While I was being pestered awake this morning by Radio 2, I heard a rather interesting story about that good old favourite, Spag Bol. Apparently, according to research (unspecified…hmmm), there are approximately 16.3 million recipes in Britain for this most beloved of dishes. This research works on the theory that there are around 19 million people making it, and most of them have their own versions, whose ingredients range from chocolate (surely they’re confusing it with chilli con carne?!), chutney, and, somewhat singularly…yoghurt. Where they got this figure from, I’ll never know (and neither, interestingly, did Moira Stewart), but I have a feeling they’re not far off.
The Italians aren’t happy about this. They get frightfully upset at the thought that there are people out there bastardising one of their most revered dishes, and, horrors, actually enjoying it. In fact, they’ve been frightfully upset for a while. So much so that in 1982 the Bologna Chamber of Commerce set out a definitive recipe for how a traditional Ragu alla Bolognese should be made. And it doesn’t have yoghurt in it.
The traditional recipe should include beef mince, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, tomato puree, stock, white wine, and milk or cream (quite a hefty amount of it). And never, ever spaghetti -the sauce slides off its slippery tendrils. Instead, if you’re really going for the authentic feel, you should use the more adhesive egg pasta tagliatelle, precisely 8mm wide. That’s positively Germanic in its exactitude.
Funnily enough, for all their bellyaching that nobody makes it properly, I haven’t been able to find a single Italian chef whose recipe matches the definitive version. Some make it with a mixture of pork and beef mince, others with veal, some even add spicy sausage and porcini mushrooms. And if they’re not going to adhere to it, I’m pretty sure that Average Joe, emptying his Dolmio into some value mince isn’t going to think twice about whether or not his soffritto is sufficiently transluscent.
But then, the Italians have always been a capricious bunch about their cuisine. Fiercely loyal to the regions they grew up in, they cannot understand why you would want to make a risotto if you’re not in Milan, or pasta al pesto if you’re even semi-far from Genoa. That was one of my staples at university, and you can’t get much further from Genoa than Leeds.
While I admire this outspoken passion for their culinary traditions, I can’t help but think it’s all a little over the top. Having read the official recipe, frankly I prefer mine. I like to dispense with the stock and just use red wine instead – if you buy good quality mince it should have enough meaty flavour on its own. And I don’t add pancetta, and nowhere near as much milk as you’re supposed to. (The milk helps to cut through the sharpness of the tomatoes, and also renders the meat, making it more delicately flavoured). Cooking to me should be about giving yourself and whoever’s at your table pleasure. And if you like to put yoghurt in your Bolognese so be it. Just please hold off on my invite to supper.
Oh, and one more thing. I was amused, while trawling through the internet for Bolognese facts to see that in January of this year, Italian chefs all over the world cooked authentic tagliatelle Bolognese from the official recipe, just like Mamma used to make. Most of the nationals picked up on the story, and every single one of them used a stock image of Bolognese served over…spaghetti. Some things in England will never change.
For the 1982 Bolognese recipe, click here.