Taste Scene

Michael Devlin

The (oven) gloves are off!

Those of us of a certain vintage (and disposition) will remember all too well, corporal punishment at school. Whacks with the ruler – on the palm or across the knuckles – the strap, ear pulls, the cane… it wasn’t until 1986 when a ban finally arrived. Not a moment too soon either. I was on the ropes!

Actually I wasn’t but I will fully admit that yes, a young Michael James Devlin was the recipient of a cuff from time to time, but not all of them warranted!

In the year of Our Lord, 2019 it’s bizarre to think that just a few decades ago, teachers could whip or slap their charges, and largely with impunity. Today the offending teacher would be hauled through the courts and their career terminated amidst a hurricane of anti-puffery.

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However, I must also admit that I pondered the wherewithal of corporal punishment this week, following an incident at the homestead that had me scratching my head before reaching for the sally rod that I don’t own. What drove a mild-mannered father to even consider such drastic, violent actions? Of course, it had to be a slight against his food. Beware the anger of a quiet cook!

I’ve a nice wee system going at home, when it comes to food appreciation. It goes thus…

If I’ve tried a new recipe, concocted an original via the store-cupboard’s stockfulness, or even if it’s a staple of Chez Devlin’s finest, I will ask the diners what they think. This query also comes with an ‘outta ten’, whereby the diners give me and the dish corresponding marks. Most of the time, especially when it’s a new dish or wacky concoction, I’ll be happy with my marks – excepting where Anna is involved. Anna’s four, going on malevolent autocrat and just this week she gave me a three outta ten for an excellent chicken and mushroom bake. But with her as the exception, usually the wee system works fine and sure isn’t half the fun seeing the joy on people’s faces when they’re eating something you cooked. Anyway…

Last week, before departing for work on Friday morning, I left a tub of bolognese out of the freezer; I tend to do big batches of stuff like that, which can be defrosted and consumed via a short heating for handiness.

That evening, Sarah, who is nine, came in from school and asked what was for dinner. I duly informed her that it would be spaghetti bolognese. “I had that for lunch today, daddy.” she supplied. “Well, you’re having it again,” I confirmed and all was well – or so I thought.

Personally, I absolutely relished my own bowl of spaghetti with a rich, unctuous, tomato ragu, resplendent with tender steak mince, basil, oregano, a dash of red wine and beef stock. It was also blanketed in a blizzard of freshly grated parmesan and yet more ripped basil on top. I clean my plate and hoped one of the little humans might favour me with left-overs.

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As per usual, I enquired as to their appreciation of the dish. The Malevolent Autocrat awarded me a one outta ten, or a similar diminished mark, although she did admit, after sucking a long strand of pasta through pursed lips surrounded in red, that she loved it. For her part, the eldest acclaimed with a show of every digit, that it was worthy of a full ten.

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“YEEEEEAAAAAAAOOOOoooooow!” I cried in triumph, or at least my inner voice crowed as such.

Then, almost as an afterthought, I enquired or rather stated, “I bet it was better than today’s spag bol at school.”

In fairness to her, Sarah isn’t very good at telling lies nor is her countenance. And so the look on her face was enough to tell me all I needed to know, to wit, that she favoured the school’s version of the anglicised Italian dish more than mine. Somehow, as the world shifted on its axis, I managed not to faint.

I was blindsided. I couldn’t believe it. It was like I’d been stung in the guts by a bee the size of an elephant. I needed a lie down. I needed counselling. I needed juice and a snack.

“Wha…” was about as much as I could manage.

Somehow again, the world righted itself and my blood pressure returned to normal but I still couldn’t believe it.

I’ve been making spaghetti bolognese for years and though I’ve been through various versions, I can now make my current and all-time favourite ragu with my eyes closed. In practical terms, it’s the culmination of years of experimentation: It’s honed, not cloned. Nor was my mortification associated with the better version being a school dinner. Prior to this shock to the system, I had assumed I could give Gordon Ramsey a run for his money when it came to spag bol.

Understandably perhaps, all Herself could do was laugh at my indignation whilst Sarah managed to look both sheepish and cheeky – no easy feat. It wasn’t that she didn’t like my spaghetti bolognese – she was at pains to insist – but her school’s was marginally – “a wee bit” – better.

Briefly considering either corporal punishment or an excommunication from the Church of Devlin Gastronomic Appreciation, I realised I must discover what element eluded my dish.

As you can also imagine though, Sarah quickly sickened of my barrage of enquiries as to what was different and thus better about the school version.

The best I could discern was that mine was too tomato-y.

I also briefly considered ringing the school and enquiring as to the recipe.

And, the huff upon me like a halo of dirt, I considered never making spaghetti bolognese ever again.

In conclusion, as the dust continues to settle around my feet, like black tickertape from a parade of shame through the scorched remnants of a once vibrant metropolis (too dramatic?), I have made a resolution…

I will make the Best Spaghetti Bolognese Available to Mankind.

Probably next week.

Or the week after.

• I’m open for suggestions, folks. If you’ve a killer recipe, drop me an email (m.devlin@ulsterherald.com) and if I cook it and it’s magical, you’ll get an appreciative mention in a forthcoming Taste Scene.

As the dust continues to settle around my feet, like black tickertape from a parade of shame, through the scorched remnants of a once vibrant metropolis (too dramatic?), I have made a resolution…

It’s good but it’s not right… My bolognese which, surprisingly, isn’t the best bolognese available to mankind.

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