Tuesday, 16 November 2010

How authentic is your bolognese? And do we care? And Soffritto.

Authenticity’s a tricky one, isn’t it?  On the one hand, yes, absolutely, I passionately believe in it.  On the other hand, sod off, I really don’t care.  On the one hand, of course you’re looking for the Chinese restaurant in Chinatown that’s full of actual Chinese people and has a menu you don’t even know which way up to hold.  And if you’re in Seville you want to go to the tapas bar where old men are drinking sherry, not the one with all the bullfight posters and flamenco dresses on the walls and the menu in Spanglish with pictures of the food.  And if you’re in Bologna with your mate Paolo, and he invites you to join him and his family for a dish of his nonna’s totally authentic tagliatelle Bolognese, of course you jump at the chance.

It’s when authenticity becomes orthodoxy that there’s a problem.  When it becomes dogma.  When a rule gets laid down that this or that is the best and only way to do something.  That’s a bad thing, and it’s just plain wrong.  Let me make this clear: THERE IS NEVER, EVER, ONLY ONE WAY TO COOK ANYTHING.

A recipe is only a guide and there are as many different versions of the finished dish as there are people who follow it.  Which brings me on to another bugbear of mine: people serving something up at their own table and referring to it as Delia’s this, or Jamie’s that.  It’s not theirs.  By this point it’s yours.  Don’t do yourself down, by all means give credit where it’s due, but take possession of the fruits of your own labours.  It may have been Nigella’s recipe, but it’s your chocolate cake.  And okay, maybe that’s a bad example, cakes and baking generally being the one area where you do have to stick closely to the recipe, but even so – you think Nigella came up with that recipe from first principle?  Do you?  Really?

Anyway, back to authenticity: there are two main and quite distinct problems with it. 

Firstly, orthodoxy is, of course, the enemy of creativity.  If we are all slaves to an agreed authentic norm (or to meticulously sticking to the recipe, for that matter) then nobody will ever get to do anything new, fresh, interesting.  The authentic will become boring.  It’ll very soon go stale.  I’m not, personally, a huge fan of the kind of cuisine being practiced by the likes of Ferran Adria, or Heston Blumenthal, the practitioners of so called ‘molecular gastronomy’, but I’m very glad they’re there.  There always needs to be someone being experimental, playful, creatively messing about with the familiar and traditional.  And you can’t do that without, in effect, saying bugger authenticity (while, at the same time, respecting it - about which Adria has some interesting things to say here).  And you don’t need to be Heston Blumenthal, working away in his lab, to come home from Spain or Italy, or a Spanish or Italian restaurant, with a fond memory of a particular dish, and recreate a version of that dish in your own kitchen, with locally available ingredients.  It may not be ‘authentic’, but does that mean it’s any less good?  It might even be better, and best of all, you might have created something entirely new and different.  And how much more exciting is that?

Secondly, how do we agree on what’s authentic in the first place.  I’m quite sure that Paolo’s nonna’s bolognese is fantastic, and totally, truly authentically Bolognese.  But meet Paolo’s next door neighbour Paola and I’m sure you’ll find that her nonna has an equally fantastic, and totally, truly authentic recipe herself, except it’s really quite different in a number of significant ways.  Whose nonna is to be the benchmark of authenticity, and whose are we to deride as a fraud and a sham?

Now I hate the words ‘spag bol’ as much as anyone, and I readily concede that the watery stew of tomato and boiled mince that is often served up under the name is a rank abomination.  And I know that even a good ‘traditional British’ bolognese, made with beef mince, is an utter bastardization, and a pale shadow, of the real thing with its four different cuts of three different meats (beef, veal and pork, none of them minced) simmered gently over a wood fire for six hours, but that’s no excuse for the sheer disdain I heard being expressed by an Italian chef on the radio recently, at the apparently outrageous suggestion that garlic might feature in the list of ingredients (I never believed a lip could curl audibly till I heard it on the radio).  If your devotion to authenticity is such that you are willing to contemptuously disregard garlic on the grounds of ‘that’s not how we do it in Bologna’ then I have three things to say to you, in descending order of politeness:  1. Try it, you might like it.  2. Get a life. 3. Do I really need to say it?  I’ll give you the ‘off’, you can fill in the first word for yourself.  Or, as, in this case, it’s directed to an Italian, or at least, presumably, an italophile, then ‘va fa’n culo’ will do the job nicely.  And as for the French, the undisputed World heavyweight champions of authenticity fascism, don’t get me started.  CassouletBouillabaisse?  It’s a meat and bean casseroleIt’s fish stew.  Make them how you like.  I’ll post my own recipes for each of these in later blog posts, I’m sure, and feel free to kill me if I make any claim to authenticity for either...

