It is one of the best-known Italian recipes in the whole world and boasts countless imitations, but what is the real origin of Ragù bolognese?
Born as a meat dish in Renaissance France, the Ragù recipe traveled to the Neapolitan Bourbon court and then spread throughout Italy. Those were times when Nobles led trends in fashion, costumes and even gastronomic art.
From the Neapolitan transposition to the many recipes and changes scattered throughout the Italian peninsula, only a few have gained worldwide fame and among these the “Ragù Bolognese” or “Bolognese Sauce”, a real specialty born from the local gastronomy.
Nowadays the Ragù Bolognese is one of the best known and most famous recipes in the world, very famous in Italy, it has spread abroad along the routes of Italian emigrants who brought with them the flavors of their native land, boasting countless international variations, such as Spaghetti Bolognese: an American transposition of the original recipe prepared with the ingredients and according to the local taste (mixing recipes from different parts of Italy).
But where does Ragù come from and where do its two most famous versions (the Neapolitan one and the Bolognese one) come from?
It is common practice to trace the origin of the term Ragù to the French equivalent “ragout“, a term with which were defined stews of meat and vegetables cooked over low heat for a long time.
The ancestor of what we now know as Ragù was in-fact a preparation of the French medieval popular tradition of the XII-XIV, which consisted of pieces of meat, vegetables or even fish stewed slowly. It could have been both a rich and a poor dish, depending on the cuts of meat, spices, and garnishes that were used and, obviously, at that time it did not include the use of tomatoes.
From France to Italy, this type of preparation spreads through the kitchens of the Neapolitan Bourbon court and those of the Vatican, but it was still a method of cooking meat with significant variations and ingredients, depending on the area of Italy.
In 1773 Vincenzo Corrado in his book “Il Cuoco Galante” describes for the first time a dish it could be defined a kind of the first Ragù, but the ingredients were not yet defined (it could, in fact, provide for the use of vegetables, various meats, prawns or eggs) and the cooking still made in broth with vegetables and aromatic herbs.
But in the meantime, the recipe had become part of Italian gastronomy and spreads throughout the national territory finding changes and new ingredients such as the use of tomato, which appears for the first time in 1790 in the “Maccheorni alla Napolitana” recipe, contained within the cookbook “The modern Apicius” by Francesco Leonardi.
But the Ragù, even if famous, was still considered a meat dish in sauce, and this is how Puccini remembers him, who in his Bohème still mentions it with this meaning.
In the following years, versions of the same dish will alternate with or without the addition of tomato and only during the twentieth century with the spread of tomato sauce and pasta will this recipe take on the side dishes of the Ragù that we still appreciate today.
At the same time, however, throughout the 19th century, Ragù spread throughout the Italian peninsula with the introduction of local variations, such as the use of pork meat, the preparation of small meatballs (as in the Neapolitan and Abruzzese tradition) and the combination with local types of pasta, such as the handmade pasta in Bologna.
The Ragù Bolognese
When in 1891 Pellegrino Artusi in his “Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well” describes the “Bolognese macaroni” he does not know that he is laying the foundations for one of the most famous culinary myths of Italian cuisine.
Tomato was not yet contemplated, but almost all the other ingredients were there: salted pork belly, veal flavored with celery, carrot, and onion, all cooked with meat broth.
Artusi also suggests some additions to enrich this condiment: dried mushrooms, truffles, chicken livers and cream which, together with milk, will enjoy mixed fortunes within the Ragù up to the present day. A white ragù in which the tomato still has no place, but rich and tasty, as the Bolognese tradition wanted.
The definitive transformation takes place at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century when almost all gastronomic authors will opt for the replacement of Tagliatelle instead of Macaroni (a variant already suggested by Artusi) and for the constant insertion of the tomato.
Finally, the ingredients of the Ragù will be completed by fresh pork, but only after the Second World War, as reported by the famous Italian recipe book “Il Cucchiaio d’Argento“, proposing a recipe that has remained substantially unchanged until today.
Recipe, or it would be better to say recipes in the plural, which however do not correspond in all respects to the crystallization of Ragù filed in 1982 at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce by the Bolognese Delegation of the Italian Academy of Cuisine, and which But perhaps this is also the beauty of Italian cuisine, which is experienced and practiced in a family environment and which in Italy it can vary from home to home.
Ragù Bolognese - the official recipe
The recipe for “Bolognese Classic Ragù” was filed with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce on October 17, 1982, by the Bologna Delegation of the Italian Academy of Cuisine.
300 g coarsely ground beef
150 g pork belly
50 g yellow carrot
50 g celery stalk
30 g onion
300 g tomato sauce or peeled tomatoes
½ glass of dry white wine
½ glass of whole milk
a little broth
extra virgin olive oil or butter
½ glass of whipping cream (optional)
Melt the bacon, first diced and then finely chopped with the crescent, possibly in a terracotta or aluminum thick pan of about 20 cm. Combine 3 tablespoons of oil or 50 g of butter and the finely chopped odors and let them dry gently. Add the minced meat and mix well with a ladle making it brown until it “sizzles”. Pour in the wine and stir gently until it has completely evaporated. Add the passata or the peeled tomatoes, cover and simmer slowly for about 2 hours, adding broth when necessary, then add the milk towards the end to dampen the acidity of the tomato. Season with salt and pepper. In the end, when the sauce is ready, according to the Bolognese use, add the cream if it is to season dry pasta. For tagliatelle, its use is to be excluded. This is the “updated” recipe of the real Bolognese ragù, filed on October 17, 1982, by the Bolognese delegation of the Italian Academy of Cuisine at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce.
Terracotta pan about 20 cm in diameter
The bacon, diced and minced with the crescent, is melted in the pan; add the well-chopped vegetables with the crescent and let them dry gently; add the minced meat and leave it, stirring until it sizzles; put 1/2 glass of wine and the tomato lengthened with a little broth; it is left to simmer for about two hours, adding the milk, time after time and adjusting with salt and black pepper. Optional, but advisable, the addition, when cooked, of the cooking cream of one liter of whole milk.
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