While this cartoon might not be EXACTLY what we are going to talk about today, it’s just too cute to not post! Plus, let's be real, it's spaghetti and meat - soooooo kinda like ragù. Okay - think we’re stretching it a bit. Anyways, today is all about ragù. In other words, just plain deliciousness. Try not to get too hungry while reading this :)
The recipe for ragù actually varies from region to region. You’ve probably noticed that regional variance is a common factor in many of our posts, but that’s Italia. Every region, every town, every family in Italy has their own traditions on how to prepare traditional dishes. So, as always, it is important to note that there really is no "one way" of making something. Today, we are just going to discuss, in depth, two historically acclaimed types of ragù and, for fun, briefly mention other types of the sauce that are also enjoy throughout Italy.
Ragù, ragggooh, ragoh. Quite fun to say, isn’t it? This word derives from the French word ragoût, which at one time was the noun of the verb, ragoûter, meaning “to reawaken the appetite.” Eventually, the term evolved to mean quite literally a meat-based condiment that was used to accompany other cooking preparations. However, some say it indicated a type of stew that included the use of one (or more) main ingredients, such as meat, fish or vegetables, which were cut into pieces and cooked very slowly and for a long time.
Initially in Italy, the term ragoût was also used. Then, during the Fascist era, it changed to “ragutto” and eventually to that of which we are all familiar, ragù. In today’s Italy, ragù most typically defines any meat sauce that is cooked over low heat for many hours. But, of course, with the evolution of modern cooking, ragù has developed into other variations - fish, vegetarian, and also vegan. Whatever the variations, the defining factor is that it is a sauce cooked for a long period over a low fire.
Originally, ragù was a kind of stew that was eaten as a main course. Interestingly, the first recipes did not include tomatoes, giving that the tomato had not yet arrived in Europe. It was considered a dish of social status. Because meat was quite valuable during the old world eras, ragù made a common appearance on the dinner table of noble families. But, this is not to say that those of lower status did not indulge in this deliciously hearty foodstuff. Occasionally for holidays or special occasions, poorer families, would use the characteristically slow and low cooking method to extract every possible flavor of low-quality leftover meat.
Ahhhh the bolognese. The most renowned version of ragù is, not surprisingly, the classic ragù alla bolognese. Though there are several legends describing the birth of this succulent sauce, the most recognized, tracing back to the end of the 1700s, has it that it was the chef of the Cardial of Imola, Alberto Alvisi, who cooked the first real ragù alla bolognese - a plate of macaroni pasta. And, as time passed and the 1800s began, recipes for this sauce started to appear in cookbooks of the Emilia-Romagna region. The first known reference of the recipe, “Maccheroni alla Bolognese” can be found in Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 published cookbook titled, “La Scienza in Cucina e L’Arte di Mangiar Bene.”
The recipe, naturally, was shaped over the following years (and continues to this day), but on October 17th 1982, the “original” and “official” was deposited by the Italian Academy of Cuisine at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce. This was done in efforts to guarantee the continuity and respect for the tradition of Bolognese gastronomy. The "real" recipe of ragù alla bolognese calls for ground beef, pancetta, carrot, celery, onion, tomato puree, red wine, broth, whole milk, butter or olive oil, and salt and pepper. Buonissima!
As we imaginarily travel to the beautiful seaside city of Naples, we stumble upon another famous version of this meaty sauce. Contrary to the Bolognese, this sauce uses chunks of different meat (pork, veal and beef), almost as though it was for a stew. Instead of butter, it uses lard, and for its herbs, it uses fresh basil.
Ragù Napoletano dates back to the 14th century. During this era, it was called “daube de boeuf,” a stew of beef and vegetables cooked for a long period of time. This version was different to French ragout for the type of meat used. The “French” preparation of this dish began its appearance in Neapolitan cuisine only during the reign of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon in the 18th century. This was an era where French culture and fashion greatly influenced the court. This is very much the reason why many dishes of the Napoli derived from French names. More specifically, it was the wife of Ferdinand IV, Carolina d’Asburgo-Lorena, who introduced to the noble kitchens the techniques of the French cooking- more particularly that of ragù. However, this version was without the addition of tomatoes. It is said that the use of tomato in the recipe first appeared in the opera “Usi e costumi di Napoli” by Carlo Dal Bono in 1857.
