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Tagliatelle al ragù alla Bolognese: the dictionary


What is important to know about Tagliatelle al Ragù alla Bolognese according some prestigious food writers and gastronomers:



Ragù alla Bolognese
National Recipe Books of Regional Cuisines issued by the
Italian Culinary Academy

Experts tend to credit the one registered by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina in 1982 as the most authentic one. It took 38 years of lengthy research and discussions among the members of the Academy and it includes the two basic components: fresh egg tagliatelle pasta and ragù. A traditional recipe of ragù, slightly different from the Academia’s one, is presented by Margherita e Valeria Simili, perhaps the most popular cooks in Bologna in the last 40 years, in their book, Sfida al matterello (Challenge for the Rolling Pin). The home-cooking style of the legendary Simili Sisters is part of the heritage of the peasant housewives of the past. The slight variations between some of the traditional recipes are to be considered physiological, given the characteristics of Italy, where within a few kilometres there may be relevant changes of customs and traditions. In addition, ragù was born in an area –Emilia– the capital of which is Bologna, but includes many other cities such as Imola, Modena, Parma, and a multitude of villages.



Ragù alla Bolognese
The beef used for the ragù is
finta cartella (flank brisket)
Ragù alla Bolognese
Cartella (thin skirt)
Ragù alla Bolognese

There is a whole school of thought for which beef is the only meat in ragù alla bolognese. The recipe copyrighted by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina includes only beef. Veteran chefs in Bologna, as Mauro Fabbri, of the traditional restaurant Diana, categorically exclude the use of pork (see "pork" in this same article). There was a specific beef (not veal) cut for ragù. In the recipe registered by the Accademia is the cartella (thin skirt), which is the muscle that separates the lungs from the stomach of the animal. It’s juicy, tender and has little fat. In reality, the meat commonly used if that of Finta Cartella (Pancia), flank brisket, which if rather fatty and requires long cooking. It is likely that originally the meat for ragù was cut into small pieces and not minced.







Ragù alla Bolognese

Grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano are optional, they are not included in the old recipe books, but both cheeses are commonly present on Italian tables.







CHICKEN LIVER (and other giblets)

Ragù alla Bolognese
The Simili sisters

In the past, chicken giblets were included in ragù as well: heart, kidney and liver, ingredients with a strong flavour that are no longer liked by the modern palate; what a pity!. Of these ingredients only the liver has survived and, please, do not eliminate it. If you don’t like it, use less, just a half, but include it because in such a small quantity you will not detect it but it really fills out the flavour by giving it more body.” – quote from the entry “Il Ragù Bolognese” in the book Sfida al Matterello by Valeria and Margherita Simili. The inclusion of giblets should not be a surprise, since it was also common in French ragouts as in the financière.



Ragù alla Bolognese
Working oxes

Traditional ragù alla bolognese was cooked slowly for hours, four on average and up to five o six. According to Marcela Hazan (The Classic Italian Cookbook), “the longer, the better.” There was at least one reason for this long cooking: the meat was very tough, usually from aged animals, not seldom, from ten-year-old cows, having worked in the fields and sacrificed when they could work no more. Today, the quality of the meat is much better, so between two and three hours is the right cooking time. The peasant housewives used to put the ragù on the woodstove and then to go to work in the fields. Furthermore, in Italy, in the past, extended families were common and the giant pot of sauce to feed them required hours and hours of simmering to cook all the way through.


HERBS (spices, garlic)

There are no herbs, no bay leaf, no parsley, no thyme, in the traditional ragù alla bolognese, nor is there garlic, in fact in the whole cuisine of Emilia Romagna the use of garlic is very scant. There is no chilli, nor were there any spices. Some recipes call for the use of a little nutmeg.



Ragù alla Bolognese

All the traditional recipes contain milk, including the one given by Anna Gosetti della Salda, in her first edition of Le ricette regionali italiane in 1967. Meat was tough in the past and milk breaks down its fibres. Furthermore, milk was widely available in the agricultural families of Emilia, while tomatoes were not (see "tomatoes" in this same article). Chef Giuliano Tassinari, GVCI associate and Emilia Romagna cuisine ambassador remembers that Bruno Tasselli, who, for 54 years, was the chef at "Pappagallo", the most renowned restaurant in Bologna during the last century, always added milk to his ragù. “The old-time chefs used the pannetta’, the cream that topped the milk, after being boiled, to give the ragù a touch of sweetness,” says Giuliano, who worked with Tasselli in the Seventies of last century.

Ragù alla Bolognese

Marcela Hazan, in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, recommends adding and cooking down the wine before doing the same with the milk. There were areas in Emilia Romagna, as Ferrara, where milk was not used also for religious reasons: many Jews were established in the city and its surrounding and mixing meat with milk is not kosher. Some time ago, an American food writer wrote that “Artusi (Pellegrino, the author of The Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well) suggests that you may want to stir half a cup of whipping cream into the ragù just before you pour it over the pasta.” This is wrong, Artusi did not include Tagliatelle al ragù bolognese in his recipe book but rather Maccheroni alla bolognese, made with dried pasta and a sauce having only some resemblance to the classic ragù (and which didn’t contain tomatoes at all).



