Chef Antonio Carluccio was adamant, “when you think Italy, you start to put oregano, basil, parsley, garlic, which is not at all [right].” This was not the way to make a Bolognese sauce.
Of course, step into any Italian restaurant be it in the UK or across Europe, and the menu will have its own version. From Chester to Munich, Leeds to Seville, Italian cuisine is one of the most favoured and most adapted across the world. Some, like Carluccio, would call interpretations, bastardisations. They’re not wrong.
World famous chef and culinary visionary, Massimo Bottura claimed “there are some crazy versions” whilst Alfredo Tomasselli, chef extraordinaire said, “the versions in England have nothing to do with the original.”
They wouldn’t be wrong. When threatened with a visit to an Italian restaurant in the UK, most Italians will respond with, “are the chefs Italian taught?” Yes, because if their own mamma can’t make the dish the next best thing is someone who has been taught to cook properly, in the real Italian way.
As a family kitchen company, as an Italian family kitchen company we have been probed over the years as to what goes into a great ragu. Of course Bolognese is from the wonderful region of Emilia Romagna and well, we’re proud Southern Italians so our variety is a little different and rich with tomatoes which isn’t as common in the north. We do however keep at the heart of the ragu, note, ragu, some of the key elements of the dish from the heartland of Italian epicurean delight.
In an ode to Felicity Cloake, here is our foolproof guide to a fabulous ragu, why not be inspired in the kitchen this weekend and try out this wonderful sauce!
If you use just one cut of meat, you are in trouble. This is because the Italian versions of the area treated ragu as the off cuts of meat from the week; it was never meant as a stand alone dish, only since the 60s and 70s has the dish been a staple of the Italian Sunday lunch and since the 80s here in the UK.
The combination must be a mixture of beef and lamb or beef and pork. If you’re not big on beef, then we have tried venison mince to other great effect but it is richer and does have a stronger flavour so be aware. If you’re using lamb or pork in your mixture, go for a high fat content variety and go lean on your beef. Not only does the fat render and flavour the sauce it also stops the vegetables overcooking in the acids released from tomatoes.
There are many interpretations where you see a few different elements being added when it comes to the meat content; pancetta is suitable here and if you can get your hands on it, guanciale, but you don’t need a lot, it’s there to flavour the sauce; especially on a slow cook as it will inevitably break down in the ragu/bolognese.
This is where you need to create something called a “soffritto.” [soh-free-toh] The Guardian perfectly describes the soffritto as “vegetables – carrots, onion and celery, painstakingly diced and slow-cooked.” It’s the painstakingly diced that is the key to any great soffritto.
You need the veg to cook equally and that’s where equal size of veg is required. Note, there is no garlic; Carluccio was right, there is just no need.
OK, the sauce is two parts. We’ve seen people over the years add tomato ketchup, that would be like Leonardo Da Vinci painting with felt tips. We’ve seen people drown the sauce in red wine, white wine, even brandy. That would be asking Alberto Tomba to ski down a mountain, on one leg, with a blindfold. There has even been instances when Worcestershire sauce being used. That’s as foreign as luxury hot chocolate on a beach in Mauritius.
Most recipes call for white wine, however, we stick with Giorgio Locatelli here, red wine to provide richness; white wine only if your tomato content is less and you were to be traditional by adding milk the mince before the tomatoes are added.
Plum tomatoes are best for a sauce, it’s the first stage of tomato production and we like to use a jar of passata which provides not only volume but also plenty of flavour.
Our Recipe for 4 – 6 people
100g smoked pancetta/guanciale
1 onion, finely diced
1 carrot, finely diced
2 sticks celery, finely diced
175g lean minced beef
150g 20% fat lamb mince
150ml barolo wine
400ml tin plum tomatoes
½ jar of passata sauce
Seasoning to taste
Good olive oil
1) Heat olive oil in a large pan over a gentle heat, and then add the pancetta/guanciale. Once the fat has started to melt, add the onion, and cook gently until softened, then tip in the carrot, and cook for a few minutes before adding the celery and cooking for a further 2 minutes. The vegetables should appear translucent.
2) Break the meat mixture into the pan and brown, stirring occasionally to break up any lumps. Season, let it cook for 5 minutes until the liquid from the meat evaporates.
3) Pour in the wine, the plum tomatoes and passata and stir well. Check on it occasionally, and top up with a little water if it seems too dry. Place a lid on the sauce and keep on a very low heat on your stove for up to 4 hours.
4) Serve with fresh pasta, dry spaghetti or even gnocchi. Grate Parmesan or pecorino cheese and enjoy!