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Grana Padano

International Day of Italian Cuisines 2010

Spaghetti Bolognaise, not the “real thing” but it can be good


Ragù alla Bolognese
Spaghetti Bolognaise with garlic bread:
Italians don’t eat that way

It’s the most beloved dish of the Britons; according to the statistics, they eat up to 670 million portions a year. Americans love it, Swedes go crazy about och köttfärssås, Danes about the similarly named og kødsovs and in Tokyo it’s sold even (and sadly) in sandwiches. For the Chinese they are the Western shajiang mian, a traditional dish that is topped with meat. We are talking about Spaghetti Bolognaise o Bolognese that recently has been voted the favourite meal of the Australians, who don’t hesitate to make it with Vegemite beside hips of canned tomatoes PLUS tomato paste, as well as capsicums and mushrooms. Known as spag bol or spag bog (in the UK) it sounds very Italian, and people make it with Italian ingredients, or with those they perceive as such, regardless of quality (plenty of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, canned peeled tomatoes, and ugly “parmesan”). Then they add whatever it comes at their hands: anchovies, peas, vegetable, all sorts of cheeses and serve often with garlic bread and even eggs. “You can put anything you have in it and it tastes a treat!”, wrote an enthusiastic pseudo foody blogger. It’s not true, but the magic seems to work.


Ragù alla Bolognese
Spaghetti Bolognaise, Italians
do not serve pasta in that way

Back in Italy purists say that Spaghetti Bolognese has nothing to do with the Italian culinary culture. Some time ago, Stefano Bonilli, a renowned Italian gastronomer, who was born in Bologna, wrote: “Spaghetti alla bolognese never existed.” The line of attack? “Spaghetti is dry pasta from Southern Italy, in Bologna, we have tagliatelle, freshly homemade, al ragù bolognese”. The fact is that at least one other ‘sugo’ (sauce) 'alla bolognese' exists and is the one described by Pellegrino Artusi in his The Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well. Not only is Artusi’s  ‘bolognese’ not ragù, but the recipe includes maccheroni (macaroni), which are dry pasta, exactly as “Southern” spaghetti are. So, can we say that Spaghetti Bolognese come from that recipe? No way. Artusi doesn’t include tomatoes in his sugo, while Spag Bog is a sauce made with tomatoes (as we have seen, the presence of tomatoes is very limited in the original ragù alla bolognese). So, where does Spaghetti Bolognese come from?  It’s hard to say.


Ragù alla Bolognese
American soldiers in Italy

Some think that all happened during War World II, when American (and British) soldiers passing through Emilia, ate tagliatelle al ragù and liked them. Back home, they asked for the dish and unscrupulous Italian restaurateurs created the Frankenstein dish we know today, with spaghetti. There’s no evidence but the story could well be true. When American and British came back to Italy as tourists they asked for their beloved Spaghetti Bolognese and Italian restaurateurs gave it to them. Spaghetti Bolognaise is not ragù alla Bolognese; its image is really bad, because it's wildly commercially exploited, even sold in cans and ready to be microwaved.  However, if correctly prepared, they can be a pleasant dish and can even be considered an offspring of Italian culinary culture.


Ragù alla Bolognese
Heston Blumental

But on one condition though: that Italian ingredients of quality are used, for instance, canned peeled tomatoes, pasta, grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, extra virgin olive oil. In that case, they deserve to carry the name Spaghetti Bolognese. When Worcestershire sauce or nam pla are added, then it’s another story, no matter if the name of the chef preparing them is Heston Blumental or Wolfgang Puck. (Recently an association called “Balla degli Spaghetti Bolognese” was born in Bologna; its members want the city to take advantage of the huge popularity that the dish has given to it...).


Other classical recipes

The Ragù according to the Simili Sisters

Ragù alla Bolognese

Margherita and Valeria Simili, generally known as the Simili Sisters, began working in a family baking business in Bologna in 1946. “More than a business, the bakery that the Simili Sisters ran in Via San Felice and then in Via Frassinago was a meeting point for all of Bologna’s gourmets,” wrote Stefano Bonilli, the Bolognese-born director and founder of the famous Italian magazine Gambero Rosso.

In 1986 Margherita and Valeria Simili started to teach cooking courses at the Hotel Milano Excelsior di Bologna and three years later they opened the Scuola di Cucina delle Sorelle Simili – the Simili Sisters’ School of Cooking that became famous around the world and was closed in the summer of 2001.

The Simili Sisters published two noteworthy books in Italian, Pane e roba dolceBread and Sweet Things and Sfida al mattarelloChallenge for the Rolling Pin, subtitled I segreti della sfoglia bologneseThe Secrets of Bolognese Puff Pastry in 2005.

