Festive Cooking: the Search for Authentic British Lasagne

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The Great Hall of Balliol College, ca. 1877-ca. 1885. A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library.

The Great Hall of Balliol College, ca. 1877-ca. 1885. A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library.

On this ship I am Cook. Hence my activities on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter are customarily pretty well established. I may experiment with the stuffing, or we may find some exciting novelty, like Holy Smokes’ fabulous smoked turkeys, but that doesn’t bring any major variation in the drill. I’ve even grown more efficient over the years, so that’s it’s not particularly laborious anymore. In parallel with these prescribed actions, my mind spends Thanksgiving in a mildly crazed reverie of a nostalgic or wistful bent—at least it has been so since 2004, when, as I was readying to make my initial attack on the bird, the telephone rang, with a journalist at the other end, who asked if I would answer a few questions about an elementary school classmate of mine who was in the political spotlight at the time. The journalist seemed personable and serious, and I found myself happy to talk to him, the cordless phone cradled on my shoulder, as I seasoned the turkey and put it in the oven. He’d spoken to a good many others—school friends I remembered, others I’d forgotten…teachers as well, including our inspiring Latin teacher, Joe Agnelli, who helped set me off on a long voyage in Classical waters, the ancient world—the other hemisphere of history. The family thought I was crazy to talk on the phone like that, but there seemed no reason not to, as long as I had the use of my hands.

“Excuse me while I peel this onion…”

After that telephone conversation, Thanksgiving has been a backward-looking holiday for me and a somewhat mad one.

This year, I was slowly roasting the turkey at a low temperature, and there was plenty of time for me to take a break. Some bit of information I was after for an article brought me to Felicity Cloake’s “Word of Mouth” Guardian blog entry on “How to cook perfect lasagne.” This isn’t a subject of burning interest to me, since I’m quite satisfied with what I know about lasagne. Elizabeth David got both the lasagne and the ragù bolognese right in her Italian Food (1954), having learnt a recipe directly from the renowned Zia Nerina, “a splendid woman, titanic of proportion but angelic of face and manner, who in the 1950s owned and ran the Trattoria Nerina in Bologna.” What caught my eye was rather the blogger’s subheading: “Do you prefer the British, American or Italian style?” My interest was piqued by the idea of British lasagne. I wondered what exactly she had in mind by British lasagne. She didn’t explain it in her posting, and the recipe she gave was more or less Italianate, certainly not British…or American for that matter. She gave a clearer impression of her idea of American lasagne, which she thinks is pretty much in the Neapolitan or Sicilian style: filled with ricotta and tomato sauce, either di magro or with the addition of sweet Italian sausages.

The Old New York Spaghetti House's Dining Room, with Cleveland Artist John Czosz's View of the East River. (Anglophiles, note the Tuderoid paneling!)

The Old New York Spaghetti House’s Dining Room, with Cleveland Artist John Czosz’s View of the East River. (Anglophiles, note the Tuderoid paneling!)

Now for me the association of lasagne with Thanksgiving is strong. For two or three years in my early teens my father and I celebrated the holiday (and a Christmas or two) at the home of his kindly brother Harry and his wife Genevieve, who came from a Sicilian family. Lasagne (and, if I remember correctly, some other variety of pasta) was a sine qua nonon her holiday table, before the roast turkey appeared, which was always prepared in the traditional American way. Genevieve lived up to her reputation as a great cook, and I remember her lasagne vividly: deep, warm, and intensely red—a rich expression of her generous nature. It did in fact contain ricotta and Italian sausage, so that may as well define American lasagne here, seconded by my later experiences in Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and the North End of Boston. Cleveland has a style of its own, tomato paste, flours as a thickening agent plenty of beef stock, and a touch of caramel. (In Cleveland even Chinese restaurants seem to add a touch of sugar to everything.) Sadly, Cleveland’s jewel, The New York Spaghetti House, has closed, but some of its recipes are available for purchase at select Cleveland stores, including its famous Brown Sauce (see the interesting Q & A on the NYSH site.), but if you can’t go to Cleveland, get a can of any Chef Boyardee product containing beef, and you will get the idea, albeit on an inferior level of quality. (The popular Italian specialities in a can began as takeout at a popular Cleveland restaurant, as did Stouffer’s frozen dinners.) NB Chef Mario Brigotti, founder of The NYSH came from Sutri near Viterbo, and Chef Ettore Boiardi from Piacenza in Emilia Romagna, i.e. real lasagne country. Interestingly Brigotti and Ettore’s brother Mario were close friends who sailed for America together.

