The pattern of the legendary often national or regional dish vs the native reality really fascinates me. It’s like this Croatian-Canadian colleague I had years ago who described how at weddings in Canada the Croats had this “oompa” music with accordians and fiddlers (similar to gypsy music) because, having emigrated things had remained frozen in time, circa 1930. When she returned home to Zagreb for the first time she was shocked to find that most young people were dripping with designer gear, attending pilates classes, and listening to techno etc. and cringing at what she thought was local music. The same can happen with food, in a form of suspended animation – or sometimes in the form of gradual but irreversible gastronomic Chinese Whispers. When I watch the Sopranos, I definitely don’t think their food is in any way authentically Italian. My dad winces at the word “gravy” taking it literally – to him it signifies death-juice, not food! When I go the to US, I avoid Italian restaurants like the plague because it makes me seethe with frustration and indignation at how most are way off the mark. This is not just true of Italian cooking apparently – there are several dishes that are ultra popular in their adoptive countries that either simply don’t exist in or don’t at all resemble any of those in their country of origin. Indian cuisine has a few of these (hardly surprising in view of the breadth of their cuisine, the size of population and the extent of their world migration). One is the Balti (which apparently means “bucket”, and was supposedly a joke of the immigrant on the native UK patron) another is the Vindaloo, apparently fabricated to scratch the itch so-to-speak of the macho male customers who wanted to prove how big their balls were by imbibing the hottest food imaginable during the beer-athon at the local curry house. Lastly and literally, since we’re talking Chinese Whispers, there’s also General Tso’s Chicken (if you have time, please watch this very entertaining documentary on Netflix about it, it’s really fun).
My main criticism when I am asked by non-italians or reluctant-cooks how to improve their pasta and sauce-cooking technique, is usually that they rush and they don’t allow the ingredients to marry together satisfactorily (see here: “sugo fails”). With few exceptions (eg. seasonal variations) a cursory cooking through is simply not enough. Similarly, certain cuts of meat require long slow cooking in order to be at their best, so with something like a Ragù where you have the trinity of the soffritto AND meat AND tomato… well, you can only benefit from not rushing the cooking time.
Requests for an authentic recipe for Ragù keep coming up. Predictably it’s mainly men who ask me about meat dishes. Is it that they are attracted to the seriously macho task of sourcing, then marinating and caressing their chunk of flesh, a signifier of red-bloodedness perhaps? Or is it the peacock parade of conoisseurship, the serious financial investment of buying a prime rib or more likely, the return of the caveman instinct – primal and gutsy? … Slow and ceremonious cooking, the dazzling “ta-da” of a hunk of meat carried to the table is also an ego kick and suggests gravitas and culinary dedication, discernment if you will; not something to be casually rustled up on a whim. There is an element of the ceremonial with Ragù too. It was often a Sunday dish, made by mamma and served after mass in the way a British family today might serve up a roast dinner. Yet Ragù, for its usually female chef, has a softer, subtler input creating a more rounded, more mellow meat dish. I love it for its Yin and Yang qualities: the marriage of bold, paleo meatiness on the one side and the gentle, subtle, protracted stove-top simmer that is less confrontational. Ragù cooking coaxes out flavour, is a masterclass in tenderness and like a mother who negotiates cannily and with warmth and love, the dish is discreetly allowed to develop into itself. It is both brawn and brains, boldness and inner strength, male and female.
I would liken it in some ways to American southern barbecue for its “low and slow” approach. Just recently my husband and I whisked ourselves away for a romantic little midday meatfest à deux courtesy of Pitt-Cue (the no-bookings joint in Soho that houses just a tiny smattering of tables) for some delicious US style barbecue while we soaked up the hipster/wholesome vibe. Small digression: I even went as far as to buy him the Pitt Cue cookbook and it is really good both in terms of form and content. What American Barbecue (not at all like our UK BBQ) has in common with Ragù, is the need for long, slow cooking which unravels the meat flavours and gives the muscle fibres permission to relax, which all the while are drenched in deep and complex flavours which slowly permeate through the meat. This is something that takes gentle heat and lots of time, charging the dish with a yielding texture yet resonant flavour. A good ragù should also have these qualities, albeit with quite a different and wholly Mediterranean flavour.
