My first trip to Italy was in 1963, when I went on holiday to Rome and Venice with my parents. I had just started learning Italian, but, nevertheless was able to interpret successfully for my parents - the start of a lifetime's career. My 'side' career, though, has always been cookery, and both my father and mother were excellent cooks, and I grew up with a keen interest in the preparation of food. In 1965, I went to Italy for the first time on my own, to the University of Perugia summer school, staying with a family, and it was there that I started to learn Italian cookery. I remember going shopping for fresh ingredients each morning with the Signora. There, I learned how to select lush, ripe fresh plum tomatoes ready for cooking that day, and the Signora taught me how to make 'Ragu' di carne', or, meat sauce for pasta. She used to add milk at the early stage of cooking, and the result was always excellent. I have used these recipes ever since.
I learned that tomato sauce is served with spaghetti, but meat sauces are always served with tagliatelle, pappardelle, or other ribbon pasta. I learned, too, that 'ragu di carne' is best served - this was the advice of one of Italy's great chefs of the early 1900's -Luigi Carnacina - with the tagliatelle pre-tossed, when cooked al dente, in butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
There seem to be many variations of bolognese sauce, and for years I have wondered whether my recipe - the Signora's - was authentic. There are versions using a mixture of minced beef, pork and veal; versions with porcini mushrooms; with chicken livers; I have come across versions with bell peppers, and, once, with sausage!
The earliest reference I have found to 'Ragu' alla bolognese is a 15th century recipe, which describes lining a casserole dish with prosciutto and strips of pork fat, laying chopped onion, (no garlic - Italian patricians for centuries abhorred garlic smells on the breath, which was looked down on at Court) carrot, celery and fresh wild herbs, which would be parsley, sage, rosemary and origano, and laying over that best quality finely chopped beef. The whole would then be covered in dry red wine and beef stock, and cooked over a slow fire for at least four hours, or until the meat was dark brown with a 'burnt' appearance. A little cream should be added at the end of cooking, to ennoble the dish.
Tomatoes didn't come into the equation until late on in the 15th century, reaching italy through Spain, where potatoes, maize, peppers of all kinds, tomatoes and American beans were introduced by the triumphant Conquistadores.The whole of Southern Italy was under Spanish Bourbon rule at the time, and it is said that these new foodswere first introduced into Palermo, Sicily, and thence found their way up the Italian peninsula and becoming part of the main staples of Italian food, and tomatoes soon found their way into some - though not all - meat sauces, including Bolognese.
Through the annals of history there are references to Bolognese sauce being made with a mix of beef, pork and veal, with porcini mushrooms, and with chicken livers. I have tried these, and they are all good, but the only old recipe I have found which refers to the use of milk is the fifteenth century one. There are other Italian recipes from around Bologna and Florence for braising pieces of beef or pork or lamb in milk and lemon, and they are well worth trying as they are very good. The resultant sauce is known as 'gentleman's sauce' because of its refined flavour. My Signora was always adamant about the use of milk in Bolognese sauce, and I must say, without it, it is a different sauce.
It was interesting to find, therefore, that the Italian Academy of Cuisine has now copyrighted a recipe for Bolognese sauce through the Bologna Chamber of Commerce, that after 38 years of searching, here we have a recipe which includes milk!!! Porcini mushrooms may be added as an option, if you want a very rich sauce. Just one note: if you are going to pass this recipe on to anyone, please acknowledge the copyright!
Best quality minced beef: 300gr
very finely chopped bacon: 150 gr
finely chopped carrot: 50gr
finely chopped celery: 50gr
finely chopped onion: 50gr
double concentrate tomato paste: 30gr
white/red wine (dry): half a glass
whole fresh milk: 1 glass
Sweat the bacon in olive oil in a large terracotta pan. Add the vegetables and sweat gently. Add the meat and brown gently. Do not over'brown'. It should just be sizzling gently when you start adding the milk. Add the milk bit by bit until absorbed. add the wine and tomato paste diluted with fresh beef stock. Cook very gently for 3 - 4 hours, until the sauce is a rich dark colour.
The Signora's recipe uses a little nutmeg in this sauce, and the quantity of milk is slightly less. She recommended a swirl of cream at the end of the cooking, mixed into the sauce.
ciao a tutti