I can’t say anything about Al Capone territory. In addition to Chicago, I’d think of San Francisco, St. Louis, and New Orleans as important places to study American lasagne.

But this Thanksgiving, between bastings of the turkey, I was determined to penetrate the secret of British lasagne. I couldn’t ever remember having had it in the UK, except perhaps at La Colombina d’Oro, a long-gone, authentically spartan Tuscan establishment on Old Compton Street. It certainly wasn’t what I’d have sought out in a pub, which is the most obvious place, I suppose, to look for authentically British lasagne. (We’ll sidestep the whole issue of what British notions of lasagne al forno may have been in the 1970s and how they compare to contemporary views.) The closest I could come was the spaghetti bolognese (possibly spelled “spaghettis bolognese” on the board) served in hall at Balliol. What made it distinctively British was most obviously the accompaniments of generous piles of chips (large ones, more like what are called “steak fries” in the U. S,) and Brussels sprouts, steamed to a grey pallor in the man-sized pressure cookers that loomed in the kitchen. But it was something else that truly brought the British soul into the dish, and I tried to describe in my own comment, which sent out a plea—alas, unheeded—for a “receipt” for true British lasagne, “perhaps from the Midlands or the North.”

I tried to remember…

24 November 2011 6:20PM

There were small, irregular chunks of tough, obviously very cheap cuts of beef and liberal inclusions of gristle. The sauce was watery, flavoured with coarsely cut onions, carrots, celery and tomato, which had been barely if at all sautéed in advance. The flavor of beef stock, most likely included in the form of Bovril, overwhelmed the scanty shreds of tomato. No herbs or nutmeg. No pork or chicken parts. To be ladled out on a plate with generous accompaniments of chips and sprouts.

As the other readers poured in their reminiscences of Italian holidays and experiences of “authentic” Italian lasagne, I remembered something important I’d forgotten:

24 November 2011 6:20PM

O yes, the cheese. I forgot the cheese…and I can’t remember what it was really like, beyond the fact that it was bland and white. I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t looked for it, but I imagine that particular sort of cheese is hard to find these days, now that Sainsbury’s and Tesco get it from Italy. Kraft still make something close, which is widely available in the US, and, I hope, in the UK as well.

Then, a hour later, after the stuffing and gravy were underway, I thought of something else:

24 November 2011 7:32PM

The gristle is crucial. It adds body to the otherwise watery liquid component of the sauce and gives the diner a souvenir to carry away from the table between his or her teeth. Most importantly, it makes the beef bits seem less tough than they actually are.

Hence, the Bolognese sauce should not be cooked so long that the gristle dissolves, but you should still keep it on the stove long enough to eliminate any trace of vegetable aroma. If you’re using present-day hormone-raised beef, 1 1/2 to 2 hours should be plenty.

And do not, under any circumstances, scrape the strings from the celery!

Meanwhile, I had consulted with our Sydney editors, who supplied me with a couple of characteristic Australian versions of lasagne, one with kangaroo meat, including both red and white onion, and wattleseed as a seasoning, and another (“lasagne to die for”) with just plain mince, but with mushrooms, zucchini, carrots…and vegemite! On the Guardian blog, the regional variants of Alberta, with its large population of Germans, Ukrainians, and Poles, were under discussion. Not one reminiscence, much less a receipt for real British lasagne.

I dearly wish I could find more material, but I fear I’ll have to content myself with my college memory just as I have contented myself with Nerina’s ragù. I think if you layer the college’s Bolognese sauce with limp strips of supermarket lasagne you’ll get the experience. The question is whether to add white sauce or not. In combination with the watery ragù, it seems like a challenge. Too thin, it will run into the liquid and accomplish no more than making it milky; too thick, and it will congeal into blobs of white glue.

