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Why you won’t find spaghetti bolognese in Italy

It's the world's favourite Italian dish - except it doesn't actually exist. Food blogger and culinary tour operator Monica Cesarato explains the history and myth of spaghetti bolognese.

Why you won't find spaghetti bolognese in Italy
Can you tell what's wrong with this picture? Photo: Joy/Flickr

It's a scene I have experienced over and over in Venice and I am sure the same thing plays out across Italy on a daily basis.

After months of dreaming of the sun, the sandy beaches and an enormous plate of pasta covered with Bolognese sauce and freshly grated Parmesan, a tourist finally finds themselves sitting at a restaurant in Italy.

But after nervously checking the menu, their expression changes. Spaghetti alla Bolognese is nowhere to be seen.

“What do you mean there's no Bolognese?!” The tourist asks the startled waiter, who politely suggests in broken English that they try the tagliatelle al ragù instead.

Photo:Mark Goebel/Flickr

READ MORE: Ten 'Italian' dishes that don't exist outside Italy

Bolognese is a dish that seems to create confusion outside Italy.

Recently the famous dish was the subject of a heated online controversy, sparked by the New York Times publishing a recipe for a 'white' Bolognese sauce, with no tomatoes. The recipe had many Italians, especially those from Bologna, on the warpath.

They were quick to defend the 'right' way of preparing Ragù alla Bolognese – with tomatoes as one of the main ingredients.

But instead of drawing our virtual swords, perhaps we should take a deep breath and we clear the air about Bolognese. (And by the way, that's Bolognese, not 'Bolognaise', as I have seen it spelled around the world.)

First of all, Ragù alla Bolognese, or Bolognese sauce, is only one of the many ways which a meat sauce – or Ragù – can be prepared in Italy.

Ragù in Italy is a general term, used to indicate any meat sauce cooked over low heat for many hours. Each ragù is composed of numerous ingredients, which vary according to each region – hence “alla Bolognese”, meaning from the town of Bologna.

READ MORE: How to decipher Italy's mind-boggling pasta menus

Italy's food purists rage over America's 'white bolognese'
Photo: Sharon Mollerus/Flickr

Here in Italy at least, the Bolognese version of Ragù contains tomatoes and is only served with tagliatelle, tortellini or gnocchi, and never with spaghetti – unless you are eating in a restaurant only for tourists. These thicker pastas are more able to hold the chunky sauce.

Let’s take a look at the dish's history.

According to Livio Cerini, one of the greatest Italian cookbook writers of the twentieth century, we have the Romans to thank for this appetizing style of preparing meaty sauces.

But the term Ragù originates from the French word ragôuter, a verb which can be translated into something like “to add flavour to something”. This is because during the period of the Roman invasion, the Gauls reworked the Roman recipe, transforming it into the ragout, much similar to the sauces we know today.

Initially, ragù sauces were a kind of stew eaten as a main course, but they then started being eaten spread atop toasted bread.

Of course, all of these early ragù dishes were made without tomatoes, since tomatoes didn't arrive in Europe from the New World until the 1500s, thanks to Hernan Cortes and the Conquistadores.

It is thought that the birth of the original recipe for Ragu alla Bolognese can be traced back to the end of the 1700s. It was then that Alberto Alvisi, the chef of the Cardial of Imola, cooked the first real tomato-based meat sauce, which was served with a plate of macaroni pasta.

By the beginning of the 1800s, recipes for tomato-based ragù start to appear in some cookbooks from the Emilia-Romagna region. However, at this time it was a dish that, was generally reserved for holidays or special occasions.

Photo:Lisa Risager/Flickr

The original recipe for Bolognese sauce was shaped over the intervening years and the 'official' version of the recipe was registered by the Italian Academy of Cuisine at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce on October 17th 1982.

In the official version, bacon and milk are listed among the usual ingredients. Milk! Surprising, isn't it?

But whether or you put milk in your Bolognese or not, one main thing remains. Without tomatoes, we would refer the these sauces simply as ragù. Hence the outrage of the many Italians against a 'white' Bolognese.

In Italy, perhaps only when it comes to food are we very technical and precise!

Nowadays, in Italy, Ragu sauces aren't just made with meat: they can also be prepared with fish (sea bass and sea bream are popular choices), vegetables and even tofu.

But how many types of meat ragù sauce are out there? Countless versions! Some people prepare it with only one type of meat, some use garlic, others use rosemary, and some use venison. wild boar and even lamb to make their sauce.

Apart from Bolognese, the most famous version of a tomato-based ragù is perhaps from Naples.

Neapolitan ragù, is made with tomatoes and whole pieces of meat, cut as if they were pieces of a stew. The meat comes from different animals: beef, veal and pork. The whole thing is simmered for several hours, until it becomes soft and tasty.

Worth trying sometime – especially if Bolognese isn't on the menu.

Buon appetito.

Monica Cesarato is a food blogger, culinary tour guide and teaches cookery courses in Venice. She is currently co-writing a book with about Cicchetti (Venice version of tapas). To find out more about her food tours and cookery classes go to her Cook in Venice website.

