Is calling ragù 'bolognese' really such a culinary crime?

pasta with ragu
However you make it, and whatever pasta you serve it with, this classic sauce definitely exists

One of the latest trends in restaurants is the small place that makes its own pasta. I was at Borough Market recently and one of the longest queues was for a place called Padella, which kick-started this trend. Its success has inspired several similar restaurants – Pastaio and Bancone in London, The Spärrows in Manchester, among others – to spring up over the past few years.

It seems a long way from the Spaghetti Houses that appeared in London in the Fifties and helped to popularise pasta as part of the everyday British person’s diet.

Strangely, this specialisation owes more to Japan than it does to Italy. I say this because there are small restaurants in Japan that are realistic enough to realise that you can only really excel at one thing in a kitchen. Rather than the old idea of trying to appeal to everyone, they just concentrate on one aspect. So in Tokyo it is normal to go to, say, a sushi bar and a tempura place on the same night.

I first became aware of how good pasta can be back in the Nineties when I went to a restaurant called Guido in Alba, northern Italy. The pasta was sensational, deep yellow, silky but with a bite. I asked the waiter if he could give me the recipe for the pasta and he said that they used 42 egg yolks per kilo of soft “00”-grade flour. This makes pasta a luxury rather than the staple it generally is in Italy.

Padella in London, which specialises in hand-made pasta Credit: Jeff Gilbert

I mention this because the recipe I am sharing below is for a meat sauce that has become known, in Britain at least, as “bolognese”, as in “spaghetti bolognese”. This has annoyed Italians who, rather like Indians when confronted with chicken tikka masala, deny that any such dish exists. 

This is relatively easy to unpick as the dish would be known in Italy as spaghetti al ragù. Ragù is a long and slow-cooked meat sauce of which there are many versions. I can understand the Italians’ frustration at British tourists ordering spaghetti bolognese, especially when, on encountering confusion, they just repeat themselves more loudly and slowly.

Many locals claim that ragù from Bologna should only be served with pasta made with eggs such as tagliatelle or pappardelle. It is said that the flour in the north of Italy was low in protein, and eggs were added to give the pasta the amount of protein it needs to be smooth and silky. In the south, pasta was made with durum wheat, which is higher in protein and so can be made with just water, and then extruded by machine to make pastas such as spaghetti or macaroni.

However, in 2016 a book called Spaghetti alla Bolognese: l’altra faccia del tipico by the late Piero Valdiserra uncovered documents indicating that spaghetti was quite common over the past few hundred years in and around Bologna. Pasta with egg was a rich person’s food or a restaurant speciality (it also cooks in seconds rather than 10 minutes for hard pasta) but the poor people of the region did, in fact eat spaghetti – and often with ragù.

It seems that if you were poor or on rations, like most of Britain in the early Fifties, it was common to eat spaghetti with a ragù. If that ragù was like the one made in Bologna, then what else would you call it?