Benign dictatorship saffron spaghetti

Benign dictatorship saffron spaghetti

V is for Vegan

This is my Death Row dish. I could pretty much eat this every day. Spaghetti Napoli or Napolitana – or spaghetti with tomato sauce – is simple and beautiful, a mainstay of my family life. Does it come from Naples? Yeah, probs. Southern Italy was, is, poorer and hotter than the north and so, not only were they growing ace tomatoes but they could also not afford to add meat to their pasta sauce. Who needs meat when great tomatoes provide all the umami oomph you could possibly want? So ‘Bolognese’ from Bologna (in northern Italy), the classic mincemeat and tomato spaghetti sauce, became ‘Napolitana’ (from the south), an infinitely chic-er dish.

Another reason for the popularity of the meatless sauce is that tomatoes used to be more acidic until it was bred out of them. A Napoli sauce was something you could preserve, conveniently bottled on long journeys, for the winter.

It’s strange to think about the process of ‘nation branding’ and how misleading it can be. I recently attended a talk where it was explained that the great English breakfast was only about 150 years old, invented, like so much else including Christmas, in the Victorian times. When we think about Italy and its ‘USP’, we visualise the red, white and green of the flag. The red is the tomato, the white is the pasta and the green is the basil.

But the tomato is fairly new to Italy, arriving after the discovery of America, via Spain in the 16th century. Furthermore, pasta was reserved for feast days, only becoming regularly available to the poor when the manufacturing process was mechanised in the late 19th century.

Spaghetti Napoli was the second recipe I was ever taught by my mother. I’d decided, at a ridiculously early age, to host a dinner party for 15 people, with 3 courses. The dinner party was a bit of a disaster: starters went out at 11pm, I got far too drunk and my best friend got off with the boy that this whole shenanigans was constructed for. But I learnt how to make this dish, so it wasn’t a write-off.


Quantity Ingredient
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus a large glug
2 onions, diced
4-5 garlic cloves, finely chopped
5 bay leaves, ideally fresh
3-4 x 400 g tins or jars tomatoes
or 1kg fresh tomatoes
large pinch saffron strands
1 sprig oregano, (optional)
700g good-quality dried spaghetti, (I generally work on 100 g cooked per person for a starter or 150 g cooked for a main)
sea salt
plenty of freshly ground black pepper


  1. This sauce is really simple if you follow my instructions exactly. Do not freestyle it, something I generally give you permission to do in other recipes. No, this is a benign dictatorship when it comes to spaghetti.
  2. Heat the oil in a large pan, add the onions and cook until soft. Add the garlic and bay leaves. Stir. Add the tomatoes. I tend to squeeze the tomatoes, tearing them as I go, into the pan (fresh tomatoes I will chop up). Stir in 1 tablespoon salt, the saffron and oregano, if using (if you have fresh, but don’t bother with out-of-date dried oregano. In fact, go through your spice cupboard, check the dates and chuck most of it out. In India, housewives buy small quantities of fresh spices WEEKLY. This is what we should be doing).
  3. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes over a low heat, if you have time. It’s pretty good after 20 minutes. If I’m drinking red wine, I might sling in half a glass if the sauce is getting too concentrated.
  4. The pasta bit: Get a large or tall saucepan. Don’t use a small saucepan. Really. It’s the same as salads. Why do people try to squash a salad into a tiny bowl? You can’t toss the salad in the dressing! So if you haven’t got a big pasta saucepan, it’s time you invested in one. It’s about £30 for something you’ll probably use every day for the next decade.
  5. Get a big load of salty boiling water on the go. Boil 3 or 4 kettles if necessary and fill it up that way. Throw in a handful of sea salt. Yes: a handful. It’s fine, don’t worry. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
  6. When it’s bubbling, put the spaghetti in, pushing down gradually until it’s all submerged. Stir a couple of times during cooking to keep the strands separate. Cook for a minute less than they say on the packet and have your colander ready in the sink.
  7. Strain out the pasta quickly, then dump it back into the hot saucepan. Splash a large glug of olive oil over the hot pasta, stirring it, to prevent the pasta sticking together.
  8. If you are being mamma at the table, have a stack of bowls, put the lid on the pasta and take both the pasta and the sauce to the table. Serve into each bowl at the table, pasta first, sauce on top. Yes I know Jamie Oliver says add the pasta to the sauce, but it looks prettier this way and people like different amounts of sauce. Make sure there is a pepper mill at the table.

Before we start, a few rules:

  • On no account add sugar. The French add sugar, which is why they are terrible at pasta even if they are good at everything else. If you want a sweeter sauce, wait a day before eating it. It will become sweeter.

    Buy the best tomatoes you can afford – fresh or tinned. If you are buying tinned tomatoes, DO NOT buy those watery cheap tins containing 3 flayed plum-shaped tomatoes and a load of thin red juice. Buy the most expensive. Hell, go crazy, save yourself some effort and buy ready-chopped. Organic is good. I used Così Comè bottled tomatoes (yellow and red) in this recipe, and their flavour is extraordinary. I don’t care how poor you are, I don’t care if you have had all your savings seized; you can buy a halfway-decent tin of tomatoes.

    Buy the best spaghetti you can afford. NOT quick-cook. The longer the cooking time on the packet, the better. Buy 11-minute spaghetti, bronzedie preferably (this gives the surface a roughness that means the sauce adheres). If you buy very good pasta, it’s almost impossible to overcook it. Brands I recommend: Barilla, De Cecco, Garofalo.

    Salt your pasta water. Salt it until it is as salty as the Mediterranean Sea. With sea salt. If you have sufficiently seasoned your water, you will not need to add salt at the table. Geddit?
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