Their third book, La buona cucina di casaGood Home Cooking, has recently come out.




25 g butter
50 g pancetta or prosciutto di Parma, chopped
500 g beef, ground (scanello or cartella)
500 g tomatoes, peeled and pureed
2 spoons of onion, chopped
2 spoons of celery, chopped
2 spoons carrot, chopped
1 chicken liver, chopped
1/ cup white wine, dry
2 cups milk
2 cups of broth
Salt, pepper, a hint of nutmeg, 2 spoons oil


  • Chop the vegetables separately.
  • Chop the pancetta.
  • Prepare the chicken liver. Clean it well. Be sure to remove the slightest trace of green bile, because if not the chicken liver will be very bitter. Don’t chop it but rather crush it with the blade of a knife and separate the nerve fibres from the pieces of flesh and, once done completely, chop the pieces with a knife alone. This should be carried out with care, because if nerve fibres stay attached to the liver, it will not amalgamate well with the other ingredients and so its flavour will be too strong.
  • Have the wine within reach.
  • Have the milk close to the stovetop.
  • Place the tomato and broth in a saucepan on a low flame.
  • Place the butter and the oil in the pan, then immediately add the onion.
  • Sauté the onion slowly, stirring continuously.
  • At first the fats become milky and the aroma very harsh due to the presence of the vegetable effluents of the onion.
  • As soon as this temperament has been absorbed, the fats will once again clarify and the aroma sweeten. At this point, and not a moment before, add the celery and a minute later the carrot. If the three vegetables were sautéed together, the other two would absorb the juice of the onion, the flavour of which is so intense that it would hide the more delicate flavours of the celery and the carrot thus turning the three into onion.
  • As soon as this base is ready, add the pancetta and let it sauté a minute.
  • So now it’s the chicken liver’s turn. Free the centre of the pan by moving all the vegetables to the edge. Chicken liver coagulates immediately and it would cling to any ingredient in its vicinity and impart its flavour to it, which would become too intense. Therefore, place the chicken liver in the middle of the pan alone, continuously flattening and stirring it until it completely changes colour, which shows that it has cooked. Then and only then, bring the vegetables back to the middle of the pan and stir everything together for a moment.
  • And next, the beef – a delicate moment. In order to avoid turning the beef into, for all intents and purposes, broth, a few seconds after having added the other ingredients, proceed in the following manner: bring the flame to the maximum and after a moment add a third of the beef by flaking it into the pan, then with a wooden spatula, flattening and turning it over continuously while leaving the bottom of the pan partially uncovered in order that the moisture that forms will evaporate rather than turn into liquid. As soon as this part of the beef has changed its colour partially, free the middle of the pan again and add, flake and mix another third of the beef as with the first third and then, once again in the middle, add the last third.
  • Once all the beef is sautéed, add a first part of the wine, not by pouring it onto the beef but rather around the edge of the pan because cold ingredients should not be poured upon the bubbling hot beef. This way, when the wine arrives to the beef, it will certainly already be heated. Don’t pour in all the wine in one dose; let it evaporate over two or three doses. The wine will have completely evaporated, not when you see it disappear as liquid from the pan but rather when you can’t detect its aroma any more.
  • At this point add the hot milk in two or three doses and let it be absorbed until it has formed a nice cream.
  • Pepper and salt.
  • Transfer the concoction to a smaller and higher pot in order to avoid that it evaporates too quickly while cooking.
  • Add the hot tomato and broth; adjust the flame to hold the ragù at a simmer for around two hours while stirring often.


The Classic Bolognese Ragù according the Accademia Italiana della Cucina

Ragù alla Bolognese

With a solemn decree of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina – the Italian Academy of Cuisine, the present was notarized and deposited in the Palazzo della Mercanzia, the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Bologna on the 17th of October 1982.


300 gr. beef cartella (thin skirt)
150 gr. pancetta, dried
50 gr. carrot
50 gr. celery stalk
50 gr. onion
5 spoons tomato sauce or 20 gr. triple tomato extract
1 cup whole milk
Half cup white or red wine, dry and not frizzante
Salt and pepper, to taste.


The pancetta, cut into little cubes and chopped with a mezzaluna chopping knife, is melted in a saucepan; the vegetables, once again well chopped with the mezzaluna, are then added and everything is left to stew softly. Next the ground beef is added and is left on the stovetop, while being stirred constantly, until it sputters. The wine and the tomato cut with a little broth are added and everything left to simmer for around two hours, adding little by little the milk and adjusting the salt and black pepper. Optional but advisable is the addition of the panna di cottura of a litre of whole milk at the end of the cooking.