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DISCOVER ITALY

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are ‘fake’ – and how to pick the best ones

Italy's countless sagre, or food fairs, are an autumn highlight. But how do you find the best events - and avoid the more commercial ones? Reporter Silvia Marchetti explains.

Why some of Italy’s food festivals are 'fake' - and how to pick the best ones

Italy’s renowned food fairs are one of the most exciting events during autumn and winter, particularly the coldest months when we’re looking for culinary weekend distractions. 

For the uninitiated, sagre are key gourmand exhibitions mixing local food, premium products, cheeses and olive oil – all the ‘excellences’ of the area – but lately I find some are just, well, fake. 

READ ALSO: The best Italian food festivals to visit in October

Instead of selling traditional indigenous delicacies, vendors sell a little bit of everything which they think appeals to foreigners and city people desperate for a rural break. 

Last weekend I went to the sagra at Osteria Nuova, near Passo Corese in Lazio, and found mozzarella from Naples and limoncello from Amalfi: now what do those have to do with the Rieti countryside?

It was sad and disappointing. Even though it takes place in an area which is famous at this time of the year for exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts there was not even one single vendor selling these. Instead, there was codfish from Venice and porchetta from the Castelli Romani.

Up until a few years ago the Osteria Nuova food fair was very genuine and appealing: it was actually a real farmers’ market where animals were sold: not just rabbits and hens but cows, horses and donkeys. It was a vibrant event. 

Now the cages that once kept the animals are empty. And people just go there to stuff themselves with huge sandwiches and hotdogs. It’s always hell finding a parking spot because the fair is very close to Rome, luring day trippers on a ‘scampagnata’.

Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

My advice is to avoid visiting food fairs which are too close to big cities and towns, but pick offbeat villages or unknown rural spots where the sagre are small and with local producers selling authentic, ‘indigenous’ products. Choosing the remote hillsides, where traditions tend to survive, is of course better than the touristy areas. 

READ ALSO: Seven reasons autumn is the best time to visit Italy

Also, it’s best if the food fair is not too heavily sponsored or advertised in national newspapers. The best thing to do is search online for all food fairs in the area you plan to visit during the weekend or even during the week, and ask friends and locals as word of mouth can often be more reliable. 

Among the authentic sagre I would recommend the porcini mushroom food fair in San Martino al Cimino in the pristine hills of the Tuscia countryside in Lazio, where the woods are dotted with porcini. 

At the fair not only bags of huge porcini are sold but you can also buy a lunch ticket and taste various mushroom dishes sitting down at wooden tables. Last time I was served a delicious potato and porcini soup which inspired me to replicate (successfully) the recipe at home. 

However, the best thing is to search for the weird and unknown – food fairs with funny names and showcasing products that sound and look really bizarre. So forget about the usual truffles, mozzarella, limoncello, ham and pasta-filled events. I suggest opting for quirky food festivals in never-heard-of-before villages where the culinary adventure comes with a cultural jolt. 

Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

When I hear about something amazingly off-the-wall and tasty, with a particular story or legend behind it, my curiosity and taste buds tingle.

Last weekend I was surfing the web and came across the Ciammellocco festival in the tiny hamlet of Cretone, Lazio, which immediately aroused my curiosity. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

As I had never heard of it before, I jumped in the car the following day and ventured out to an isolated woody area with a few small dwellings, where one single bakery makes this huge, funny-sounding, highly-nutritious sweet-salty doughnut with fennel seeds which has been around since at least the middle ages. Housewives used to make it for their husbands as a substitute for lunch when they went off working in the fields. 

Even though I have tasted similar ciambelle in my life none come close to ciammellocco, crunchy and tender at the same time, made with eggs but light.

Next I heard about the Sagra della Papera in Carassai, Marche region, offering succulent duck meat dishes with pappardelle pasta and roasted duck breasts, and given duck isn’t something you’d normally find in Italian restaurants, it makes the cut for authentic food events. 

Vegetarians can’t miss the Festival degli Orapi in the village of Picinisco north of Naples where guests are treated to platefuls of a unique, delicious spinach variety which is made exquisite by the fact that it grows beneath goat poo, a natural fertilizer. Locals actually roam the countryside with a knife to scrape away the poo and extract the orapi.

In Pedagaggi, Sicily, local housewives organize the Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, with gourmet dishes made from exotic-looking prickly pear mustards. 

READ ALSO: ‘La scampagnata’: What it is and how to do it the Italian way

Other curious sagre include the Festa del Gorgonzola set in the town of Gorgonzola in Lombardy which is the real birthplace of Italy’s iconic blue cheese. Huge pentoloni of steaming pots of gorgonzola in the middle of the piazza lure pungent cheese addicts. 

Also Diamante’s festival del peperoncino in Calabria is a must stop for lovers of strong, authentic hot dishes spiced up with chili peppers (there’s even a peperoncini eating marathon).

Real sagre tend to showcase one premium native product rather than a myriad with overlapping origins.

The more ‘local’ you dive into the deepest, remote corners of Italy full of tradition and folklore, the more genuine the sagra and the more satisfying the gastronomical experience.

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