Ragu alla Bolognese aka Bolognese sauce

Only white, no tomato.

When I asked people to tell me what they needed from me as far as recipes I received in response a recipe from a family in Bologna that has been copied from 1860. It was the family Ragu and only one member of the family could remember tasting it. He turned 92 today and his grandchildren wanted to make the Ragu for him to celebrate.

It was written in a form of Italian was a dialect from long ago and with the help of my old Latin textbooks and other references I was able to decode it. What I was presented with seemed almost too simple to be such a great memory. It also did not follow much of what we think we know about Italian cuisines.

For instance in Italy most dishes include onions OR garlic, not onions and garlic and this preparation had both. The stock or broth called for the was ‘the broth of feet. There were specific instructions about waiting until the calf is at least 6 months old, which had less to do with the veal than the percentage of fat in the cream.

This was before the invention of the meat grinder so the meat needed to be hand minced. There were indications of proportion but no actual measurements. And I had less than 10 days.

Normally work like this is something I charge a high fee for, but they sent money upfront to cover the cost of the food and gave me permission to share the recipe and even use it in a master class on Italian cooking, I needed this challenge.

I schedule an online session with the one living soul who remembered his grandmother making this dish and learned the greens were dandelion in the spring and Arugula as long as it would grow into the fall. He remembered that they had only a couple of cows but raised chickens for both eggs and to sell. He was sure the stock was made with chicken feet. As much as I tried to get him to be specific about what he was tasting he never got beyond ‘perfecto’. Stumbling in the darkness I proceeded.

As I brought the scant ingredients together I thought it was not going to be a winner, the first tastes were off balance, too redolent of cinnamon, just not good. I put the trial in the refrigerator and the next day decided to at least finish the sauce according to the instructions and see if it could be fixed.

It was transformative, the finishing steps are the most vital to bringing balance to the dish and with freshly made pasta, it was so much more than the sum of its parts. Last night I made fettuccine, today for lunch I paired the sauce with penne. I suggest the wide flat noodle to be a better choice, even if you use dried pasta.

Resist ‘Americanizing’ it with more garlic, mixed dried seasonings or other enhancements and you will be rewarded. Many meats were listed as like many I am sure they used what they had or could raise on their small farm.

The measurements below will make 6 good portions, you can use less and reserve the sauce finished as you eat it.

You will need.

  • 1 litre rich stock, chicken feet, veal feet, pig feet. The broth must be a hard gelatin when cool so no broth from a can or box. The gelatin allows the sauce to cling to the meat.
  • 1 litre White Wine. I chose a Malvasia, you want a very dry white wine
  • 400 grams or one pound of either
  • Veal, pair with fresh tarragon or thyme
  • Pork, pair with thyme
  • Duck, pair with sage
  • Lamb, pair with Rosemary and add one more clove of garlic
  • 100 grams or 1/4 pound fatty salted pork. Guanciale is best but you can use salt pork. The goal is to render the fat so pancetta and bacon if chosen should be very fatty cuts.
  • Half a head of celery using the leaves very thinly sliced.
  • 2 large onion
  • 2 clove of garlic
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dried aged sheep’s cheese (Romano)
  • Heavy cream
  • Arugula to line the bowl and garnish
  • Basil to garnish

Thinly slice the salted pork fat and lay in a cool wide pan turning the heat low to render the fat. Take your time, you want as much of the fat to melt as possible. Remove and either slice thinly or crumble.

Add in the onion and celery and sweat them. When they are soft the finely minced garlic and the meat. Raise the heat slightly and give it plenty of salt and pepper. When the meat has cooked add the wine and the stock, bring to a boil, then turn to a simmer adding a large handful of the fresh herb you will use (you will remove the stalk later) I have thyme growing on my terrace so chose that to work with the pork. Add a cinnamon stick. Add back in the now crisp pork fat.

SET A TIMER and remove the cinnamon stick after 30 minutes.

Continue to simmer until the liquid level is below that of the meat, in fact it won’t seem like a sauce at all. At this point the herb stems will be visible, remove them.

To finish add about two tablespoons of cream per person and melt 1 large handful of cheese per person into each portion along with the cream. Taste for salt and pepper (I used more salt than I would have imagined)

Finish your pasta in the sauce using pasta water as needed

Prepare a bowl or serving platter with a lining of chopped Arugula and top with a mix of Arugula and basil, along with more cheese. As you eat the spicy greens that reach your fork balance the richness of the sauce.

Serve with a VERY dry wine as this sauce makes every wine taste sweet.

Keep the portions Italian style, not American style, the finished product is very rich and you do not need massive bowls to be satisfied.

The family called me after their lunch today and Grandpa got on the phone. He thanked me for the ‘taste of his memories’ his joy was palpable as he assured me that I got it right and it was ‘perfecto’. The family is grateful to be able to make a dish from history, a dish of the ancestors, a dish made with love.

Published by Chef Wilder

A chef who has been specializing in Food tourism for several years. I decided to launch this to put in one place some of the simplest ways of making food primarily because I am seeing people in the grocery for often the first time due to the Corona outbreak who have no idea what to do with food once they get it home. In the US I became known as the Food Stamp Chef for publicly taking on both the establishment in D.C. and personally living under a food stamp budget twice in my life for two months at a time. #SocialSolidarity

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