Shortly before I moved to the UK for my Ph.D., my father took me aside and told me I could not leave Italy before first having learnt how to make a proper salsa al pomodoro, a tomato sauce. At the time, I was compiling a recipe book with all the recipes from home I was sure I would have missed when abroad, and that I wanted to be able to make for my future British (and non-British) friends. So when my father offered to show me how he makes his own sauce, I thought I would add it to my recipe book. And so it happened, and I am sure for most of my housemates and friends during my time in the UK, I was the crazy Italian person who could not bear to buy a tomato sauce in a jar, or a tin, or plastic tub, or anything really, but had to make it from the scratch — every single time.
Tomato sauce is quintessentially Italian, of course, with its essence of sun and the Mediterranean, its shallow aftertaste of onions mildly cutting through the tomatoes’ texture, and its beautiful colour of ripeness, so it is no wonder that E. M. Forster should choose this particular dish to represent Italian culture and character, in his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (originally entitled ‘Monteriano’, after the name of the fictional Tuscan town where the story takes place). Italy, much like in the later, more successful novel A Room with a View, features in Forster’s story as a character in its own right: it is almost as if Italy were used to mould the British characters’ actions, urging them to behave in a less restrained manner, and in a way which is truer to their actual nature. Lilia, a British widow, falls in love with a dashing young Italian man, twelve years her junior, and marries him without much thinking about it; Caroline, Lilia’s friend, eventually falls in love with the same Italian man after Lilia’s death; Philip, Lilia’s brother-in-law, first restrains himself and then cannot but fall under the spell of Italy’s charms.
When the British widow’s family (actually, her dead husband’s family, rather than hers) runs to her rescue by sending Philip to Italy, who cannot but witness the fact that Lilia has already got married to Gino, the first, memorable meeting between Lilia, Gino, her friend Caroline, and Philip takes place at a dinner-table before a hearty plate of spaghetti:
‘Dinner was a nightmare. […]
For the youth was hungry, and his lady filled his plate with spaghetti, and when those delicious slippery worms were flying down his throat his face relaxed and became for a moment unconscious and calm. And Philip had seen that face before in Italy a hundred time – seen it and loved it, for it was not merely beautiful, but had the charm which is the rightful heritage of all who are born on that soil. But he did not want to see it opposite him at dinner. It was not the face of a gentleman.
Conversation, to give it that name, was carried on in a mixture of English and Italian. Lilia had picked up hardly any of the latter language, and Signor Carella had not yet learned any of the former. Occasionally Miss Abbott had to act as interpreter between the lovers, and the situation became uncouth and revolting in the extreme. Yet Philip was too cowardly to break forth and denounce the engagement. […]
Signor Carella, heartened by the spaghetti and the throat-rasping wine, attempted to talk, and, looking politely towards Philip, said: ‘England is a great country. The Italians love England and the English.’ ’ (p. 23)
How can any dinner featuring some Italian wine and a plate of nice spaghetti be a nightmare, really! But of course, if spaghetti these days are common everywhere in the world, and even the Italian term has seldom been translated into other languages, at the time it was something which one could only really find in Italy. Forster’s Italy becomes thus embodied by its signature dish, the tomato sauce spaghetti. The scene’s focus is deliberately on Gino in the act of eating his plate of spaghetti (despite the fact that they are all participating in that meal): the Italian man is hungry, for life and for food, he is young, and he is, indeed, the rightful eater of that dish. Eating that worm-shaped food makes Gino lose whatever look he had of a gentleman still left in him: eating spaghetti cannot be but “messy”, with the sauce going everywhere, and one does require a little training with their fork (please don’t use a spoon!) in order to master the sublime art of eating spaghetti without having the sauce all over one’s face (or one’s shirt, in fact). Amongst all Italian national dishes, tomato sauce spaghetti is perhaps the one dish which best suits this incredible first encounter between nations at the dinner table: sensual, messy, earthly – especially if compared to the tea the English composedly drink throughout the novel! Forster’s ‘succulent, flavourful and satisfying’ spaghetti is the dish that best represents the Italian soul: ‘unreserved and passionate’. About food.
Spaghetti al pomodoro / Tomato sauce spaghetti
spaghetti, of course – in Italy, we tend to consider 70-80g dried pasta per person as a ‘regular’ portion, but that’s because we divide our main course into first and second course; if you’re aiming to make of this your single main course then aim for 100g (or more, depending on your hunger!) dried spaghetti. TIP: so that the spaghetti don’t become too long while cooking (they can entangle quite badly), break them in half before boiling them.
For the sauce: (will feed about 12, you can also freeze it or keep it in the fridge for a few days)
1 garlic clove
¼ onion (I prefer brown onions)
- Chop the garlic clove in two and cut the quarter onion extremely finely (you may want to use an electric food chopper/processor for this, or a typical Italian kitchen utensil, the mezzaluna knife). Place the chopped onion and garlic in a saucepan.
- Add a little olive oil and sauté the onion and garlic.
- Once the onion has turned golden, take the garlic out of the saucepan (yes! We are not garlic-lovers I am afraid) and pour the tomato passata over the sautéed onion.
- Cook the passata with onion at a high heat until it starts boiling, then turn it down to the lowest heat, making sure the sauce goes on boiling very slowly for about 45-50 minutes – then switch off the heat, and you’re done!
- Very important: don’t forget to stir the sauce every five minutes or so – the trick in a good tomato sauce is (apart from good passata) in never leaving the sauce alone!
- Bring some salted water to boil and then cook the spaghetti for about 10 minutes (or for how long it says on the package).
- Buon appetito!
Jan Ondaatje Rolls. The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.