Once the mainstay of the typical English 60s bachelor party, spaghetti bolognese can still be found on the menu at almost every Italian restaurant in the country.
But now a leading Italian chef says we have been ruining ‘spag bol’ by putting herbs in it. Oh, the shame. And recently chefs have been discussing what sort of pasta is best with ragù, and seem to be leaning away from round spaghetti to flat types of pasta like tagliatelle, to which the sauce sticks better.
The popular Italian gastronome Antonio Carluccio, revealed that when he first came to England in 1975, he was shocked by what was served in so-called Italian restaurants. “There was spaghetti bolognese, which does not exist in Italy. There, it is tagliatelle bolognese … without any herbs whatsoever. When you think of Italian food, you start to put in oregano, basil, parsley, garlic, which is not at all right.”
Travelling in England with family, I looked for one of his Carluccio’s Caffè outlets to see if his version added up to all the acclaim. There was none to be found, although apparently there are more than 80 locations across the country, so I had to settle for the rival ASK Italian. ASK either stands for ‘Authentic Sicilian Kitchen’ or Adam and Samuel Kaye, the founding brothers’ initials, or both, depending on whom you ask. They have 120 locations, and like Carluccio, have been taken over for millions by off-shore investors’ groups. Italian food continues to be a mainstay of Brit cuisine.
On a wet and cold night after a lengthy and celebratory family tea, some of us need comfort food, so we wander over to the local ASK Italian. I spot fetuccine bolognese at once, with the additional useful note that half-portions are available with a side salad for £1.50 less than the listed price. The menu says: “Our hearty beef and pork ragù sauce is served with flat ribbon fettuccine, the way they eat it in Rome. If you prefer, you can choose spaghetti.” I suppose the latter option is for those die-hard Brits who refuse to change, but clearly the flat pasta works better.
Back in the ancient 60s, when I lived the bachelor life in London, cooking up a huge pot of ‘spag bol’ for friends was the best and easiest way to get carbohydrates into them to absorb the huge quantities of rough red ‘plonk’ we were accustomed to downing.
This became one of my first mass catering efforts and eventually the original recipe made its way into my 70s cookbook, How to Eat Well and Stay Single. Fixed in my ways, I’m sure I would have insisted that bolognese went with spaghetti and alfredo went with fettuccine, and never the twain should meet. For those who get confused by the different flat pastas, lasagne is the widest in a sheet, with pappardelle next, then fettuccine, and finally tagliatelle.
Even in those days the debate was stirring, and in 1982 the Bologna Chamber of Commerce asked the Italian Academy of Cooking to come up with an official Bolognese recipe. The simple sauce they wrote into law consisted only of beef, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, white wine and milk.
Bolognese sauce is a ragù and should have a mirepoix as a base. Ragù is derived from the French ragoût, with very similar ingredients. A mirepoix in French cuisine is chopped vegetables, usually a mixture of onions, carrots, and celery. The traditional ratio is two parts onions, one part carrots, and one part celery. It is named after Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix (1699–1757), the nob employer of the cook credited with creating it.
The Italian version of mirepoix is called soffritto, which means ‘underfried’ and describes a preparation of lightly browned chopped vegetables, not a dish by itself. Hence, soffritto is a simple combination of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery, slowly and gently cooked in a little butter or extra virgin olive oil until softened, when all the brilliant flavours are released.
Here’s my original recipe, and you can of course choose the pasta you like best, as I no longer insist on spaghetti! Cooking it up for this article, I taste the sauce after it has sat cooling overnight. Delicious!
by Nigel Napier-Andrews, How to Eat Well and Stay Single, page 133 © 1974
- 1/4 lb (125 g) fresh pasta per person / 1 lb (450 ) for 4 people (OR 375 g packet of dry whole grain spaghetti)
- 1 lb (450g) ground beef
- 1/2 lb (225 g) ground pork (OR pork sausage meat)
- 1 large onion
- 1 large carrot
- 1 stick celery
- 1 green pepper
- 1/4 lb (125 g) crimini (brown) mushrooms
- 2 cloves garlic
- 28 oz / 796 ml can peeled tomatoes (OR about 8 fresh plum tomatoes, skinned and cored)
- 5 1/2 oz / 156 ml can tomato purée
- 1 cup beef stock
- 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper (OR whole black peppercorns)
- 1 tsp dried oregano (OR 1 TBSP fresh chopped oregano)
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 TBSP extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1 tsp butter
- Chopped parsley
- Grated Parmesan cheese
- Coarse ground black pepper
Preparation and cooking
- Fry the ground beef and pork in hot oil until well separated and lightly browned. Drain the fat and oil ito a cup and dump the meat into a large saucepan with a heavy bottom.
