To write on spag bol is to wade into a mire of controversy thicker and darker than any ragu that ever came out of nonna’s kitchen. People feel very strongly indeed about what is, basically, a meat sauce of no more particular merit than, say, a shepherd’s pie, or a chilli, to the extent that a group of Italian chefs organised a worldwide day of action to promote the “authentic” recipe, as laid down by the Academia Italiana della Cucina back in 1982.
The event was billed as a protest against the “improbable concoctions” served under the name around the globe, with a spokesman decrying the “remarkable variety of ingredients” that defiled his beloved bolognese – including cream. That’s cream, as used by the well-respected Italian cookery teacher and writer Ursula Ferrigno, and the rather less Italian, but pretty reliable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
The fact is that there is no definitive recipe for a bolognese meat sauce, but to be worthy of the name, it should respect the traditions of the area. There’s nothing wrong with a tomato-based beef ragu, rich with garlic and olive oil, except that it’s not what, traditionally at least, they’d eat in Emilia Romagna, which is dairy country. As for serving such a hearty meat sauce with delicate spaghetti – well, that is wrong. But it still tastes pretty good.
The classic Italian cookery bible, The Silver Spoon, gives a ragu alla bolognese in its most basic form: minced steak, onion, celery, carrot and tomato purée, cooked for an hour and a half with a little water to keep it moist. The end result is tasty enough, but doesn’t deliver the richness of flavour I’d expect from a real Italian meat sauce, as opposed to something from a British school canteen. The recipe hints it can be adapted for use with “mixed meats”, so I go on the hunt for something a little more interesting.
Offally good or extra porky?
Elizabeth David’s recipe, which she begged from one “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”, features minced beef, chicken livers and chopped bacon or uncooked ham, in addition to the usual vegetables, plus white wine, stock, tomato purée and nutmeg. The liver gives the sauce more depth, although it’s slightly overpowering in this quantity, and I like the slight salty smokiness that the bacon imparts, although I suspect that Zia Nerina would have used cured ham instead. Much better.
Ursula Ferrigno also uses bacon, in the form of pancetta, but, interestingly, the minced meat in her recipe is half beef, half pork. Too porky, according to my flatmate: “you can hardly taste the beef at all”.
‘ey up chuck?
Marcella Hazan, the queen of Italian home cookery across the pond, calls for “ground beef chuck” in her bolognese recipe. Having far preferred the texture of hand-minced meat in my shepherd’s pie, I decide to experiment with this one too; the sauce cooks for over three hours, which should be more than enough time for the slightly larger chunks of meat to soften nicely. It doesn’t work as well here though; the very chewiness which worked so well with the soft mash is all wrong with pasta, so it’s back, with some relief, to the ready-minced stuff.
The other key area of debate is the addition of dairy products, which feature heavily in the cuisine of the area, and, according to Marcella Hazan, whose recipe simmers the milk away to nothing before adding the wine, help to protect the meat against the acidic “bite” of the alcohol. Although the flavour is barely detectable in the finished sauce, some three hours later, the milk does add a definite sweetness which works well with the bright, fresh flavour of the white wine it accompanies. I also experiment with adding a generous dollop of double cream at the end of cooking, as Ursula Ferrigno does, but this seems to make it into quite another sauce altogether; delicious (when is cream ever not?) but overpoweringly rich, rather than meaty.
Red or white?
With the exception of the Silver Spoon, all of the recipes I try use wine – but Giorgio Locatelli is the only chef to call for red, the colour I’d generally associate with meaty ragus. His recipe is also the most tomatoey, demanding a litre of passata, and a tablespoon of purée, as well as a whole bottle of red, for 2kg minced beef. It definitely looks the part: much darker than the other recipes, and far richer and more savoury in flavour, it’s far more what I would expect a bolognese to be, yet, with old Giorgio hailing from Lombardy, some 300 miles from Bologna, I’m beginning to doubt his expertise on this particular subject, however delicious his sauce.
Hazan’s recipe calls for the sauce to cooked for “3 hours, or more”. More, according to those discussing it online, is better, as generally seems to be the way with things you might just fancy for a weeknight supper. Heston Blumenthal, of course, takes this to a whole new level, by adapting her recipe so it cooks in a very low oven (110C) for “at least six hours”. (The oven is apparently more reliable and easier than the hob.) He also adds a “totally unconventional ingredient” in the form of star anise, which apparently enhances the flavour of the meat, without being discernible in the finished dish. Despite rendering me housebound for the best part of a day, I have to admit the results are incredible; tender, rich, and meaty, without any red wine or beef stock, it’s almost worth staying in for. I can definitely taste the star anise though.
There is no such thing as an “authentic” ragu alla bolognese, but to stay true to the spirit of the dish, white wine, meat and milk, rather than tomatoes or Chianti, should be the key flavours. Cook long and slow, freeze any extra for weeknight suppers, and serve with anything but spaghetti.
The perfect bolognese
Generous knob of butter
100g smoked streaky bacon, finely diced
1 onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
250g coarsely minced beef, at room temperature
40g chicken liver, finely chopped
150ml whole milk
Nutmeg, to grate
150ml dry white wine
400ml tin plum tomatoes
1. Melt the butter in a large flameproof casserole set over a gentle heat, and then add the bacon. Once the bacon fat has started to melt, add the onion, and cook gently until softened, then tip in the carrot, and cook for 5 minutes before adding the celery and cooking for a further 2 minutes.
2. Crumble the beef into the pan and brown, stirring occasionally to break up any lumps. Season, then stir in the liver, and let it cook for another 5 minutes.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 125C. Pour in the milk, and grate a little nutmeg over the top. Simmer gently until almost all the milk has evaporated, which should take about half an hour.
4. Pour in the wine and the tomatoes and stir well. Put the casserole into the oven, with the lid slightly ajar, and cook for at least 3 hours (4 is even better) until the meat is very tender. Check on it occasionally, and top up with a little water if it seems too dry, although this probably won’t be necessary. Serve with pasta or gnocchi, and grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese.
Is there any such thing as an “authentic” bolognese recipe? Does it get too much press: are there better meat ragus out there? With spaghetti off the menu, what’s the best pasta to serve it with? And has anyone tried it, Elizabeth David-style, with the unlaid eggs of a slaughtered hen?