Christopher Hirst: The sauce of all the nation's ills

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You'll know the name but possibly not the face on the latest celebrity brand of pasta sauce to hit the supermarket shelves. The name is Lawrence Dallagio, famous for his activities on and off the rugby pitch. What he is not famous for is culinary activities.

His statements that "I have a passion for good food" and "I was always the one who was handed the menu in restaurants when we went out as a team" do not constitute significant qualifications for making commercial pasta sauce. That's why his father, Vincent Dallagio, who has a background in hotels and catering, came up with the recipes for the new pasta range. It's Dallagio Snr that appears on the label.

Not that Vincent actually makes the sauce sold under the Dallaglio brand. It is made by the food giant Sacia, best known in this country for a brand of pesto. But at least it is an Italian company. The Loyd Grossman range, which dominates the £80m UK celebrity sauce market, is made by the Chivers-Hartley subsidiary of Premier Foods, based in St Albans, Hertfordshire, some small distance from the Italian peninsula.

Not that provenance is of great importance since celebrity pasta sauce, whether endorsed by a retired rugby player (Dallagio), a passé TV celeb (Loyd Grossman) or a deceased Hollywood star (Paul Newman), is always going to be expensive and ersatz compared to the homemade version.

It is an indication of Britain's culinary laziness and pervading lack of confidence that celebrity pasta sauces exist at all. Homemade pasta sauce is not only easy to make, it is also hugely pleasurable. The only thing you need is time and not even a very great deal of that. I can think of no more enjoyable way to unwind at the end of a hectic day than the unhurried production of puttanesca sauce, in my view the finest of all pasta additions.

Yes, Loyd Grossman's puttanesca sauce will be ready in three minutes rather than an hour, but it doesn't contain capers, generally regarded as an essential element, and his label prissily omits any explanation of the interesting name. Puttana means prostitute. Puttanesca was a sauce made by working girls to keep themselves warm on the streets of Naples.

You make it in a large saucepan. To feed two (very generously), finely chop a clove of garlic and gently fry in the olive oil poured from a can of anchovies. When the garlic has softened, add the chopped anchovies and fry until dissolved. Then add two dozen black olives, a dessert spoon of capers (Hello, Loyd!) and warm through. Finally, add two cans of plum tomatoes plus a quarter teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a further splash of olive oil. Stir well and bring to the simmer. Cook over a very low heat, stirring occasionally, for an hour or so while taking onboard a glass or two of Chianti.

By the time the sauce is ready, you'll find that the world has become a warmer, more genial place and you are in the right mood to enjoy a supper that is incomparably better tasting and more generous than anything that comes out of a bottle. Cook 250gms pasta, stir in the puttanesca sauce and serve. I guarantee that the result will make you a celebrity in your own kitchen.

chris@hirstnet.com

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