Finally, our editor-at-large in Rome contributed his recollection of Edinburgh Academy’s version of lasagne al forno. All he could remember, in fact, was that it had a lot of celery in it, more and more as time went by, because the biology master complained bitterly about it. The more he complained, the more celery the cooks put into it. much to the Accies’ disgust.

In the Guardian, I should add, one lady took me to task for using the plural, lasagne—which was in fact in accord with the blogger’s usage, the packets of the stuff on supermarket shelves, and most recipe books.

That’s all lovely—she replied—but whenever I eat with my family over there and the food is brought to the table, they say “Ecco la lasagna” (or “ecco i spaghetti”—sic!) so whatever the dictionary may say, that’s what Italians say. ‘Panini’ is another example – just because it’s accepted use over here, doesn’t make it right.

Now I have heard waiters in Italy say that, and I suppose I thought of it as a sort of slang usage among restaurant  staff, but I thought’d check it out. Prof. Andrea Viviani, writing s.v. “plurali e singolari” in the Treccani Enciclopedia della Lingua Italiana, writes that types of pasta are stated in the plural, “ma a Roma, colloquialmente, è possibile ce lo facciamo uno spaghetto [o spago] allo scoglio?, e va diffondendosi lasagna: la lasagna di mamma non si batte.” Well, Roman could be described as the “soft underbelly of the Italian language” anyway.

In this colloquial usage of the singular there seems to be a hearty stress on the dish as a whole: we all know the many ingredients that went into its preparation, and here it is…all together in front of us on the table!

I looked up the word in the usual convenient dictionaries, the Garzanti and the Treccani. In both the lemma is the singular “lasagna,” defined as the individual strip of pasta that is combined with others to make the “pasticcio,” but both make it clear that the more common usage when one refers to the dish is the plural, referring the many strips which are layered in it. Both adopt the same etymology, from the hypothetical vulgar Latin, “*lasania,” in turn a descendent of the classical Latin “lasanum” (= “cooking pot” or “chamber pot”), which itself is a loan word from Greek, λἁσανον; and this, most commonly in the plural, meant a tripod for supporting a cooking pot, or a “chamber pot.” In this way, the consonants and vowels of the Italian and the Latin word and its Greek forebear are closely equivalent, but in meaning, the pot in which the preparation is cooked has, in Italian, been turned to mean an individual piece of the main ingredient. The Vocabulario della Crusca, on the other hand, adopting the same meaning as the others, derives the word “lasagna” from the Classical Latin word “lagana,” the plural of “laganum,” another Greek loan word, from λἁγανον, which, in Latin as in Greek, meant a long, flat pastry made with olive oil and meal, which could either be fried in olive oil in a pan or simmered in broth. In this case the second consonant of the word would have had to change from “g” to “s,” (an unparalleled transformation, not that anomalies don’t exist. A conflation of the two words through the associations of their meanings may be necessary to explain it.), but the import is clearly the same. Athenaeus (Dipnosophistae, III, 110) says the λἁγανον ἐλαφρὸν τ᾽ ἐστὶ καὶ ἄτροφον (“is light and unnourishing”), while Horace in Satires I.6.114f. tells us of a simple meal he ate at home:

                                                  inde domum me
ad porri et ciceris refero laganique catinum.

This description is spare enough, but it seems like a complete recipe for something we might well find in contemporary Italy, perhaps at some agriturismo biologico vegetariano. It even seemed rather appetizing…and there were four excellent leeks in the fridge. There was a jar of dried chickpeas in the cupboard. The only thing lacking was the right flour. I had read that the hard wheat pasta asciutta is made from was unknown in Emilia-Romagna before the Unification, and that lasagne were traditionally made from soft wheat before then. Also in ancient Italy, hard wheat, although favored by the Romans, had to be imported from fields in cooler areas of the Empire, while soft wheat was grown locally. I should note that “catinum” (= “a deep bowl”) is, at a literal, physical level, a synonym of lasanum in its kitchen sense, a word Horace uses only a few lines above, meaning “chamber pot.” The juxtaposition of the two words should make the primary meaning of lasanum clear, and that Horace would hardly be inclined to use it close by in a different sense, especially that of a bowl from which he eats his supper.

