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Twirl your fork – it’s time to talk about spag bol

12 mins read

Most students love it. It can be enjoyed as comfort food at home, or in a lovely restaurant with the finest ingredients. But the story of spaghetti bolognese is an interesting one.

The dish that most of us all enjoy, is a controversial topic between many groups of people. This is because of the origin of the dish.

It all started in the city of Bologna, in Italy.

A lovely city within the Emilia-Romagna region, Bologna carries a lot of history, but for food lovers who enjoy the taste of traditional food within a traditional culture, this is the city to come to.

You see, spag bol as we know it today didn’t start off like that. In fact, in most trattorias in Italy you won’t even find ‘spaghetti bolognese’ on the menu.

What you will find, however, is ragú.

Ragú

Ragú is a meat based sauce. It originated before the 18th century within France as a meat broth without any of the actual meat. It soon made its way over to Italy where it was served over pasta in Imola, a small town near to Bologna.

The sauce is made by combining meat flavours with wine, tomato, and stock, along with milk. Meats used often include beef, pork and veal.

Ragú isn’t made with the same cuts of meat as a student might make their spag bol. We tend to use beef and pork mince. But ragú uses other cuts, and they aren’t ground into mince. They’re cut into bite size chunks similar to how you’d prepare beef stew.

But as we’re students, we’ll stick to lean mince, below 5% fat. If you want a top quality mince, going to the butchers is the best option.

The sauce begins by making a soffritto. This is a vegetable base consisting of finely diced onion, celery and carrot. Sometimes fennel is used instead of celery but this is less common.

The vegetables are sautéed in olive oil on a medium heat until they get some colour. After this, some chefs may add diced pancetta.

The meat is added and cooked until it is brown all over. It is also seasoned with salt and pepper at this stage.

Many Italians swear by the use of red wine in ragú. That’s because it’s a staple ingredient of the sauce, but you may also see white wine being used as well.

The wine is added, and cooked until reduced, and the alcohol will evaporate, taking away the strong alcoholic taste. If you fail to leave the wine long enough, or add too much, the alcohol will completely dominate the dish which we don’t want.

Tender meat is a lot nicer than tough bites. That’s why whole milk is added to the sauce, which also helps contribute to its creamy texture. Lean cuts of meat are tenderised by the fat in the milk.

Do you remember the tomato sauces that we all like to add to a spag bol dish? We don’t add chopped or peeled tomatoes to a ragú. We do add a small amount of tomato concentrate, just enough that the acidity and sweet flavour of the tomato combines well with the meats and wine.

Dolmio jars are not going to be used here. Traditional Italians would consider it a cardinal sin.

The final ingredient of the ragú is an animal or vegetable stock or broth. Usually a chicken stock is more commonly used. Stocks can be made from scratch but here it is okay to use a store bought stock cube.

Now the heat is reduced to a simmer, and the ragú can now be left for three hours. Every 15 minutes it is stirred and at the 90 minute mark, the lid of the pan is removed and the sauce left to finish.

The final product is the most delicious, creamy, top-quality sauce that could rival any restaurant sauces.

Image credit: BBC

Pasta

The pasta of choice for ragú in Bologna and many traditional Italian eateries isn’t spaghetti.

It’s tagliatelle, or fettuccine. Sometimes other pastas like pappardelle can be used as well.

The reason is because the ragú sticks to these pastas easier. When a student cooks spag bol, most likely the sauce they make isn’t going to stick to their spaghetti because the spaghetti itself does not have tiny crevices and bumps.

Now you can get good spaghetti that does have these bumps, but it’s hard to find and most Italian eateries import their home brands such as Voiello and De Cecco.

The brand Barilla is a popular choice in the UK, but the pasta itself is only a cheap quality. The best spaghetti for a traditional version of the dish would be De Cecco, or Rummo which can be found here.

Gordon Ramsay is known to use olive oil when boiling his spaghetti. There’s no need to do this. For seasoning, all you need is table salt.

Rather it’s the way you put the spaghetti into the pan that determines if it sticks. The way to do it is to take a small handful, twist it and then let it fall in the pan. It will spread out on all sides and become easier to sink into the water.

And the best pan to use is one with a large amount of space, which also prevents sticky pasta.

Finally, pasta is always cooked to an al dente texture.

Presentation

To serve the dish, some people prefer draining the pasta and then adding the sauce to it within the pan. Others prefer to serve the pasta and sauce separately. The former option prevents sticky spaghetti when drained. The latter option allows you to store leftovers and use them in other dishes.

The cheese of choice is a high-quality grated parmigiana reggiano, also from Bologna. You can also use Parmesan or cheddar if you don’t have the others.

Sometimes, a drizzle of olive oil is added to the dish when served.

Finally, some people choose to present the dish with green fresh herbs like basil.

The debate

Now for the fun part of the story. The ragú sauce eventually made its way to the UK where it was paired with spaghetti, and more tomato added.

The result is that the sauce was now called bolognese, and it was subject to many different additional ingredients. This has led to the debate of what goes in the sauce, how to cook the dish, what pasta to use, and many other points.

Many different ingredients have been added to various different versions, such as mushrooms, BBQ or Worcestershire sauce, and peppers.

Jars of sauce appeared on the shelves. The most well known is Dolmio, which has a sweet sugary flavour, while supermarket brands contain more tomato. If you want a pretty decent supermarket sauce, the best finds are in Aldi for the Cucina sauce and the Co-operative for De Cecco.

But never use a sauce from a jar if you’re cooking for Italian people. They know their food well, and part of their culture is how they prepare, make and eat their food. Always make the sauce from scratch if you can.

If you’re a student and want something quickly due to work hours, then jars are fine.

In the US, the sauce is simply called spaghetti sauce, while in popular restaurants it is called meat sauce.

The Americans love all kinds of flavours and consider our flavours bland. Their sauces will often contain a lot of garlic, basil and oregano. Sometimes cheese is added within the sauce itself which would be enough to make a traditional Italian weep.

But above all, spaghetti sauce is extremely liquid, soup like, far different to the drier but creamier Italian original.

The debate continues as to what is best, but the Italians care for their dishes like they do their children.

Traditional recipe

A bowl of spag bol, Sonny Bailey

1 onion, peeled and finely diced

1 carrot, peeled and finely diced

1 celery stalks, finely diced

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

500g lean beef mince

500g lean pork mince

50ml red wine

50ml whole milk

4 tablespoons tomato concentrate/puree

400ml chicken or vegetable stock

500g spaghetti or tagliatelle

Optional: parmigiano reggiano, grated or shaved

  1. Add half the oil into a pan and sauté the onion, carrot and celery for 5 minutes until soft
  2. Add the beef and pork to the pan and fry until brown
  3. Add the wine to deglaze the pan and simmer for a few minutes
  4. Add the milk and simmer for a few minutes
  5. Stir in the tomato, and stock and now simmer for three hours. Stir every 15 minutes and remove the lid after 90 minutes.
  6. Remove the pan, season, cover with the lid and leave to cool for 20 minutes
  7. While the sauce is cooling, bring a large pan of water to the boil and season with salt. Add the pasta and cook for allotted time or until al dente.
  8. Drain the pasta, serve with the sauce, the other half of the oil and grated cheese

If you don’t have red wine, you can use red wine stock pots sold in Tesco.

For a vegan version, replace the meat with a plant-based mince, replace the milk with a plant-based milk, use vegetable stock, serve with vegan cheese and ensure the pasta has no egg within the ingredients.

Feature image credit: Pexels

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