“Translating from one language to another…is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, for although the figures are visible, they are covered by threads that obscure them”

Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote

It is suggested that with any popular food, familiarity breeds contempt, but were that to be true we surely wouldn’t be approaching the 40,000 Maccy D’s outlets spreading across the surface of our planet. Even serious skin complaints rarely manage such widespread virulence.

But familiarity can spawn other culinary travesties. I have written elsewhere that when we turn our gaze to Spaghetti Bolognese, Chicken Tikka Masala or the besprinkling of pineapple chunks on ‘tropical’ Pizzas, we, as a predominately single-language nation, seem to lose an awful lot in translation.

Lasagna al sugo began its journey in Emilia-Romagna and includes three distinct elements – pasta, béchamel and sauce (sugo). It is not, as one notable UK restaurant chain appears to maintain – a rather glutinous shepherd’s pie with mashed potato replaced by limp pasta, the whole travesty granted an Italian accent on the menu – although they are by no means the first to mutilate authenticity when it comes to Lasagne.

This dish articulates a holy trinity of ingredients and none should be compromised. Leaves of Lasagna, considered to be the basis of all pasta, did not include eggs until the Italian Renaissance was up and running, although its’ simpler origins are distinctly Greek in origin. The Béchamel is part dowry from Catherine de Médici after her marriage to Henry II of France. Imported, along with other Italian delights after finding the food of his court seriously wanting. And Tomatoes, for an authentic Sugo, had to wait until the end of the 17th century for salad hungry conquistadors to return from their unceremonious colonisation of South America.

Not new then this fusion cooking?

But all elements need fine ingredients and the final arrangement much care. As with all pasta dishes please source the very best you can as so many cheap pastas tend to slither rather than blossom when introduced to simmering water.

For our family it has long been a ‘gathering’ meal as without a critical mass my culinary impetus for Lasagne is less than wholehearted. And frankly, it’s hugely impractical to make Lasagne for two, and nigh on impossible for one. So to celebrate our eldest daughter’s significant birthday, along with attendant grandchildren, we made up a family of five for supper. With Tom and Alfie wolfing down the portions, there was still enough left from the recipe here to feed us all over again.

Lasagne with Meat Sauce [Lasagne al Sugo] from the Food of Italy (2014) Claudia Roden

For meat sauce (see Spag Bol under Beef)

For the béchamel sauce

75 g unsalted butter

75 g plain flour

750 ml whole milk heated to just below boling point


Freshly grated nutmeg

About 250 g dry lasagna sheets

50 g grated Parmesan

250 g mozzarella, torn into small pieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

25 g butter

Make the ragù meat sauce

For the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat, add flour and stir vigorously for 2 minutes

Then very gradually add the milk, a little at a time, stirring constantly so that lumps do not form

Add salt, nutmeg and simmer for 5-10 minutes until the sauce thickens a little

Spread the meat sauce in a thin layer at the bottom of a baking dish, smear with 2-3 tablespoons of béchamel and sprinkle with Parmesan

Arrange a layer of pasta sheets on top, trimming some to fit, then spread a layer of meat sauce and a little béchamel, dot with pieces of mozzarella and sprinkle with salt and Parmesan

Repeat with a second layer of pasta, meat sauce, a little béchamel, the remaining mozzarella, and Parmesan

Finish with a third layer of pasta covered with béchamel and dotted with butter

Bake in the oven at 180°C/160°C fan/gas 4 for 30 – 40 minutes until lightly browned

Serve very hot

Wine thoughts

From the region of Abruzzo in central Italy comes a juicy, supple quaffing wine – Montepulcinao d’Abruzzo. Simple, friendly, uncomplicated and excellent value; even at the top end of its price range. If you’re travelling that way, the same grape can be found in nearby Marches as Rosso Conero, and because of its limited popularity, even better value.