The turkey was in the oven in any case, so Horace’s bowl of leeks, chickpeas, and laganum had to wait a day or two, when we were ready for a break from the Thanksgiving leftovers. I found some whole wheat pastry flour made from soft wheat alone and set to the task. I decided to try to make the laganum in two batches, one made exclusively from flour, extra virgin olive oil, and water, which is probably more like what both Horace and an Emilian peasant might have eaten, and another from the same ingredients, enriched by the addition of an egg, which is what we’re more likely to find at the agriturismo. Since this was my first try at making this kind of pasta (It is actually not pasta, since Italian law defines pasta as made from hard wheat.), I overworked it a little. For that reason, I decided to boil both kinds in water for a while before adding them to the vegetables and their broth.

Horace's Lasana with Leeks and Chickpeas. Photo 2011 Michael Miller.

Horace’s Lasana with Leeks and Chickpeas. Photo 2011 Michael Miller.

I sautéed the leeks in olive oil, fairly lightly, so that they remained somewhat crisp, and added the soaked and boiled chickpeas and a little of their water. The lagana were slightly thicker than I would have liked, so I boiled them for a good 12-15 minutes before adding them to the vegetables. I let them simmer for another 10 minutes, added a douse of extra virgin olive oil, ground black pepper over it, and served it as a very thick soup. With Reggiano grated over it, the lagana were delicious, much better than I expected. Both kinds of laganum were excellent, thanks to the distinctive flavor of the flour. I also tried frying a bit in oil, and that, too, was very tasty. Before the twentieth century I shouldn’t expect flour to be entirely white in any case, but next time I’ll try blending it with a little white soft wheat flour. I may add a fifth leek, as well. What I made was enough for four. I also made a version with lentils, for a person who doesn’t eat chickpeas. That was also excellent—even better, according to the cicerophobe, who gingerly tasted the original version. Horace’s simple dinner will come back often, I think.

Philologists may never agree about the two Classical Latin words to which we are indebted for the Italian word, lasagna. It is worth remembering that they are both Greek imports. Was the food also imported from Greece? It is hard to imagine that such a simple preparation was thought of as an import. It is as close to a staple as one can get, and it may well have been different in Greece. Because of its poorer arable, Greece made the transition from barley to wheat a good deal later than Italy, although barley was eventually scorned as a food for the poorest level of rural society and animals. What brings lasanum and laganum together is the way they belong to the language of domestic life. In Rome many slaves came from Greece, especially the most educated, who were employed as household servants and tutors, and the Greeks themselves were not the only Greek speakers who were likely to become Roman slaves. There was a special term for the slave whose particular duty it was to tend the chamber pots: λασανοφὁρος (the otherwise unknown poet Hermodotus apud Plutarach, Moralia II.) Because of this, the Romans’ vocabulary related to domestic life became hellenized to a significant extent. Although the specific social circumstances are different, we might compare the presence of French vocabulary in a similar fields of Middle English, or the Polish borrowing of German words for things related to bourgeois domesticity: delicacies, restaurants, cafés, and niceties like underwear.

Lasagna is now an English word as well, of course. The O.E.D.’s earliest mention is in Baretti’s English-Italian Dictionary, published in 1760. After that, it appears in Elizabeth Acton’s Modern Cookery (1845: spelled “lazanges”) and a few years later (1849) in Robert Browning’s The Englishman in Italy, Piano di Sorrento:


       When, supping in state,
We shall feast our grape-gleaners (two dozen,
Three over one plate)
With lasagne so tempting to swallow,
In slippery ropes,
And gourds fried in great purple slices,
That colour of popes.

By the mid-twentieth century, newspapers and magazines in all parts of the English-speaking world abounded with its praises, recipes to make it, and recommendations of restaurants where it can be enjoyed.

By the time these thoughts came together, the Thanksgiving turkey was done, and we sat down to a very different kind of meal, with Genevieve’s lasagne present only in memory, passing ghost-like through my mind alone.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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