Anyway, at the risk of offending the good people of Bologna, here’s ‘my’ version of a bolognese.  Tell you what, let’s just call it a minced beef ragu…  Not that it needs to be beef.  You can do it with pork, or veal, or a mix of beef and pork.  Or lamb.  And the basic recipe can be followed, and adapted in any number of ways, to provide the basis for not just spaghetti (or tagliatelle, or gnocchi etc) bolognese, but also  lasagne, shepherd or cottage pies, moussaka or chilli con carne.  None of which may have any claim to authenticity, all of which will taste damned good.

500g good quality mince
4 thick rashers smoked streaky bacon, or pancetta, cut into batons, or approx 100g lardons
1 large onion, 2 sticks celery, 2 small carrots all chopped, not too finely
125g mushrooms, diced
1 x 400g can tinned tomatoes
Tomato puree
garlic, chilli, thyme, 2 bay leaves, salt & pepper (and a little finely chopped fresh horseradish if you have it)
approx 250ml red wine
approx 250ml beef stock
olive oil

Brown the mince in a big iron casserole, then remove it and set aside.  If you are using minced lamb, you’ll also need to spoon out and discard a good amount of fat at this point, but leave a little behind, that’s good flavour.  Add the bacon/pancetta/lardoons and fry till they’re starting to colour.  Depending on how much fat’s been released by the meat you might need to add a splash of olive oil now, then the garlic, chilli, horseradish if you’re using it, a good sprinkle of fresh thyme and a generous grind of black pepper (no salt at this stage, the bacon should supply that).  As soon as all those flavours have hit the pan and had a few seconds to infuse the fat and oil tip in the onion, carrot and celery.  Stir it all together, add a bit more olive oil if it needs it, and let it all cook together gently for five to ten minutes, or until the onions are starting to go translucent and the carrot and celery starting to soften.  At this point you have what’s called, in Italian, a soffritto (see below), the real foundation of your sauce.

Add the mushrooms, to your soffritto, and allow them to sautee for a minute or two, then add back the mince, pour over the wine and give it a generous squirt of tomato puree.  Stir it all through and let it bubble away for five minutes or so until the wine has noticeably reduced.  Then add the tomatoes and the stock, a bay leaf or two, bring it to a gentle simmer and leave it there, covered for an hour and half, or two.  Depending on the liquid levels you might want to add a splash more stock or wine along the way, but don’t make it too gloopy.  Check the seasoning.  Stir through some fresh basil or parsley right at the end if you like, and, if you don’t have a girlfriend that’s allergic, you can stir a generous grating of parmesan right into the sauce too.

This recipe provided the basis of 3 dinners for the two of us, first up with linguine, then in a dish topped with mash for a sort of cottage pie, and finally as a sauce for some home made squash gnocchi.  Plus a lunch for one with leftover cottage pie.  And not once during any of those meals did anyone give a stuff about authenticity.


A soffritto, or battuto, is a fundamental building block of Italian cookery, and forms the basis of almost every meaty sauce and stew.  In Spanish they call it sofrito, in French it’s sofrit, in Catalan, sofregit.  Its Portuguese equivalent goes by the name of refogada, and it exists, in one form or another, even if it goes unnamed, as far as I’m aware, pretty much anywhere anybody is making meaty sauces and stews.  It can be as simple as onions softened in oil, but because it is going to be the root, provide the bass note, of all the flavour permeating your finished dish, you’ll normally add a bit more too it than that, garlic for instance (whatever they might have to say about that in Bologna) and the hard herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage).  I almost always add a hit of chilli, fresh or flakes, for a bit of background heat (or enough to bring that heat to the foreground for a chilli con carne, say).  You might add leek, fennel, or even diced peppers, but most classically you’d include carrot and celery, and it’s no coincidence that onion, carrot and celery are your three essential veg for making a stock, or a mirepoix (which is essentially the French equivalent of soffritto, except that it is referred to in it’s uncooked state). 

To my mind, incidentally, and I don’t believe I’m alone in this, it’s the inclusion of carrot and celery in your soffritto, more than any other element, more even than which meat, or what cut you use, that defines your sauce as a ‘bolognese’ or not.  But that’s really by the by, what really matters is that whether you’re setting out to make a Bolognese, an osso buco, or even a Lancashire hotpot, a good soffritto (whether you give it that name or not, and in the case of a Lancashire hotpot, probably best not) is where you want to start.


  1. Feel free to use white wine. It is, undoubtedly more "authentic" - but that was rather the point being made...

  2. Hoorah! Agree, there's a place for authentic recipes (though, as you say, there can be many many variations, the idea that everyone in Bologna has made ragu to the exact same recipe for the last several hundred years is clearly laughable). And there's a place for adaptation.

  3. For me, it is the naming of the dish. If you call it something it should be close to what the world expects of the dish. Nothing is more infuriating than going to a restaurant and ordering - say Caesar salad - and getting something not even close.