On the hunt for the definitive Ragùalla Bolognese

by Mary Bailey

People come to Bologna to study at the oldest university in Europe, to revisit history, to catch a train to the south. But, mainly they come to Bologna to eat. It is the supreme food town, in a region of Italy, Emilia Romagna, that is chock-a-block with food towns.

Small shops throughout the medieval core of the city display exquisite pasta — tortellini smaller than your thumb; large tortelloni as big as a child’s fist; various sizes of tagliatelle — all with their own name; curly shapes, straight shapes, nests; all a rich yellow due to their high egg content. This is the land of egg pasta (pasta all’uovo) — the more eggs, the richer and more delicious the pasta. It is also the land of cow’s milk cheeses.

Cheese shops feature several types of ricotta under glass, along with soft cheeses, firm cheeses, parmigiana, gorgonzola. Chicken and fowl, pork, beef, horse meat and charcuterie are arranged in window displays in shops dedicated to each. Three fish shops in a row shine with silvery fish, as a guy with a cigarette firmly clenched in his teeth muscles a container of ice over the pristine array. Verdura (vegetables) glisten under the lights; peppers; green, red and black celery; cauliflower; gigantic leeks; tiny bundles of fiery chiles that look like wedding bouquets; kits of ready-chopped vegetables for minestrone and bunches of herbs.

Every few steps and down intriguing alleys are ristorantes, cafés, trattorias, bars, places for a stand-up coffee in the morning, a caffè corretto before noon, a proper lunch, an aperitivo after work, then dinner.

It is a town of many specialties, the delicate tortellini, and the robust Ragùalla Bolognese.

Until my fi rst visit to Bologna, I had not really given the namesake sauce much thought, having experienced too many soupy, spicy, garlicy, more tomato than meat versions. I assumed it was one of those national dishes trotted out for visitors such as the Brits, who have coined the term spagbol for anything resembling pasta and meat sauce.

I was wrong. Ragù alla Bolognese is alive and well and the subject of much discussion. We found Ragùalla Bolognese on every menu and the half dozen or so I tried were, if slightly different, all savoury, rich and tasty.

Historically, ragù was a good way to use up cuts of meat from retired dairy cattle — something thrifty country cooks have been good at for millennia, turning tough pieces of meat into something absolutely delicious.

There are variations of course. Some cooks may use game or pork, add chicken livers, or milk, peeled and chopped tomatoes, or nutmeg. The one constant is the use of equal amounts of celery, carrots and onion chopped fine to build the fl avour base, along with slow cooking and lots of fat — all essential to the method and the final flavours of the dish.

There’s no way around it, Ragù alla Bolognese is a hefty dish. Even in Bologna the portion size is fairly small — a bit of thick ragù crowning tagliatelle noodles. Eat it slowly with a glass of good red wine.

The question is: how to replicate this at home, with our different cuts of meat and different approaches to cooking? Accompanied by a few recipes: one from a Bolognese ristorante; another, the official recipe of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina; and a third by the Bolognese home cooks, the Simili sisters, I spent a day in the kitchen finding out.

I made three ragù: one with hamburger, one with ground elk and the third from sirloin. The rancher who sent the elk said it was from an eight-year old cow. I thought this might best approximate old school ragù. Each ragù was topped with a generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano.

Following the charming recipe from the Ristorante Clavature, I slowly browned equal amounts of finely chopped onion, celery and carrot for about half an hour, then added the elk and diced pancetta in stages. I cooked this until it had changed colour and was quite dry — about half an hour — then added a glass of red wine and about a third of a can of tomato paste. I cooked this slowly on the stove top for about one hour, tasting every 15 minutes or so. With time, the flavours became less individually distinct and more of a whole. The elk had mellowed to a meaty earthiness, perhaps similar to the effect chicken livers would have on the dish.

I followed the same method with the skirt steak, dicing it fine (or grind it if you have a grinder), and no bacon — for research purposes; what would it be like without bacon? More salt and oil was needed. I cooked it longer: for two hours. I added milk and a bit of nutmeg near the end. The result was mellower in flavour and equally tasty.

I followed the official recipe for the hamburger version. The result was good, but not as good as the other two. The texture was chewier, nor did the sauce have the same rich flavours.

My recommendation? Buy an inexpensive cut of meat such as blade, skirt or sirloin butt. Start on a late Sunday morning by chopping, then lazily cooking the trio of onion, celery and carrot in a generous mixture of olive oil and butter. Mince, then add the meat. Cook it slowly, slowly. Drink the wine you opened for the sauce. Stir the sauce occasionally while you make the pasta. Go for a walk while the sauce simmers gently and the tagliatelle dries. Invite some friends over and sit down to another glass of wine and the best ragù you’ve ever made.

Mary Bailey likes Barbera d’Alba with Ragù alla Bolognese.