- Peel and chop the onion, carrot and celery and fry lightly in a little oil until transparent and tender. Add the chopped green pepper and fry until softened. Add to the pot.
- Wash the mushrooms, trim the dried ends off the stalks and slice them into very thin cross-sections. Add to the pot. Chop two cloves of garlic very finely and add to the pot .
- Finally, add the can of tomatoes and stir everything together. (If you are using fresh plum tomatoes, dip them in boiling water to make the skin come off easily, then take out the core, chop them roughly and simmer in a pan for a few minutes to get the juices out. Add to the pot. ) Set over a very low heat to simmer.
- In a mixing bowl, blend together a can of tomato paste, red wine, beef stock, crushed red pepper or whole black peppercorns (I prefer the latter which give a delicious crunch and burst of heat when eating the dish), oregano and salt. After 30 mins, add to the pot and stir in thoroughly.
- Simmer on a low heat, covered for one hour and uncovered for a further hour, stirring occasionally to prevent the ingredients from separating or sticking to the bottom. Serve at once, or simmer on a very low heat for another half hour, or cool and store in the fridge for the next day, which blends the flavours together even better. To reheat, add a little stock or water, and bring to a simmer over very low heat, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, about half and hour before being ready to serve, bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add a tsp of olive oil and 1 tsp salt per 1 lb of pasta.
- When the water is boiling furiously, add the pasta a little at a time, so the water continues to boil. If you are using dried pasta such as spaghetti, it will probably be too long for the pot. Hold the pasta with the ends in the water and push them slowly under the surface as they soften. Once all the pasta is in the water, stir it around to distribute it evenly, and stir from time to time to prevent it sticking.
- After seven minutes, test the pasta by lifting one strand out of the water. Chew it. It should be al dente, literally ‘to the teeth’ which means it should be just chewy and still have a slightly nutty flavour. If is still seems too chewy, continue cooking for a maximum 11 minutes. If you cook it too long it will get mushy.
- Bring another pan or kettle to the boil. When the pasta is ready, drain it into a colander and pour the boiling water over it to wash off any excess paste. Return the pasta to the pot and swish around with a little butter until it is glistening. Serve immediately.
- Put the pasta in one bowl, and the sauce in another, garnished with chopped parsley, and pass around the table, with a bowl of grated Parmesan cheese and a black pepper grinder.
Wine: I claim I can’t make a good sauce unless I have a glass of wine of wine beside me (I wrote in my 1974 book). Anyway, it’s a good story and I usually tip some of it into the sauce just for the heck of it. To drink with the meal you can’t go wrong with a rich red Italian wine, either a Valpolicella or the slightly sharper Chianti.
Here’s another version, with just a hint of tomato and no herbs or garlic, according to Carluccio, a more authentic taste.
TAGLIATELLE AL RAGÙ BOLOGNESE
- 500g / 1 lb fresh tagliatelle pasta
- 60 g / 2 oz grated Parmesan cheese
- 55 g / 1.75 oz unsalted butter or virgin olive oil
- 55 g / 1.75 oz ground or finely chopped prosciutto fat or pancetta
- 1 large onion chopped
- 1 large carrot chopped
- 1 celery stalk chopped
- 100 g / 3.5 oz lean ground beef
- 100 g / 3.5 oz ground pork
- 1/2 cup dry red wine
- 1 cup beef stock
- 3 TBSP tomato paste
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley to garnish
Preparation and cooking
- Start the ragù by preparing the soffritto. Heat the butter (or olive oil if you prefer) in a large heavy saucepan. Add the finely chopped prosciutto fat and when it has rendered down a bit, add the finely chopped carrot, celery and onion. Simmer gently until softened, about 10 mins.
- Add the ground meat mixture and stir well until completely browned.
- Add the wine and bubble off the alcohol. Now add half the stock, mix in well. Add the tomato paste, mix in well. Add the remaining stock.
- Simmer at very low heat, stirring occasionally to ensure it doesn’t stick or burn, for about 1 1/2 hours. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
- Now prepare the pasta in boiling salted water until cooked al dente. Drain and mix with the ragù until the pasta is well covered.
- Serve in deep plates or wide bowls. Garnish with chopped parsley. Top with grated Parmesan and ground black pepper to each guest’s preference.
NOTE: The plates are antique Spode Blue Italian, which seemed an appropriate platform on which to serve this quintessentially Italian dish.
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