The boys are back in town – in this case, oldest son, Tom, and his friend Kieran. Old habits die hard and I started thinking of recipes for pasta – the proverbial family standby. But it wasn’t always so. It may be hard to believe, but I was 10 before I ever ate pasta.
Growing up in the 1960s out in Kenya, meals were variations of meat and two veg or an Anglo-Indian curry. And the food was pretty conventional when we returned to the UK after Kenya declared independence in 1964. We ended up in a tiny unheated flat that came as part of my father’s job teaching at a boarding school in Suffolk. The winter winds blew in straight off the North Sea and we would huddle round a small coal fire in the sitting room, trying to keep warm. I would cry myself to sleep, remembering the sun-filled days in Kenya.
Two winters back in Britain unravelled my parent’s resolve to stay in Britain “for the sake of the children’s education” – the reason they had given to friends and family when explaining why they had left East Africa. Only eighteen months later, we found ourselves on yet another boat, this time, heading for New Zealand, where my father had been promised a job as head of the art department in a town called Stratford.
The mistake my parents made was to leave the British winter only to arrive at the beginning of the New Zealand winter. They had also chosen the town with the highest rainfall in the North Island. The little clapboard bungalow we rented was furnished with vases filled with plastic flowers and the beds sported pink candlewick bedspreads. It was yet another culture shock for me and my sister. At school, the children teased us for our British accents and chanted, “Go home you Pommie bastards.”
Our only solace was to escape at the weekends to the wild Pacific beaches covered in black iron ore sands. I would throw stones into the crashing waves, feeling some comfort in the thought that the ocean was connected to other lands, even though they were far away…
Not surprisingly, even my parents decided they couldn’t make a go of it – New Zealand could not replace Kenya. In an extravagant gesture, my father blew some of his hard-earned savings on a First Class passage on an Italian ship, all the way back to Britain. It was on board this ship, staffed by Italian stewards and chefs, that I discovered and fell in love with pasta, in the form of Spaghetti Bolognese.
For me, meals often involved battles of will power, with my father insisting that I couldn’t leave the table until I’d finished everything on my plate. The problem was always the meat! I hated chewing it, and the more I chewed it the drier it became and the more I would gag when it came to swallowing it.
So the rich meaty tomato ragu covering the long slippery strands of spaghetti was perfect! A meaty meal I could eat with pleasure and no battles with my parents.
For the first few days of the voyage, I had Spaghetti Bolognese for lunch and dinner every day, but after a week of this diet, my parents rationed me to only one meal a day of Spaghetti Bolognese. I made up for it by spending my pocket money on freshly-fried doughnuts. On the top deck, the ship had a little kiosk that opened at four every afternoon and I would be first in line so as to have the hottest crispiest doughnuts oozing with dark red jam and tossed in sugar.
Two weeks later, a rather rounder, pudgier, version of me stepped off the gangway at Southampton harbour. I was eleven and resigned to the fact that I would now have to pass something called the Eleven Plus and go to grammar school and that our days of travelling around the world would come to an end.
Luckily, my mother had made sure to get the recipe off the ship’s cook, and the Bolognese sauce she cooked bore no relation to the versions sometimes served up by friends’ mothers. Their spaghetti Bolognese was a gritty grey version with tinned tomatoes added too late and ready in a short half hour. My mother’s version would sit on the slow plate of the Aga, slowly plopping and bubbling away for at least two hours.
As a busy working mum of three boys, I got into the habit of making a huge pan of this sauce on a Sunday, which could then be reheated, used in lasagne, or popped in the freezer for emergency use.
So with two hungry young men back in the house, I got cooking. It’s done one meal already, and the rest will become Lasagne for tomorrow night.
BOLOGNESE SAUCE WITH PASTA – Feeds at least three hungry boys. Takes two and a half hours to prepare.
1 kg of the best beef mince – the butcher minced it for me, the best way!
300 gm of pancetta bacon, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
450 gm tin of chopped tomatoes
1 small tin of concentrated tomato puree
200 ml red Italian wine
3 tbsps. of cream or 1/4 pint of milk
300 ml beef stock (cubed is fine)
1.5 tsp salt and freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil & butter
In a large heavy-based frying pan, heat the olive oil with a chunk of butter, then add the bacon, stirring it in order to separate the pieces. When that begins to colour (around 5 minutes), add the chopped vegetables and garlic, and cook until the onion is beginning to turn golden. I then remove the vegetables and bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon to a large heavy-bottomed metal casserole.
In a large bowl, pre-season the minced meat with the salt and pepper, cutting it through so it mixes in. Now add the minced beef to the pan. My technique involves flattening it out across the pan like a giant hamburger. Turn the heat up and let it cook for at least 4-5 minutes so that it browns properly. With a pan slice, flip the meat over in sections in order to brown the other side. Only then, do I begin to break it up in the pan with a wooden spoon. I find this method really helps seal the meat and avoids the risk of the mince becoming too rubbery.
Now add the mince to the casserole, and mix with the vegetables and bacon. Return to the heat and add the tomato paste, the tinned tomatoes, the wine, and stock. Bring to bubbling point, then turn the heat down very low. I cover the pan for the first hour, then leave the lid off so that the sauce reduces and thickens over the next hour. At the very last moment, add the cream or milk. This has the effect of cutting the acidity of the tomatoes, leaving a thick and velvety sauce – perfect for coating a bowl of spaghetti or tagliatelle. Serve with a good topping of grated parmesan cheese.