In Praise of Spag Bol

We all know how to make Spaghetti Bolognese, or rather, I’m not sure how you manage to get through life if you can’t.  Everyone seems to do it slightly differently and have their own favourite secret ingredients.  The question is, who taught you how to do it?

My version is based on the one my Mum taught me, crossed with some inspiration from the mighty bible of ‘Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course’, and changeable depending on what’s in the fridge and how much time or how bothered I am.  It’s a classic go to, quick, cheap, family friendly, mid-week feeding frenzy eat.  If you’re feeling beatific, you can turn it into a ‘nice, simple lasagne’, a request hated by all Mums who hear it and made famous by the lovely and hilarious Gill Sims in her Peter & Jane blog and ‘Why Mummy…’ books.

If you have some left over it can go in the freezer for a rainy day (mine is full of different size portions from various periods of history) or you can get away with feeding it to the kids for a couple of days guilt free because a.) it has veggies in it that you can easily chop small enough to disguise, and b.) they won’t complain too much.

It’s also always a good excuse to open a bottle of red on a school night as everyone knows a Bolognese sauce is rubbish without it, and then of course the rest of the bottle will definitely go off by the weekend, so you might as well enjoy a glass or two as you stir the sauce and chop the onions to the microscopic proportions required to get them past the average child’s forensic detective skills.

I started to cook spag bol for myself after my Mum went back to work in the first few years of secondary school.  It was then that I learnt that if I wanted to eat before 9pm, I was going to have to help more and make a start on the dinner before my exhausted Mum got home.  I also learnt how to mix a good Gin & Tonic.  Spag Bol was one of the first successfully edible things that I attempted.

I vividly remember the gargantuan struggle of eating spag bol as a child.  I was hopeless at it.  There would be spaghetti everywhere and I would be covered in luminous orange sauce from ear to ear.  I still marvel at those who can elegantly twizzle their spaghetti onto a fork and slide into their mouth with minimal mess and slurping.  Perhaps it is a genetic failing.

There is a famous family story of the first night my father met his future in-laws.  He was invited round for dinner but had been held up at the naval base, so by the time he got there everybody had already eaten.  It was the 1970s, so to impress him they had made this new, fancy recipe of Spaghetti Bolognese which he was then served on a tray and expected to eat from his lap, whilst making polite conversation.  Being raised in a ‘meat and two veg boiled to within an inch of its life’ kind of family, he had never seen anything like it and had no idea how to approach it.  By the end, he was covered from head to foot, much to his humiliation and the ever-lasting amusement of my mother’s parents and her four brothers.

Perhaps my favourite Spag Bol story though comes from Nigel Slater in his autobiography Toast. He is the King of relating the food we eat to what it makes us think, feel and remember. Everything he writes is wonderful and inspires me to be a better cook, parent, gardener and writer, but this book, and particularly his acccount of the family’s first attempt at making ‘foreign’ food with parmesan cheese that smelt like sick made me cry every kind of tear and is often brought to my mind when I’m tempted to reach for the fish fingers again on a rainy Wednesday tea time. I believe that when we cook for our children we are shaping their memories and what we in turn cook for ourselves in times of joy or sadness can be traced back to our own childhood roots, like a culinary family tree.

Recently, my own son decided he would like to learn how to make Bolognese sauce for himself and I felt like I was passing on a baton.  A rite of passage leading to a thousand student meals, mid-week dinners and family stories.

 It reminded me of myself, taking my first steps towards learning how to be more independent and I recognised that desire in him to also be able to contribute more to family life as he runs the gauntlet in the kitchen at the end of each day facing up to his impatient, frazzled, hangry mother throwing things into saucepans with nobody else around to help me. 

So here’s to Spaghetti Bolognese.  It may be a simple meal, but it has layers of meaning and memory that transform it into something special and that is what all good meals should do.

Making Spaghetti Bolognese for the first time.
Young Spag Bol Padawan in Action

Interrupted family food for thought:

  • Who taught you how to cook?  How old were you when you started?
  • What recipes have you been making the longest?
  • Can you take some of the pressure off yourself by teaching your kids how to help make some of your go-to recipes?  They’ll be gaining some valuable life skills and you’ll be saving yourself time and energy in the long run even if there is short-term mess to deal with!
  • Do you always use a recipe book or are there meals that you have learnt to cook by heart through trial and error?

Cheats Lasagne – Bolognese Pasta Bake (serves 2-3)

This is my way of stretching out some left-over Bolognese sauce to make a meal for a second day!  Tastes like lasagne, but for some reason seems much less hassle to make.


1 portion of leftover Bolognese sauce

225g of Penne Pasta

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 heaped Tbsp of plain flour

½ pint of milk

75g of cheddar cheese (grated)

¼ tsp of ground nutmeg

Salt & pepper


  • Preheat the oven to 200c (180c Fan Oven)
  • Cook the pasta according to packet instructions until al dente
  • Meanwhile, make the bechamel sauce by melting the butter over a low heat in a small saucepan. Using a small whisk, stir in the flour until it forms a paste.  Cook gently for 30 seconds and then begin to gradually whisk in the milk, letting the paste thicken each time before adding more.  Stir in a Tbsp or so of the grated cheese and season to taste with the nutmeg, salt and pepper.
  • Tip the pasta into an ovenproof baking dish and stir in the leftover Bolognese.  Pour over the bechamel and sprinkle over the remaining cheese.
  • Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes until heated through and the cheese is golden and bubbling.

Serve with a green salad and some garlic bread if you can be bothered!

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