The perfect bolognese: official recipe, history & tradition

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It’s the most famous sauce in the world to serve pasta, taken from the Italian tradition and used by chefs and home cooking in every part of the globe. In Italy it’s called “Ragù”, but in the rest of the world we all refer to it as “Bolognese”, with several alternative recipes which are to be considered incorrect. Even in Italy there are several regional versions, and the expert don’t totally refuse the existence of completely legitimate regional alternatives. What we will try to do in this article is to tell the story of how the recipe evolved until today and then describe the recipe and the procedure considered to be the most correct.

The history

Although somebody dates back the origin of bolognese sauce even to the ancient Romans, it is unquestionable to say that it comes from the French “ragout”, which etymologically means “to awaken” (the appetite). However, the French ragout was more similar to the modern stew, which was obtained by long cooking a main element (like meat) together with vegetables, in a broth or in wine.

Using a similar recipe to season pasta is a subsequent achievement, consolidated after pasta began to become more and more protagonist of Italian cookbooks. It is said that the first to try the experiment was the cook of Louis XIV of France, awho came from Bologna: he used ragout sauce to season pasta, but he excluded the meat, which was still served separately. According to the in-depth story told by the Italian food authority Il Gambero Rosso, the same thing happened in the first versions that appeared in Italian cookbooks in the late eighteenth century: bolognese sauce was still a meat dish that did not meet pasta. Even the first versions of “maccheroni alla napoletana” (Neapolitan macaroni) , always from the late eighteenth century, used the sauce obtained by cooking meat to season pasta, but there was no meat in that plate. In Puccini’s Bohéme, the opera written in the late nineteenth century, “ragù” was simply a meat dish.

Throughout the nineteenth century, however, pasta recipes seasoned with sauces and meat began to spread. These recipes did not always use the term “ragù”, precisely because that commonly identified a dish without pasta. At the same time, tomato sauce started to be progressively more present, turning the sauce into red, similar to the one cooked today. At the turn of the twentieth centuries, Bologna became the capital of bolognese tradition, with a number of cookbooks that will increasingly define the recipe. Recipe that, however, will continue to evolve until recent times, with the presence or absence of different vegetables, mushrooms, truffles or milk.

The official recipe

In October 1982 the Italian Academy of Food deposited the sauce recipe at the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna, in order to keep a single traditional version against the different regional variations of Italy. The recipe obviously refers to Bologna tradition and corresponds to the one you find below.

Ingredients:

  • Ground beef (300 gr.): Although there are many recipes that use pork, the Bolognese tradition prefer to use only beef.
  • Bacon (150 gr.): the presence of bacon (“pancetta” in italian) is one of the peculiarities of the Bolognese recipe.
  • Carrots (50 gr.), Celery (50 gr.), White onion (30 gr.): cut into little cubes and fried in olive oil, the basis of many Italian recipes.
  • Tomato sauce (5 tablespoons): unlike the regional versions of the rest of Italy, Bologna tradition has a strictly limited tomato component.
  • Broth (in small quantities), which will serve to adjust the sauce during cooking
  • White wine (half a glass)
  • Milk (one glass): historically milk was used to sweeten the taste of lower quality meats that were used in home recipes, but it’s still present in small quantities in the established recipe.

Preparation:

Put the bacon, the carrots, the celery and the onions in a pan, all cut into small cubes, with oil (usually 3 tablespoons) or with 50 gr. of butter and gently sauté the whole. Then add the ground beef and stir until the mix sizzles. At that point, blend with the white wine, add the tomato sauce with a little broth and let it cook for a long time: with the use of good quality meat, two hours are enough to let the meat release its flavors into the sauce. Adjust with salt and pepper while cooking and add the milk progressively, to avoid the mix to get dry.

Once ready, the bolognese is used to season pasta. In the consolidated recipe the ideal bride is egg tagliatelle, which will be cooked in water. Then bolognese will be tossed into the pasta, blending gently the flavours in the pan for some minutes more, and finally pasta can be served on a plate, generously sprinkling Parmesan on top. Enjoy!

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