Certain dishes are controversial in a relationship, especially when it comes to comfort food.
Bolognese was ours.
It has also been for a few couples I know. In their stories, the partner’s recipe was compared to an array of options that range from the mother (classic) to an ex (a painfully unexpected true story).
Ours starts on a Sunday, about 8 years ago when I first cooked Bolognese for my husband. We both had high hopes: he was hungry, I was nervous. I watched him take the first mouthful and felt the anticipation creep into my stomach. He reflected upon it in the same way I understand he has since he was a small child. And then it happened.
It was my bolognese what broke my heart that Sunday. Not my husband. Not my wonderful sister-in-law, to whom’s ragù mine was compared. It was mine.
Is it Bolognese or Ragù?
There are multiple arguments on whether the real name of this comfort classic is ‘bolognese’ or ‘ragù’. In truth, it is Ragù Alla Bolognese.
Ragù can be made with any type of meat, as long as it is combined with sofritto (carrots, celery and onions), tomato and wine. Multiple regions and cities in Italy have their version. Beef is the meat of choice for ragù in Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy.
Marcella Hazan warns us not to confuse it with the French ragoût in her book The Classic Italian Cook Book. She calls it plain ‘Ragù’.
‘Spag bol’ is also a very popular dish in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries.
I generally refer to it as Bolognese, but for the sake of argument and avoiding repetition, you’ll find both throughout the remainder of this text.
Ragù Alla Bolognese is best with tagliatelle, which is thicker than spaghetti and allows more sauce to stick to it. I prefer pappardelle because it has even more room for sauce. It also goes perfectly well with short pasta like trotolle, fusilli, and my favourite: conchiglie. Those little shells have the power to hold small amounts of sauce goodness on each bite.
What doesn’t kill you…
I tried everything in the years that followed that Sunday: smoked pancetta, un-smoked pancetta, ground pork, combining up to four kinds of tomatoes, white wine, red wine, dried oregano, fresh oregano.
They were all delicious, yes. But, I could see in Maikel’s face that they weren’t ‘THIS IS AMAZING, I MUST EAT ALL THE SEVEN BATCHES YOU COOKED IN ONE SITTING, delicious’.
I could have asked, or at least read
I don’t remember doing any research before cooking my first bolognese. That’s probably because I have an aversion to reading instructions, at least according to my husband. He’s not entirely wrong.
Yet, writing for this post made me curious about the recipes I should have consulted ahead of jumping into the kitchen.
I live in London, so it makes sense that Google showed me the BBC’s good food recipe as the first option when searching for “Bolognese sauce”. Written by Andrew Balmer, the recipe has 20 ingredients on the list (pasta and side-bread included). I spot one I don’t remember trying: rosemary.
A true surprise is that Jamie Oliver’s recipe only comes 7th on my Google search results. I was curious to see if I tried any of the ingredients on his list, as I have consulted and cooked quite a few of his recipes before. I did: sun-dried tomatoes. Jamie also adds rosemary.
I then searched for ‘traditional bolognese sauce’ and this recipe on The Local (Italy edition) caught my eye as it claims to be the original, authentic and registered in the Bologna Chamber of Commerce (1982). I skimmed through the ingredients whilst ticking an imaginary comparison list, but my left eyebrow nearly touched my hairline when I read milk. No rosemary.
The thought of milk in a bolognese is a bit too much for me. I desperately needed to find a source that can prove that I’m right because milk in a meat sauce doesn’t sound appetising. I headed over to the Great Italian Chefs website for some reassuring. 125ml of whole milk. Heartbreak, again.
The Bolognese enigma
A couple of Christmas’ ago, my sister-in-law came with her family for a few days and offered to cook dinner for us. We all agreed on bolognese. I took that as a signal from the food universe and joined her in the kitchen.
I watched her mix the ingredients, most of which were similar to mine. By the time I was starting to wonder where I was going wrong, she started adding ingredients that I couldn’t fathom. My brain was in denial and my taste buds were bewildered. Both were wrong.
Veronika’s bolognese is, indeed, astounding. It is warm and exciting, the thrill you weren’t expecting on your third ride on the carousel, and the hug you had been longing after many years away from home.
The secret ingredient is not her love, of which her Ragù and our lives thankfully have plenty.
It also isn’t milk, rosemary, or anything eccentric like fresh basil flown in this morning straight from Genova. It’s spices that are in my pantry, and likely yours.
Those spices impregnate your palate with wonder and remind your spirit of what it is like to be curious again. They turn ground beef, pork and tomatoes into a guessing game you want to win, but don’t want to end.
To each, it’s own Ragù, but always with love.
When the time came for me to cook bolognese again, I followed her lead and carried on experimenting by adding spices. I also haven’t stopped trying new ingredients, for I’ve declared myself forever a cook in training.
I’ll never experience the love of a sibling, but I choose to believe that it’s close to the warmth in my heart when hear my husband say that hers is his favourite.
I will still nag him about it, but only because teasing Maik is probably the only sport I’ll ever champion. Also, I have difficulty admitting when he is right.
I know that by now you are curious about Veronika’s ragù. So, go pay her a visit on her Instagram @laverocome. You’ll find the recipe on her ‘Lasaña de Carne’ stories. It may be in Spanish, but it’s easy to follow and I promise you, it is the best.
…and in case you are wondering, my friends with the ex story are still married. Their relationship has endured all the curve balls the universe has thrown at them, but not bolognese. Some things are just unforgivable.