, whether it be vegetables, or flavourings. Examples here are Kangaroo bolognaise from Taste and Speedy spaghetti bolognese from Matt Preston. There are others made from every other kind of meat you can think of from rabbit to turkey, sausages and bacon and mixtures of one with another. There might be the odd addition in terms of flavour, but we are still fundamentally, I think, in 'spag' bol' territory. Pasta bolognaise anyway.

And this is probably where most of us fall in the equation. I had a look to see what kinds of extras were commonly added and some were surprising - various vegetables were common of course but:


"When we asked Australians to reveal their secret bolognaise ingredients, we uncovered all manner of culinary curveballs, including adding sweet chilli sauce, Champagne, gherkins, pineapple, strawberry jam – and even peanut butter." Taste


I would say even pineapple! The British on the other hand were keen on Marmite, Worcestershire sauce, which may be pretty good in fact, but coffee, chocolate, mayonnaise?...


I should add in here a couple of chefs who have really made an Italian dish something other - One pan pasta with harissa bolognaise from Yotam Ottolenghi who doesn't even cook the pasta separately. His dish is more similar to a lasagne than a bolognaise. Is Harissa a step too far? Ditto for going Moroccan as does Antoni Porowski with his Moroccan style pasta bolognaise. I think these two are teetering on the edge of what you could call bolognaise. Indeed why - again - do they feel the need to add bolognaise to the title of the dish? It's intriguing. Is it a way to get people to give it a go? Do their audience think that because it's called bolognaise it will be quick and easy?

Then there are the vegetable and vegan versions and honestly I'm not sure that I would class these as 'spag bol'. They are perfectly acceptable, even inviting in some cases as pasta sauces but they don't have that rich meat and tomato thing. In fact why do you think they need to feel that they too can have 'spag bol'? Maybe it shows how much spaghetti bolognaise has become part of our psyche. I found: Vegan bolognaise from Shannon Martinez which used one of those soy derived products that is made to look like meat, so not really trying to be honestly different, just trying to imitate the real thing; Mushroom and lentil pappardelle bolognese from Jamie Oliver (there are lots of recipes for mushroom bolognaise); Chickpea bolognaise from Phoebe Wood of delicious. which is a variation on the many recipes which use lentils with or without mushrooms; and the final aberration Raw spaghetti bolognese from Amy Lane/Stephanie Jeffs. Now how on earth can this be called spaghetti bolognese? It doesn't even have spaghetti - the 'spaghetti' is those zucchini noodles.

Instead of no meat why not fish? Well fish is not really a Bologna thing. Bologna is about as far inland as you can get in Italy, so not a fishy place. And yet Yotam Ottolenghi presents a Prawn bolognaise and Adam Byatt offers Sardine bolognese. No I don't think these qualify as 'spag bol' They're just a pasta with a fish sauce. Now I could be tempted but not because they are a spaghetti bolognaise.

Last of all are two that make use of a bolognaise sauce but not with pasta and so I think they fall more into the lasagne style of thing - something else you do with the bolognaise sauce - like serve it with gnocchi for example. Bolognaise, but not "spag bol' - Bolognaise pie from Phoebe Wood of delicious. and Bolognaise and potato pies from Dominic Smith which is closer to Shepherd's Pie than Spaghetti Bolognaise,

And Spaghetti Bolognaise is an American invention anyway. But you knew that.

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