Spag bol has been inducted into everyone’s household hall-of-fame. Sauteed and braised, Bolognese sauce has burrowed into our hearts, onto our plates and all over our lips. Some cook it, others order it. A few play with it, or gleefully slurp it. Families plant it on their clothed table every week and watch the saucy stains ensue.
Bolognese is a type of ragu. Breakdown this ragu and what do you get? A slow-simmered sauce of meat, tomatoes and vegetables, typically served with pasta, rice or polenta. Sounds straightforward right? Well, not quite.
When you see spaghetti on the menu, it’s safe to expect the word 'Bolognese' will follow, so when I travelled to Bologna, the soul behind Bolognese, I was tickled to have all the meaty sauce at my fingertips. I raced through menus in search of a Spaghetti alla Bolognese. It made sense after my nine months of language studies that this would be its name. But my beloved spag Bol was nowhere to be seen. Instead, I was directed to a meaty tagliatelle or lasagne al ragu.
If spaghetti Bolognese roughly means “spaghetti from Bologna” surely there must be a dish of origin? Or have we got it all wrong?
Forget what you think you might know about spaghetti Bolognese– the pasta that brought the romance to Lady and the Tramp – and its partner ragu, which received an official recipe from the Italian Academy of Cuisine. While their marriage is an institution for some, for others the spaghetti and ragu should never cross the same plate. Some things are sacred and for Italians, ragu is one of them.
Some people will argue or disagree with these elements, so we’re going straight to the “sauce” of it all in accordance with the Italian Academy of Cuisine and Destination Bologna.
1. The protein:
Two types of meat are typically used. Chopped beef - diaphragm, shoulder or belly cut - along with bacon.
2. The base:
Paste or peeled, tomatoes start it off. With a touch of olive oil, alongside a little stock, dry white wine (whilst some recipes call on red, the key is dry) and whole milk, the base has begun.
3. A little veg:
Onion, celery and carrot have all made the cut here. And, no garlic, yes, you’ve read this right.
4. Hold the herbs!
Contrary to what many people will think, no, you don’t put herbs in every Italian dish. You heard correctly, basil doesn’t go in everything. Greedy Italian, Antonio Carluccio sparked debate late last year when he took on spaghetti Bolognese and passionately shared his frustration at recipes instructing the use of spaghetti and herbs.
Salt and pepper is the vital point for seasoning and the flavours come from the nurturing of the protein, base and veg only. While this may surprise some, with good produce at hand, the major flavour is absolutely achievable.
5. Served with:
Not spaghetti! Instead, try ribbons of fresh egg pasta (not dried). It should be typically a tagliatelle which is thicker and flatter in type, roughly 7-8 mm. Every pasta has its own sauce and tagliatelle is the recommended choice; a thicker pasta for a thinner-style sauce. And before you throw your hands up in the air in disbelief, there’s even an entire book dedicated to this. Food and wine journalist as well as a Bologna local, Piero Valdiserra reinvigorated debate with his book, Spaghetti alla Bolognese: L’altra Faccia del Tipico (Spaghetti Bolognese: The Other Side of Tradition). Here he delves deep into what has been a lifelong tangle around this pasta and sauce combination, trying to bridge the gap and prove that spaghetti Bolognese does exist and that people shouldn’t disown its existence. If the alternative tastes just as good, we're game.
Lastly, cheese. Of course, you serve it with cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano to be precise, as this is the only Parmesan cheese they use in the region.
With countless versions on offer, good food always dances around availability, regionality and seasonality and so tweaks are inevitable.
While precision, technique and heritage will always remain at the core of those momentous dishes, throwing your own flavour into the ring should be marvelled at. We have all been taught how dishes should be, and warned of the absolutely do not's: pineapple on pizza, fairy floss on top of doughnuts on top of a shake, chicken in desserts, you get the picture. But we're all guilty of breaking the rules.
Sometimes all can be fair with a little love and sauce, but remember to respect the flavours and traditions that others hold close to their chest. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of enjoying a bowl brimming with tagliatelle al ragu on the other side of the world, now would you? Same shirt-splattering experience, just a different name and nobody wants to miss out...
Meaty sauces, like this one, work well with homemade and rolled pastas, as the juices cling to all the crevices. Cavatelli lunghi is a rustic-looking pasta that resembles an indented baguette or elongated orecchiette. If you don't have the time to make cavatelli from scratch, you can use store-bought casarecce or fusilli instead.