References to ‘spaghetti Bolognese’ bring a cry of amused repugnance from Italians – evidence of the-world-outside-Italy’s culinary abyss that a much worse version of a traditional meat sauce can become one of the world’s most well-known dinners. For in Italy there’s no dish called spaghetti Bolognese.
Bologna, the city the sauce is named for, is in the Emilia-Romagna region which is known for its rich and hearty fare. The traditional sauce is ragù alla Bolognese. It is normally served with tagliatelle rather than spaghetti as the thicker noodles hold the heavy sauce better.
While a lot of cooks and eaters are perfectly happy with their versions of spaghetti Bolognese, it has been victim to numerous shortcuts on its journey from ragù: this Tom Parker-Bowles column in the Daily Mail describes just how unappetising the classic student version can be.
Spaghetti was introduced to the United States by enterprising Italian emigrants over the first half of the 20th Century, and because meat was in abundance (and so scarce back in Italy), heavy meat and pasta dishes became the foundations of Italian-American cuisine. As pasta became popular in the English-speaking world from the 1960s onwards, spaghetti Bolognese was promoted by pasta manufacturers as a quick-and-easy dinner rather than the slowly-cooked dish of the Bolognese original.
In a drive for purity, the Italian Academy of Cuisine decreed a recipe for an authentic ragù alla Bolognese sauce in 1982.
And on 17 January 2010 450 chefs in 50 countries around the world produced ragù alla Bolognese on the annual ‘International Day of Italian Cuisine’ – in a campaign to fight back against the ‘aberrations’ often produced in the name of Bolognese. They used this recipe written by chef Mario Caramella.
Even in these two recipes with their high stamps of approval there are variations – the former features beef mince while the latter combines pork and beef minces. Like every recipe everywhere, there are customisations.
But the main difference in authenticity between traditional ragùs and the more familiar spag bol that has been so derided by the Italians is probably one of time.
Important components seem to be a slow-cooked sofrito of diced onions, carrots and celery; carefully browned meat before the liquid is added; and then two-hours plus simmering on the stove.
You can see this is where it went awry. Spaghetti Bolognese became a family dinner staple through the English-speaking world from the 1960s and 70s – just as the time expected and available to prepare a family meal was shrinking. Of course manufacturers and recipe developers would focus on quick-cook recipes. It is almost possible to cook mince and tomatoes together in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta, but you miss the tenderising effects of long-simmering.
Other guidelines are easy on the tomatoes, hold the garlic and no dashes of ‘Italian herbs’ (just a bay leaf will do).
Or just do it your way.
My wild boar ragù
Personally, I was after the gamey flavour of a wild boar ragu that I’d had at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in London. I used a boned rolled shoulder of boar, which I placed on top of chunks of celery, carrot and onion, and roasted on 150 for three hours. I then shredded and chopped the rested meat and vegetables, transferred them to a saucepan and then simmered them with wine and tomato passata for another hour and a half. Then I added some grated orange rind (the horror!) Served with the widest tagliatelle I could find and parmesan.