This too was a sauce of social status for Napoli, especially during post-war. To flaunt one's status, it is legend that men, of all classes, would purposely dirty their shirts with a little leftover sauce and walk down the streets. This habit was one way to brag without fully exposing one’s actual financial well-being. Not only a symbol of prosperity, this ragù, was one of family and conviviality. Or, shall we say the symbol of a Neapolitan Sunday tradition. On Sundays, grandmothers and mothers would wake up at the crack of dawn to begin the long cooking preparations of special Sunday dishes that would unite their families around the dining table - one of the most famous being maccheroni al ragù.
It is said that ragù Napoletano must be cooked in a large terra-cotta or copper pot for a least 5/6 hours slow and on low fire. The secret to this sauce is that you have to “pippiare” toward the end of its cooking. This is when the sauce slowly boils with the lid slightly ajar by a ladle or wooden spoon creating a small circulation of air that favors the delicate cooking, rather than an aggressive boiling that could potentially ruin the sauce. The idea comes from the depiction of the sauce slowly bubbling, one bubble at a time, producing a similar sound to when smoking a pipe. The "pippiare" process is done when a separation between the fat and tomato sauce results- generally after an hour or so. The fat rises to the surface and the tomato sauce is left at the bottom of the pot. And thus, the ragù is ready!
Allora, after these long summaries of Bolognese and Napoletano ragù, we wanted to share with you a few other kinds of ragù that can be found in Italy. But, don’t worry! This time we’re keeping it short and quick.
Under the beautiful Tuscan sun, one can find many versions of ragù (or more correctly, in this case, "sugo") - that of cinghiale (wild boar), capriole (venison), sugo finto (vegetarian), etc. But, we'll just stick to the one most similar to Bolognese — ragù Toscano. This recipe is prepared much like that of bolognese, the only difference is its ingredients. Again, as always, recipes differ among each family; therefore, there is no “right or wrong” way. The basic recipe calls for ground beef and pork, Tuscan sausage, soffritto (carrots, celery and onion), tomato concentrate, oil and red wine. Alloro (bay leaf) and ginepro (juniper) are traditionally used; however, some skip the bay leaf and juniper and just use rosemary. Or rosemary and sage. Or just sage. Or some use both crushed tomatoes and tomato concentrate. Others garlic with the soffritto. Some even add noce moscata (nutmeg) or chicken liver! Like we said - there is no one way!
Quick and short. Quick and short. So, let’s move on.
Very close to Bologna, there is this small, little city that is home to a great treasure - ragù alla Modenese. Modena Modena Modena - ohhhh how we love your ragù. Hometown to our family. In fact, we love it so much that we dedicated an episode of our small short-film series “From La Posta to La Pentola.” This delicious recipe calls for ground pork and veal, ground mortadella or pancetta, soffritto, tomato paste, butter, oil, salt and pepper and milk. Simple, yet hearty! A must try. Traditionally speaking, this ragù is served with tagliatelle or fettuccine. However, if your heart desires short pasta, well YOU CAN’T! IT’S AGAINST THE RULES! ☺ We’re just teasing. It’s mind-blowing just the same!
And then, there is that black-sheep of a ragù - bianco. But, is it really the black sheep? We’ll leave that up to you to decide! This version of ragù is without tomatoes. This sauce is made of ground beef (some mix in ground pork), pancetta, soffritto, garlic, white wine, butter and/or oil. Some add sausage to the mix as well. The herbs and spices used vary with every recipe. Among the common ones include rosemary, bay leaf, and sage. To many, this ragù may seem bland or boring, but they’d be surprised at how flavorful it actually is. It is not as heavy; therefore, it is a dish that can be enjoyed in the warmer months, as well.
To conclude this long, but hopefully not boring, post, we would like to share a very interesting cooking secret that many of you may not have known. As with many preparations of the kitchen, the longer a dish sits in its flavors, the more tasty it becomes. Using this logic, we can only imagine that the longer a finished ragù (obviously stored in the refrigerator) sits in its juices, the tastier it becomes! For this, we always recommend to wait a day to use it. If you don’t believe us, try an experiment. The next time you make ragù, taste it the day of and then the day after. And then maybe, just maybe, you’ll believe us! And, for those who don’t feel like making anything…well…you know…there is always Pastificio!