I quite like the idea of having lifetime quests. They needn’t be anything terribly grand (though they can be – opera-singing, anyone?) but it’s just the notion of going on a gradual, unhurried journey to try to find a particular holy grail that is important to you. Two of my particular ones relate to food, and as I said, neither is particularly important of itself – and yet there is much potential within for the discovery and perfecting of some small point of order. The first, which I will relate here by means of sticking my neck out rather in this little photo essay, is the quest to make a perfect ragù alla Bolognese, and the second is to come as close as I can given certain constraints to making the perfect pizza.
I regret to say that it seems to be a particular trait of the British to adulterate – nay bastardise – cultures from other places. Copying is something all cultures do – but we seem to have a particular gift for ruining perfectly good dishes by not being bothered to do make them properly. So here is my own personal assault against the travesty that is the typical British spag bol. I have eaten the proper thing many times in Bologna, so consider myself reasonably qualified to judge it a success, and give myself, after about a quarter of a century of trying, about 9/10. It is still not quite the perfect Bolognese flavour, but it ain’t bad…
The key to this is slow cooking – while preparing this article, I set the pot simmering at around 1pm and kept a weather-eye on it during the afternoon. By 7.45 it was ready…
- One onion, one carrot, one stick of celery – all very finely chopped to make the traditional ‘base’ for the sauce.
- 250-300 g passata (Cirio recommended) Note: no tinned tomatoes…
- 150g minced beef
- 150g minced pork
- One or two strips of pancetta to about 40g, finely diced
- Salt and pepper
- Milk (yes – milk!) as required, perhaps 200ml
- Around 200-250 ml red wine.
- Olive oil and/or butter for sweating the vegetables
- And that is all.
- Makes six portions, and is worth freezing.
Melt the oil and/or butter in a medium sauce pan and sweat the vegetables until they are well softened and reduced.
In a second, larger pan, heat more oil and/or butter and brown the various meats, starting with the pancetta, and then adding each at a time. Allow to colour thoroughly, but do not burn.
Add the vegetables to the meat and combine thoroughly.
Add a small amount of passata until the mixture is moist but not flooded – the tomatoes should not dominate the appearance or taste of the dish.
Add the red wine and bring to a slow simmer. Again, do not flood the mix.
Season with salt and pepper.
Allow to simmer until the ingredients start to mix fully, and then add around 50ml of milk and mix in. This is the secret of a traditional ragu, which gives it a particular colour and flavour.
Leave the mixture to simmer on a very low heat for an absolute minimum of two hours, ideally several times that. When it becomes a little dry, add a small amount more milk.
The final consistency should be moist but not runny; serve.
Ragu is never eaten with spaghetti in Bologna, tagliatelle being much superior for coating with the sauce. Why not splash out on some quality to go with your efforts?
I normally mix the sauce into the pasta, but left it separate for the photo, so that the consistency is visible. Italians also add far less sauce than the typical Briton – there should be a coating, not a flood – and they also tend to let their food cool a little before eating, so as to release the flavours.
My wife, being vegetarian, does not appreciate this at all. The benefit of this dish is that it needs to be made in bulk, but is one of the few things I think freezes without too much harm. While this is cooking away, I normally prepare for her a simple sauce of cream, blue cheese and walnuts – which takes all of four minutes…
*Much in a Little (the motto of England’s smallest county, Rutland)