Like many of us born in the 50s, my childhood was difficult. People were too traumatised by the war and their losses. It can’t have been easy on any front to return to whatever ‘normality’ was. Neither of my parents seemed to be able to settle down. They banged around like an out of control bobsleigh on the Cresta run, although not always together. Fortunes went up and down as they careered from job to job and town to town, dragging my grandmother, my brother, and I with them. At one point when we lived deep in the Essex countryside, my mother commuted to work as a marketing executive in London. Sometimes she returned home bearing exotic foods from Fortnum and Mason. I remember long packages of blue wrapped spaghetti being brought home. I would be co-opted in the kitchen to bending them into pans of boiling water and then fine grating wedges of fresh parmesan. I don’t remember any pasta making its way to our supper table as, along with a bolognese or carbonara sauce, it was reserved for the slew of weekend guests that used to visit the house. But I was allowed to taste and at some point, I learnt to wind the strands around the fork and then suck them up. But I think that educative experience might have come from Disney’s ‘The Lady and the Tramp.’
I’ve lost the ability to patchwork together the drift of memories that make up my childhood and, as there are no photographs, I can’t be quite sure how or where I was educated. I know there were thirteen schools in all, but my memories of most of them, apart from the last one, are hazy. There was a very short stay in a large secondary school somewhere in Hampshire where I got lost and was bullied – for what I’m not sure – but it kick started my mother into a moment of sobriety and action. She had done a good four years of war service with the WAAF, climbing up the ranks until she became a Warrant Officer. On the basis of this, she managed to persuade the RAF Benevolent fund to pay my private school fees. So, in January 1962, I started as a day girl at Godolphin School in Salisbury.
Aged eleven and a half, I was over 5ft 10 and, dressed in the uniform of a blue long sleeve smock, grey skirt, and Mary Jane shoes, I was an incongruous sight as I walked into my new class – a Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputs. My eventual circle of friends, perhaps because of this, were of the eclectic kind. Day girls all, non-sporty, bookish, preferring to talk rather than walk, interested in anything that didn’t involve exercise or – God forbid –team games.
It was during this time that I accepted with great delight an invitation for an overnight stay with a friend whose parents lived in Porton Down – yes, the chemical warfare place, now well known for its Novichok expertise. Her mother was American and everything in their bright cheery kitchen seemed foreign. Our kitchen didn’t possess a machine of any kind, even toast was made on a fork in front of the Rayburn, and any beating was done with a wooden spoon and a great deal of elbow grease.
The Americans led the drive for housewife time-saving machines with pop-up toasters and electric egg beaters. The invite was on the basis that we girls were all going to camp out in a tent in the garden, but that supper would be served in the kitchen. I’m sure there were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as a large bowl of spaghetti and meatballs was brought steaming to the table covered in a deep red sauce with a side of grated cheddar to sprinkle over it. To my eyes and taste buds, dulled by school food and my grandmother’s over-boiled brassicas, it was truly heaven.
I have made ‘authentic’ spaghetti bolognese many times but as will be noted in my previous post ‘Not mincing my words about chilli’, I was put off mince in my early married life when the only meat we could afford, or I knew how to cook, was mince. But somehow, converting the mince into meatballs makes it acceptable, so if the children demanded bolognese, they would get meatballs in a tomato sauce, which I could eat as well.
For this recipe, I returned to a 1927 American Good Housekeeping cookbook which I am not sure how or when it came into my possession. But I feel my friend’s mother might have used a recipe like this in the 50s. My additions here were fresh thyme and oregano from my garden and tomato sauce I made from my cherry tomatoes last September. As not everybody will have homemade tomato sauce in the freezer, I have included the recipe’s quick and dirty solution for a tomato sauce, although I added a teaspoon of sugar to counteract the acidity of the tomato paste. Apologies for the strange measurements, but I had to convert from the US cup sizes.
Spaghetti with Herby Meatballs in a tomato sauce
340 gm lean, finely minced beef
114 gm lean veal, minced finely
114 gm streaky bacon, minced finely
160 ml milk
1 large egg
125 gm fresh breadcrumbs (I used one of my multigrain rolls)
1 heaped tsp ground white pepper
1 heaped tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 heaped tbsp fresh oregano leaves
2 ½ tsp salt
2 tbsp finely chopped onion
Fat or oil to fry
For the sauce (if you haven’t your own recipe)
2tbsp tomato paste
Spaghetti – cooked al dente as per packet instructions
Prepare two baking sheets lined with greaseproof paper. If you have a meat mincer, push all the meat through the mincer. If you don’t, ask the butcher to do it for you, or spend time blending it together with your hands.
In a bowl, beat the egg, add the milk, then add the breadcrumbs. Allow to stand until the bread softens for about 5 minutes. Sauté the onion in a little fat – I had saved some fat from the bacon rinds which I had crisped in the oven – until light golden brown. Add this to the bread mixture and then work this into the meat, along with fresh (or dried) herbs and seasoning.
This is a mucky business, so roll up your sleeves and get stuck in with your hands. You need to mush everything together so that it is well mixed. It will at one point seem quite wet, but it does get drier, but not too dry. You will then have to form it into small balls rolling them around on your palm. I like bitesize balls, not too large, but it’s up to you. Then place these on the baking trays. When finished, place them in the fridge for a least an hour to settle. If I have too many, I freeze them at this point on the tray and then collect them up in bags or boxes until I need them.
Then fry them in batches, a single layer in a frying pan, with a lid, but every now and again shake to ensure they brown all over. Mine took about 15mins. I heated up my homemade sauce separately and served this on top on the meatballs.
To make the sauce as per the recipe, once the meatballs are brown all over, add 100 mls of water, bring to the boil, then cover and allow to simmer gently for 15 minutes. Then mix the tomato paste with the rest of the water, add to the gravy and meatballs. If the sauce is too thin, thicken with a little flour or cornflour mixed to a paste with some of the sauce. As you would for a gravy.