La dotta, la rossa, la grassa. These are the nicknames given to the city of Bologna by Italians. La dotta (the educated) because it boasts one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. La rossa (the red) because of its distinctive red-brick architecture. And la grassa (the fat)? Because of its amazing food of course!
Bologna is the regional capital of Emilia-Romagna, often referred to as Italy’s larder because of the world-famous food products from the region. From the city of Parma, we get parmigiano reggiano cheese and prosciutto di Parma. From Modena, the exquisite aceto balsamico (balsamic vinegar). And from Bologna itself, mortadella (the original bologna sausage or baloney), tortellini, and of course ragù alla bolognese, (Bolognaise sauce).
In Italy, ragù is never served with spaghetti—except in tourist traps in Rome, Florence, or Venice where the clients expect it—the reason being that spaghetti is from Campania, the region around Naples in the south and ragù is from Bologna in the north. It’s served either with lasagne or with tagliatelle and the latter, cooked well, is my favourite dish of all time.
I was recently in Bologna on a sunny June Sunday with a local who took me for a plate of tagliatelle al ragù at the Osteria dell’Orsa. We started off with crescentini fritti another Bolognese speciality: deep-fried dough made into a cheese and cold meat sandwich. (Deep-fried dough is in danger of becoming a theme on this blog but it’s a common Italian street food in the north and the south. If you want to try it, here’s my recipe for donzelle the Tuscan version.)
It was while I was eating my tagliatelle, cooked more or less in front of you in the open kitchen at dell’Orsa, that I reflected on how different real ragù is from what people are used to outside Italy both in taste and in texture. This is partly due to the ingredients (the authentic recipe uses pork as well as beef mince) and the cooking. Most spaghetti bolognaise recipes call for you to cook the sauce for between 30 and 90 minutes. But in Bologna it will be cooked for about three hours leading to melt-in-the-mouth meat and a rich sauce. Traditionally butter and milk are used in the recipe which make it taste even better. The finished result could be described using two of the nicknames of Bologna: la grassa and la rossa!
My recipe is based on the official recipe lodged by experts from Bologna at the Accademia della Cucina, and my experience watching my aunt cook when I was a teenager. She would start cooking lunch the moment she had cleared away the breakfast things and have a pot of ragù on the go while she cleaned the house. You can cook it either on the hob or in a slow cooker if you don’t want to hang around the house for three hours.
Ragù alla bolognese
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 3 hours
Total time: 3 hours 10 minutes
1 white onion
1 stick of celery
250g beef mince
250g pork mince
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 glass of dry white wine
1/2 glass of beef stock
1/2 glass of milk
- Finely chop the carrot, onion, and celery. Melt the butter in a casserole dish or dutch oven with a dash of olive oil. Lower the heat and fry the vegetables slowly for about 10 minutes.
- Raise the heat slightly and then add the beef and pork mince and the salt. Mix with the vegetables and cook, stirring all the time for about five minutes or until the meat has turned grey.
- Deglaze with the white wine and continue to cook until the wine has evaporated.
- Add the passata, bring it to the boil, cover, lower the heat and then cook for at least two hours. (If you want to, at this point things can be transferred to a slow cooker.)
- Check occasionally and, if the sauce is too dry, add some of the beef stock. However, it should be quite a dry sauce. You should use the stock only to stop it sticking to the bottom of the casserole.
- After two hours, uncover, stir through the milk, adjust salt and pepper if necessary, and then cook for about another half an hour.
- Serve with fresh tagliatelle (cooked to manufacturer’s instructions) or use in a recipe for lasagne.