In Bologna, the real home of traditional Ragù (capitalised, as opposed to any meat-based sugo which I shall refer to as ragù) it is no less than legendary. It is a pride-worthy regional dish, a labour of love, not a quick fix for a Tuesday night. There is no resemblance to the boiled, gristly, scarlet dissolved-meatball mess that is the fruit of a scant 20 minutes’ bubbling away in a pan, served with sticky own-brand spaghetti (yes, spaghetti!!) and doused in pre-grated vomity Parmesan dust. Excluding the vegetarian contingent I would wager that there is not a UK student that isn’t familiar with that awful description. Having researched this a little what I have found is a general abandonment of Spag-Bol as we grow and become fully-fledged adults. The reality is that NO Italian would eat anything like this. Maybe the only common thread between real Ragù and Bolognese is mince and the merest suggestion of tomato but the details, the proportions, the cooking time of the real thing vs the UK aberration are entirely different: it would be akin to likening the Wimbledon Final with a kids ping-pong game based on the premise that rackets, and balls figure in both games. Thankfully, the trusty if grim “Bolognese” gets put on a metaphorical shelf as we morph from students in to urban sophistcates. Often with the arrival of children I have noted that there tends to be a bit of a gentle back-pedal and we reassess our old “recipe”, and wonder how to “do it right” as it has all the criteria for an ideal family menu option: good for young and old, a one dish meal and keeps well and is often better on the second day. Perhaps this is why many parent-friends lovingly and sheepishly make it and ask for tips sotto voce. As much as we have cut right back on meat in our house, the kids are very carnivorous so about once a month, we make our Ragù which, crucially I must add, is not to be served with spaghetti, but with tagliatelle.
Without further ado, and in the spirit of objectivity of my much cherished “Best Recipe” cook book, I have put two recipes on here. Take your pick. (My own recipe is a hybrid of these made with pork products from the Abruzzo and slightly heavier in tomato than meat in terms of ratio). My friend Helena’s mother-in-law is Bolognese and makes spectacular tortellini, in brodo) and the Zip recipe link is her Ragù recipe. But since Helena has a wonderful company (Yummy Italy) that inducts people in to the culinary traditions and products of the Emilia Romagna region, of which Bologna is the epicentre, and the home of Ragù (and Massimo Bottura), she also recommends the following link which provides the version ratified by the Bologna Delegation of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina itself, back in 1982. Incidentally, if you want a bespoke experience, love and appreciate food, then get in touch with her – Helena’s hooked in to every major artisanal supplier / producer of some of Italy’s best and most lauded products (Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano etc.). Regardless – as with all recipes – there will be someone from Bologna in this case, who will have their own variation and objection I’m sure!
The longer your Ragù cooks, the better it tastes. I would recommend a heat diffuser under the pan to aoid it sticking when you are not around to stir it. It can be cooked for up to 10 hours in fact. Historically people would put it on at night and take it off the stove in the morning. The old ladies say that the 'ragù calls you when it is ready'.
Add salt at the end of cooking when the ragù is cool because it reduces down and concentrates a lot so it could end up too salty if you don't take particular attention. If you make a batch as large as this, you can freeze it in portions to be served with pasta when you need it.
- for the soffritto
- 1 stick celery
- 2 medium carrots
- 2 medium onions
- 5 – 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- for the rest
- 1100g top quality coarsely ground beef
- c. 1 glass white (or red) wine
- 500g minced pork fillet
- c. 1 glass white wine
- 200g Prosciutto crudo (Parma Ham copped in to little chunks)
- 200g double-concentrate tomato paste
- 800g chopped canned tomatoes
- 250ml water
- Chop celery, carrots and onions very finely (known as ‘soffritto’ - see separate blogpost)
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy-based large saucepan and add the ‘soffritto’ with two good pinches of salt so as to avoid the vegetables becoming watery.
- Cook very slowly on a very low heat until the vegetables become creamy (about 20-25 minutes).
- In another large, heavy-based frying pan, place enough beef to cover the base (about a third), add a pinch of salt and fry until lightly browned. Take care that it doesn’t stick.
- Add about a quarter to half glass of wine and fry until the wine evaporates.
- Add the meat to the fried ‘soffritto’ and stir together.
- Continue in the same way for another third of the minced beef, the final third and the minced pork fillet, frying it up separately in batches and adding the wine each time.
- Add each batch of meat to the vegetables in the large pan.
- Once all the meat is in the pan, add the chopped prosciutto, stir in with the rest of the meat.
- Add the tomato paste and stir well.
- Finally, add the chopped canned tomatoes.
- Add a little water to the can to rinse it and add this water to the ragù.
- If the meat and vegetables are very dense, add the 250ml water.
- Now leave to cook on a very, very low heat for a minimum of 6 hours. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes. It can be cooked for up to 10 hours – so often people would put it on at night and take it off the stove in the morning. The old ladies say that the 'ragù calls you when it is ready'.
- Add salt at the end when the ragù is cool. If you make a batch as large as this, you can freeze it in portions to be served with pasta when you need it.