Ragù alla Bolognese: authentic and evocative flavour of Italy

Tagliatelle al Ragù Bolognese
The real thing: Tagliatelle al ragù Bolognese.
Spaghetti Bolognaise is just a forgery of Italian cuisine,
born outside Italy

‘Bolognaise’. How many gastronomic aberrations around the world have been committed in this name? No true food lover, let alone an Italian, could ever forget the rather disgusting pictures appearing on the labels of ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ tins, so omnipresent in Britain, in the US, in Canada, in Australia and elsewhere: a slice of industrial bread topped with a nest of mushy, overdone noodles, coated by a brownish tomato and minced meat sauce. Some have described the concoction as “cheap dog food sold for human consumption” appealing “way beyond those who don't like cooking, into the realm of those who don't like food at all.”

Ragù alla Bolognese
Bolognese sauce in a can:
a degraded version of the original

Misnamed food, offensive and in fact sacrilegious; there is nothing in Italian cuisine or in Bologna called ‘spaghetti bolognaise’; no pasta is served over bread, no one in Italy would eat it microwaved from a can. Those cans, regardless of the brand, are themselves the paradoxical impostor of another fake, which is actually the mother of all Italian cuisine forgeries: ‘spaghetti bolognaise’, known as ‘Spag Bol’ or ‘Spag Bog’. “It’s really sad that, so often, stewed mince with the addition of herbs and tomato purée gets presented as ‘bolognaise sauce’ even in lesser Italian restaurants;” wrote British cook and TV celebrity Delia Smith.

Ragù alla Bolognese
Delia Smith

The real thing –as she pointed out on other occasions– is in fact something else.”  It is, instead, that masterpiece of gastronomy called Tagliatelle al Ragù alla Bolognese: the offspring of a region –Emilia Romagna– and a city –Bologna– that have some of the strongest and most flavourful culinary traditions in Italy. Not by chance, Pellegrino Artusi, one of the most important Italian gastronomes of the 19th and 20th centuries, wrote: “Bolognese cuisine well deserves a reverence,” perhaps also considering the great chefs of the past born in Bologna: Bartolomeo Stefani e Bartolomeo Scappi over all. The authentic ragù alla bolognese, the one that defines the city's identity, has nothing to do with canned Spag Bogs or with Spaghetti Bolognaise.

Rosario Scarpato

Ragù alla Bolognese
Piazza Maggiore, Bologna

The International Day of Italian Cuisines: why 17th January?


January 17 is a date of great symbolic importance. It’s the day of the catholic feast of Sant’Antonio Abate, one of the most popular saints of Italy, the patron of domestic animals, but also of butchers and salami makers. On this day, according to tradition, the Italian Carnival begins, that period of the year during which, since unmemorable time, it’s “licet insanire,” transgressions are tolerated and good, rich food is celebrated and, along with this: cooking.

The cult of Saint Anthony “of January”, who was a hermit who lived in Egypt in the 13th century, is rooted in earlier pagan feasts, le sementine (that celebrates the end of the sowing season) of ancient Rome in honour of Ceres, the Goddess of the Earth.


The sacred and the profane as well as Celtic and Latin rites are mixed together here. Therefore this occasion is celebrated in Italy, from north to south, on January 17th in many different ways. The devotion to the saint is very strong in Pinerolo, in the Province of Turin, in the Province of Como, in Lombardy and in Emilia Romagna.

On the other hand, in the south on that evening “fires” are lit, “focaroni,” “focarazzi” or “focaracci” – bonfires, people congregate in crowds around these pyres to give hommage to the saint who, according to legend, banished the devil and took dominion of the fires of hell. This is what is done in Puglia, Sardinia, Campania e Abruzzo.


In the latter, in the town of Scanno this feast has been celebrated since the fourteenth century until recently with great, steaming pans of sagna (home made pasta) and ricotta in the town square, while in Lanciano a holy representation was held. Also in Lazio, especially in the towns of Nepi and Velletri, in the area of Tuscia, the feast still has strong gastronomic characteristics. In general, almost all the celebrations of 17th January ended with a collection of food products that the entire community then consumed collectively.


Elsewhere, in Guastalla in Emilia Romagna, the fried gnocco (gnocco fritto) is the king of the feast. Saint Antonio has always been represented by a suckling pig (by a wild boar in Celtic countries) whose meat was the most highly esteamed ingredient of a meal at the Italian peasant’s table. Once, many rural communities collectively raised a piglet that they then butchered and ate on that day. Ancient fairs, such as that of Lonato, in Lombardy, that used to be held on 17th January but today have fallen out of use, were completely a celebration of cooking and eating of pork, of which in peasant tradition, as it is of common knowledge, nothing went to waste.

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