Ragù alla Bolognese

The origins of ragù alla bolognese are unclear. Some authors, including Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the author of The Italian Country Table, “traced the ragus of Emilia-Romagna at least as far back as the 16th century, to the wealthy courts of noble families.” This explains also the reason for which ragù is not a tomato based sauce. Tomatoes were not known and, therefore, not used in Italy in the 16th century. Indeed the origins of the Bolognese ragù are related to those of the French ragoût, a stew of ingredients reduced to small pieces, which became popular in the 18th century (see "ragù" in this same article).



Ragù alla Bolognese

Pancetta (called also ‘carnesecca’ in the past) was probably the only fat that was used for starting the cooking of ragù. Butter was probably added at a later stage, and perhaps for this reason it is not included in the recipe registered by the Academia Italiana della Cucina. Olive oil is an even more recent and rather improper addition found particularly outside of Italy.



Ragù alla Bolognese

Pork is likely to be another relatively recent addition to ragù alla bolognese. As we have seen, for many authors, beef (see "beef" in this same article) was the only meat of the recipe. This is socially and historically grounded; up to the end of World War II, Italy was an agricultural and generally poor country. Many people used to see meat on their tables only at Christmas and Easter; the luckiest ate it on Sundays or on religious feasts. They would hardly have used pork and beef at the same time. More likely, pork was introduced to rich families or to festive cooking. Emilia has historically been an area that consumes huge quantities of pork, in the form of salami, prosciutto, culatello, mortadella, pancetta, zampone etc. Fresh minced pork meat, handled as in the “new” recipe for ragù alla bolognese, was rare in the past. It’s interesting that in some recipe books veal is presented as an alternative to pork.



Ragù alla Bolognese

The word comes from the French ‘ragôut, a noun derived from the verb ragoûter, which means to wake up or better to wet the appetite, to revive the taste, to give more taste. Ragôut is a hearty stew including one or more principal ingredients (meat, fish, game, vegetables), cut into small pieces and cooked very slowly in some fat over low heat. In the past ragouts were cooked over the fire or on a closed woodstove and very much sought after in rich families. “Somewhere along the line, the French stew became the Italian sauce, and the rich families’ meat-heavy banquet food became the peasant's method of extracting every last bit of flavour from scarce meat scraps.” Another famous ragù in Italian cuisine is ragù alla napoletana, which is based on meat and tomato sauce. In Italian cuisine ragù is in any case considered a festive, celebratory, dish.



Ragù alla Bolognese

‘Tagliatelle’ simply means cut pasta and are long flat ribbons made from the ‘sfoglia’ or ‘leaves’, of egg-and-flour dough. They belong to the family of fresh pastas that includes fettuccine, tagliolini, pappardelle, lasagne, tortellini etc, which are an important part of the culinary traditions of Northern Italy and particularly the Region of Emilia Romagna. True tagliatelle are 8mm wide (according to the Bologna-based Apostles of Tagliatelle) and cooked should be wider than the 2270th part of the famous Asinelli Tower in Bologna. In the 14th century tagliatelle already appear in a pictorial representation of the Tacuinum Sanitatis, which was an 11th century health manual. Something very similar to tagliatelle (fermentini) is also described in the Compendium de naturis et proprietatibus alimentorum, a list of foods from Emilia compiled in 1338 by Barnaba de Ritinis da Reggio di Modena.

Ragù alla Bolognese
An image from the Tacuinum Sanitatis

According to the legend, tagliatelle were invented in 1487 by Maestro Zafirano, a cook from the village of Bentivoglio, on the occasion of the marriage of Lucrezia Borgia to the Duke of Ferrara. One of the most important figures of the Emilian cuisine is the so called sfoglina, the woman who prepared the dough (sfoglia) and cut tagliatelle as well as fettuccine, lasagne, tortellini and other home made fresh pasta. In old restaurants sfognine worked in the shop-window so that people walking along the streets could see them.



Ragù alla Bolognese

The presence of tomato in ragù alla bolognese should be very limited. There is a general concurrence that ragù was born as a meat sauce (or ‘sugo’), as its close relative, the sauce that Pellegrino Artusi describes in his Maccheroni alla bolognese recipe, in which there is no tomato at all. 20 grams of triple concentrated tomato paste –the equivalent of 5 spoons of tomato sauce– for 300 grams of beef and 150 grams of pancetta is the proportion endorsed by the Accademia in its recipe.




Ragù alla Bolognese

"His Majesty Ragù must be treated with extreme care. Some time ago, he was prepared in terra cotta pots that were broad and rather low and were placed on top of the embers. The ‘coccio’ and the strong and homogeneous heat of the embers ensured that the meat was ‘rosolato’ or sautéed without it loosing its juices and thus remained tasty and tender. Therefore, in order to reproduce this excellent ‘rosolatura’ or sautéing, we start our ragù in a pot and then transfer it to a terra cotta pot so that it achieves its necessary ‘rosolatura’.” – quote from the entry “Il Ragù Bolognese” in the book Sfida al Matterello by Valeria and Margherita Simili.


Rosario Scarpato