Friday’s sad news about the UK voting to leave the EU got me thinking about how our food has been inspired by settlers from other countries to our shores for decades and decades. British food and produce is wonderful but our cooking has been enriched by our European and indeed world-wide cousins. I know purists scoff over Spaghetti Bolognese and we know that actually there is no such thing in beloved Italy; however every Mama has her own twist on the rich ragu she produces in her kitchen. It is such a loved dish in Britain and probably served as a weekly or fortnightly staple in most homes. I am sure like Mama’s everywhere we all have our own twist (as long as it’s not a jar of Dolmio, I am excited by that!!).
Us ‘Brits’ have such an eclectic taste (probably due to our wonderful mixed heritage) my children can walk a mille from our home and taste food from at least a dozen or so countries. They have never known any different and eating Japanese; French; Italian; Lebanese; Turkish: American; Chinese; Greek; French to name just a few is as normal to them as a daily meal of meat and veg was to me.
I was 11 before I went abroad and tasted pasta not out of a tin; saw paella (I wasn’t allowed to eat it – the matriarch of the family was suspicious of mussels!) and had the best ice cream any kid could want. My mother was nervous of ‘foreign food’ but after a family visit to Italy did start making chilli con carne (Which we called Chilly Father Kearney after our parish priest!) and Spaghetti Bolognese (which my father would eat with a knife and fork after cutting the strands of spaghetti). I should add that other than the minced beef the flavour was added from a packet of Coleman powder! However I couldn’t wait for a Saturday to have that party of tastes in my mouth in this wonderful break from tradition and it was an early realisation that food could be so good and there was a whole world of flavours out there to experience. My absolute favourite would be when my mam was away for the day and my dad would make me a Vesta Curry with boil in the bag rice and he would throw in a handful of sultanas! We would open all the windows and doors so that my mother wouldn’t smell it when she came home! I thought it so so exotic – he would tell me tales of being in the Navy during WW2 and his ship being moored next to an Indian Navy ship where he tried the amazing food cooked on board.
I can’t tell you how relieved I am that those days are over and now we can travel and taste wonderful cuisines the world over or stay at home and share our neighbour’s recipes and make them our own. My cupboard is full of items that I have bought locally but are from so many different countries and make any meal so much tastier. Does anyone else remember when you could only buy olive oil from a chemist?
My beloved OH on the other hand was brought up on wonderful European food as she has a strong European heritage and her mother is an amazing cook. She can recall pots of dhal; curries; beans; pasta and even though she is a few years younger than me the difference of her childhood food memories is incredible
I am not a purist, I don’t care that my Thai curry is not traditional; or my Spanish friend frowns at my take on paella; or certain self-respecting Italians would not add onion and garlic together in a dish! I just love that my family and I share this country with people from all over the world and our lives are enriched by it. I so hope those days haven’t gone and the people we share this world with know how we love their influences and how they have shaped and enriched our cuisine and lifestyles.
So to mark the first European influence on my life that I remember I went into my kitchen with a heavy heart on Friday but was cheered as I made my ragu or as it is known in this house – Spag Bol! I will run through it and maybe there is something there that you may not do; remember ragu is yours and if its made with love and a nod to Italian Mamas everywhere – that’s all that matters!
Add a glug of olive oil to a cold pan and add a hand full of pancetta or smoked bacon into cubes. Fry on a medium heat until golden and the fat has rendered. Add a Kilo of minced beef and brown. Whilst this is doing its thing – finely chop a couple of onions; garlic; celery; peppers; carrots; mushrooms and add to the pan. (If you have picky small people – it’s an opportunity to grate a load of veg and chuck it in!). Stir it around and mix well. A good ole glass of red wine at this stage is good – for you and the pan! Add a sprinkling of oregano; season; add a can or two of chopped tomatoes; unless you have fresh which adds a different dimension. Add a good quantity of beef stock – so there is enough liquid to let it blip away. I leave it for an hour or so (keep an eye so it doesn’t dry and catch). The longer you can leave those ingredients get to know each other and share their flavours and merge into something wonderful the better. On their own the ingredients are not that exciting but together they can merge as one into something beautiful and excite the tastebuds of opportunity of those you love. Serve with your favourite shape of pasta – it doesn’t have to be spaghetti and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
So I thank our European Cousins for sharing their food amongst other things with this little Welsh Girl so I can ensure that my family will not be suspicious of our neighbours at home or overseas and will realise that there is a whole world out there which they should be privileged to be a part of and explore without suspicion and hate but enrich it for their children and their children’s children ad infinitum!