June 24th 2013 – Spag Bol

Cyprus, late 60s.  I was a kid, a forces ‘brat’ and my Dad was in the RAF.  It was idyllic on so many levels.  My earliest food memories come from there, eating fish mezzeh on the harbour front in Paphos, watching the resident pelicans and fishing boats bobbing around or listening to my Mum talking about buying chickens (‘this one here?, kill it now’) in the market.  There was octopus too, but I can’t remember a single meal served to me with this at home.  Perhaps Mum and Dad kept it to themselves or perhaps my memory is failing me.  I doubt it wasn’t good.

The other food I remember I ate in little tavernas as we drove around the island, visiting ruins and abbeys.  As I write this, picture flashes keep going off and I hope I can reclaim them at a later date – a toenail ripped off going down a slide on the beach in Famagusta?, saving a boy from drowning (or so I thought) and his Dad thinking I was the one in trouble, my dog (it was never really my dog) Bengo being thrown in the sea to teach it to swim by my Dad and so much more.

I remember often eating Spaghetti Bolognese in these roadside tavernas.  I wouldn’t have cheese on it in (tasted of sick, apparently, so wasn’t the tasteless Spaghetti cheese sold in Belgian supermarkets) but eat it I did.  This started a life-long obsession with the dish.  I remember my Dad taking hours making it the day before it was needed, leaving it over night to develop its flavours and to also let the orangey-fat congeal so it could be removed easily.  It was the first dish I cooked for everyone in a shared student house in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Mum dictating the recipe down the phone, me frantically taking notes.

I’m not obsessionally authentic either, I’ve never been to Bologna and never eaten it in a top restaurant.   I believe, for example, that spaghetti is not correct, but it is spaghetti which I grew up with.  I don’t like the (optional) addition of chicken livers or dried mushrooms and I won’t, despite the advertising steer, put Worcester Sauce in it.  No, I keep it simple and it works for me.  I did once make it partly with oxtail too, as suggested by Heston, but this is a bit of a faff and though rather good and interesting, not necessary for a staple.

The main ingredient is time, the main objective is colour (deep flavour follows as a consequence) and the main enemy, liquid.  Don’t cover the pan, ever.  You want to drive off all liquid during the cooking process, consolidating and concentrating the flavours.  I hate a Spag Bol with watery orange on the plate.

Here are the main ingredients:


I chop the carrot, celery, onion and garlic in a food processor.  Do it by hand if want.  Go reasonably fine, I hate seeing bits of carrot in the finished sauce.  Fry gently in some olive oil until all the moisture has gone and the colour is getting dark.  There is a fine line between dark and caramalised (this is the slow cooking which gives depths of flavour to the sauce) and burnt.  Be careful.  This can take 45 minutes.


Now add the pork/veal mixture, about a pound and a half (700g).  Cook slowly for 30 minutes, breaking up lumps.  You will see the oil/fat separating, keep going.  Add upwards of half a bottle of red wine, it’ll probably have had a glass taken out of it already.  Keep cooking to drive off the alcohol and most of the liquid.

Add the little tin of tomato purée.  Mix well.  You may not see any traces of vegetables now, perhaps a trace of carrot.  Keep cooking, you want to build up flavour and caramalise the mixture a little.  The little pieces of vegetables should now be invisible.  Squash any obdurate carrot.

You may decide not to do this, but I now add half a pot of Knorr ‘Beef stockpot’.  You know the ones, they are in little plastic pots and are jelly-like.  Cook and stir, until all is incorporated.

Finish the red wine.

Add some water, not too little, not too much (this is not a stew/soup).  Continue to cook slowly for an hour (I told you it was a slow process), you may want do this a couple of times, resting the sauce between additions overnight.  There won’t be as much fat as in my Dad’s day.  It will become almost glossy as you stir from time to time.


When you want to eat, adjust the seasoning.  Pepper will be needed, possibly a little salt.  Always add a little of the wine you have used and reheat thoroughly.

You want a moist, non-watery sauce to dress your pasta and because you have taken your time to develop flavour, you won’t need your pasta with loads of sauce.  A little goes a long way.  Have whatever pasta you like, but for me it’s spaghetti, but buy a good brand and don’t waste your money on the ‘fresh’ stuff.  Unless you like making it yourself but I’m yet to be convinced.  I’d rather mow the lawn…

As for cheese – the best Parmesan you can buy.  Don’t stint here.  A little wonderful cheese (and grate your own) has more flavour and less calories than a big bag of ready-grated budget crap.

Bolognese sauce teaches us so much.  Without care and time, the same ingredients can be combined into an awful mess.  Roughly chopped onions, beef mince, tins of tomatoes and a splash of wine you wouldn’t drink.  I don’t want this and neither shall I eat it.  Care for your Bolognese ingredients, care for the people around you.  Give them time to develop their relationships with you and each other.  Don’t rush.  Get the best from them and life becomes so much better.

© Bob Cavanagh, 2013, http://www.deliciouslydifferent.be

One thought on “June 24th 2013 – Spag Bol

  1. Never realised – also one of my favourites – nowadays I use a good minced beef, garlic, onion, olive oil, red wine, oregano and basil and for the main medium – a good pasata. Taste-off one day ?
    My culinary memories of Malta include ice cold Fanta and orange picking
    Hope your ok – my skin has flared up recently – time for a holiday

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