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Monday, 28 February 2011

British Pasta Sauce v. Italian Ragu alla Bolognese

First up, despite the title, this is not a competition, but a comparison; a little study on how recipes travel and are adopted and adapted far beyond their place of origin. In the drive for authenticity too many cooks over-exert both themselves and their wallets to get the “true” ingredients for their dishes; far better, surely, to sometimes use an equivalent more easily available and local.

I am certainly not arguing that we should never try for authenticity: far from it. There is a real buzz from using authentic ingredients to re-create a dish that we have enjoyed on holiday, seen on television, in a recipe, or in a restaurant of a different kitchen-culture to our own, and there are few better ways to become familiar with ingredients that are exotic or unusual to us. But what about the dishes that are meant to be standard home cooking, that are economical, everyday meals that use common and readily available ingredients to their home culture? We are missing the point if we have to spend a fortune on something that should be a simple family meal.

Recipes, like humans, travel and are influenced by those travels, and we should embrace this. Few Italians would even agree on the “correct” method and recipe for a ragu, other than to say that the only proper way is to follow the version their own mother makes, which is obviously superior to anyone else’s. If we could find a dozen different “authentic” recipes in as many Bolognese kitchens, I can’t see a problem if we make our own version – most Italians would say it’s wrong, whatever we do.

In the search for authenticity, it’s worth bearing in mind that tomatoes, so common now, only made it to Europe a few hundred years ago, and were treated with suspicion even as recently as Victorian times, yet we can hardly conceive of a meat sauce for pasta made without them. So, things change, things move, ideas travel.

Here are two recipes, one for a very typical Bolognese ragu, the other for what I am calling British Pasta Sauce. They are both very good; most cultures, after all, have a tradition of savoury meat sauces, usually making use of the cheaper cuts, or leftovers, chopped and shredded, to be served with a handy carbohydrate, and although Italy is the home of pasta (unless it’s China: another argument) it is no longer the sole owner. The major difference is in the manner of serving: in Italy, much less sauce is served with the pasta than elsewhere. Pasta is cheap, meat is expensive, and it is a meal designed to make a little go a long way.

Sprinkle freshly grated cheese over the top of either version on serving: of course, Parmesan is readily available almost everywhere, and therefore can hardly be classed as an exotic ingredient. Do use the genuine article, though, or try Pecorino or perhaps another good, strong, hard cheese from your part of the world. Never, please, use the vomit-smelling sawdust from the little tubs labelled ready-grated Parmesan.

Not from the UK? Order your Oxo Good Grips Grater from Amazon.com

Ragu alla Bolognese: this is based on a recipe gleaned by Elisabeth David in the 1950’s from Chef/Proprietor Zia Nerina of the Trattoria Nerina in Bolgna, so I would say that it is a pretty authentic example. Much to my surprise, there is no mention of garlic, or any herbs or spices other than nutmeg, salt and pepper: whether this is correct, or just a simple omission, I have let it stand.


8oz/225grams lean minced/ground beef or veal
4oz/110grams chicken livers, chopped
3oz/85gram ham or pancetta, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 small-ish onion, peeled and diced
1 stick celery, de-stringed as much as possible and diced
3 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree
1 wineglass of white wine
2 wineglasses of stock, or plain water
A little butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh grated nutmeg to taste

To serve: freshly cooked pasta, grated Parmesan


Gently brown the ham or bacon in a little butter (I would add a splash of olive oil, to help prevent the butter burning). Add the diced vegetables, and continue to cook until they have taken on colour. Add the beef or veal, and cook, stirring frequently, until it too has browned. Now add the chicken livers, and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato puree, the wine and the water/stock. Season carefully with the salt (the bacon/ham may already be quite salty), pepper and nutmeg. Cover, and leave to simmer gently for 30-40 minutes. Miss David notes that some Italian cooks add a cup of milk or cream towards the end of the cooking, which makes the dish smoother. She also mentions the addition of ovarine, which are the unlaid eggs found inside the hen. I would imagine that these would be rather difficult to source unless you keep and slaughter your own chickens; I have never tried them.

Thoroughly mix the sauce with the pasta in a warmed bowl, then transfer to serving plates. Hand the grated cheese to be sprinkled on top to taste.

British Pasta Sauce: this recipe is mine, which has evolved over many years. It is not quite engraved in stone, and I often make slight variations, depending on my mood and what is available in the shops. Like most Guerilla Griller recipes, please feel free to use this as a springboard for your own ideas and variations.

8oz/225gram lean minced/ground beef
3-4 rashers of unsmoked fatty bacon, diced
1 small to medium onion, peeled and diced fine
1 carrot, peeled and diced fine
1 stick celery, de-stringed and diced fine
4oz/110gram mushrooms, wiped and sliced fairly thinly
1 red sweet bell pepper, finely diced
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely diced or sliced
lb/400gram tinned chopped plum tomatoes, unless you have some very ripe, very flavourful fresh tomatoes available, in which case, of course, use them – skin them before chopping and remove any really tough core
2-3 tablespoons of concentrated tomato puree
1 large wineglass of red wine
Half wineglass of full-cream milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram or oregano (or, if you really must, a good couple of pinches of dried herbs)
2 bay leaves
A handful (yes, a handful – it cooks down to almost nothing) of torn/shredded fresh basil – if you don’t have fresh, leave out: don’t use dried
Salt and pepper to taste

A little olive oil for cooking

You may also need: a pinch or two of sugar, and/or a squeeze or two of tomato ketchup/catsup if the tomatoes are acidic or not particularly sweet – taste the sauce before adding

To serve: freshly cooked pasta, grated cheese


Gently cook the bacon, in a little olive oil if necessary, until it begins to brown and give off its fat. Remove the with a slotted spoon and reserve. Brown the beef in the bacon fat, in batches if necessary, until it is nicely coloured – use two forks as you cook to help separate the mince into grains; you don’t want lumps or chunks here. Using the slotted spoon again, remove the beef and reserve with the bacon. Tip off any excess fat from the pan, and gently soften all the vegetables except the garlic. When the vegetables are almost done, and any liquid given off by the mushrooms is cooked away, add the garlic, and allow it to take on a little colour – don’t let it burn. Return the meats to the pan, and add the tomatoes, tomato puree, milk, salt and pepper and the herbs except the basil. Stir thoroughly and simmer gently for at least twenty minutes, then taste to see if you need to add the sugar or tomato ketchup/catsup. Simmer for at least a further twenty minutes, but this sauce will bubble away happily for as long as you like, improving all the time.

Just before serving, stir in the shredded/torn basil, if using, and you can also sprinkle a little over the plated dish, or place a few sprigs to decorate.

This sauce reheats well, so can be made well ahead of time, and it’s often worth making a bigger batch, portioning up, and freezing for a quick meal on a busy day.

In Britain, the pasta is usually plated and the sauce spooned on top, rather than mixed as in Italy. Hand the cheese separately to be sprinkled on top.

I think both versions benefit from having good chunks of crusty bread, or even garlic bread, to mop up the juices.

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