When I first made the “official” 1982 l’Accademia della cucina tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese my eyes were opened to a very different bolognese experience to the one I’d grown up with.
Rather than being hit by the tangy and tomatoey flavour bomb of jarred spaghetti sauce, I was introduced to a very different taste. The sugo was intensely rich in butter, animal fats and reduced red wine, with a fairly modest amount of tomato passata.
Before adding the milk (as is required by the classic recipe instructions) I had a bolognese closer to a dressing than the pasta sauce I recognised. Meat and fats with very little moisture in between. The sauce had more of a French feel, at least compared to the Italian taste I thought I understood.
There isn’t a great deal of skill required to emulate this famous dish. All the hard work is delivered through the ingredients, and herein lies the problem for most non-Italians trying to replicate this recipe.
The official account calls for some ingredients which can be pretty hard to source outside of Italy’s borders.
The pork content is provided by pancetta, an Italian cured pork belly. Make no mistake - Italian pancetta does not equal western European or American bacon. The curing process clearly adds a depth of flavour to the meat, turning the fat into an easily rendered, buttery and savoury taste. Strong hints of pepper fill the nostrils as you melt the meat in the pan.
You can buy pork products “in the style of” pancetta in the UK. However, in my experience at least, these are closer to our own bacon variants than their names suggest.
Importing real pancetta is a challenge but not an insurmountable one. The biggest difficulty you will have is finding the right beef for ragù alla bolognese.
Although the official recipe provides a few options, the makers intent is for the dish to be prepared with the difficult-to-find cartella di manzo cut of beef.
Sad old cow
When l’Accademia were deciding on their 1982 recipe, they took a purely technocratic approach, without consulting Bologna’s restaurateurs. At the time this proved to be a hugely controversial choice, and the Bolognan press was buzzing with scorn and vitriol about how the establishment had gotten it so wrong. L’Accademia stood their ground and offered an explanation for their balance of ingredients.
It is fair to describe some of the historic ragù’s of northern Italy as “decadent”, using either prime cuts of meat, full measures of prized brodo, cream or even truffles. L’Accademia’s argument was that the true origin of this world beating dish had been the humble farmer, who would struggle to make ends meet.
The farmer would rear animals for the consumption by others but had very little opportunity to enjoy meat. They would keep a cow for milk, and as the old, beleaguered bovine became short on her production, the farmer would ask for one final sacrifice.
The cow would have been well past its peak, and so whatever meat could be salvaged would require a long and slow cook to denature its collagen-rich flesh. None were tougher than the cow’s diaphragm and this was the cut l’Accademia chose for their recipe. In Italy this is referred to as cartella di manzo, in UK butchery we call this outside skirt.
Cartella di manzo is a very difficult meat to find. Your best option is to buy it by its Japanese handle - harami.
In Japan this meat is highly prized for use with the yakitori barbeque. You can read more about the incredible global imbalance of interest this meat generates in the bolognese story.
Hope is not lost
So with a shopping list that just stops short on the inclusion of unicorn tears, you may be feeling a little despondent about your chances of tasting the official ragù alla bolognese.
Have no fear, there’s no need to be sad!
This is the age of the Internet. You can tour the Acropolis of Athens in your underpants, visit the Louvre whilst on the loo, and now recreate the authentic taste of tagliatelle al ragù alla bolognese with easy-to-find ingredients!
I’m not saying this will be easy-to-make. There’s more preparation in this version than the original, so you’ll need to work a little harder to fill the gaps. However, I do promise you’ll be able to trick the mind into thinking it’s sampling l’Accademia’s masterpiece.
In order to mimic the cow’s diaphragm you need to understand what it brings. The diaphragm is a stewing cut and has a generous marbling of fat. It is officially classed as offal and although it doesn’t have the full flavour of cow’s liver, it does have a slight gamey and offaly taste which I now associate with the humble farmer’s ragù.
I’m starting out with a helping of Waitrose diced “braising steak”. It does annoy me when a cut of meat is described by its cooking method rather than in reference to its butchery. I don’t expect this would happen in France, where carnivores are happy to acknowledge that the meat and the animal are the same thing.
Luckily, by using the nutritional information on the pack, I’m able to extrapolate against some of the lesser seen equivalent cuts on their fresh deli. I believe this to be top rib, aka the housekeeper’s cut which is a lean and tough steak from the shoulder of the cow.
Top rib has a strong beef flavour but is not remotely gamey nor offaly, and its leanness is the antithesis of what a good ragù requires.
Having learned so much about Bologna’s most famous export, it always surprises me to read top chefs recommend the use of lean beef mince when replicating this dish. It’s a suggestion that’s a million miles away from what l’Accademia had in mind. A good ragù alla bolognese needs to be rich in animal fats. It’s a non negotiable.
To boost the fat content I’m including some pre-prepared beef dripping. Not just any beef dripping - this one comes from oxtail, which provides the required hint of gaminess. Still lacking in the mildly offaly taste I also include a couple of chicken livers.
The chicken livers are to be chopped to the point they disintegrate into mush, while the tough beef should be finely sliced - admittedly an arduous affair - but consistent with the hand sliced tradition of Bolognan meat preparation.
Good pancetta is both easier to get your hands on and harder to fake, so feel free to use the real stuff if you can find it.
I’ve already mentioned pancetta’s buttery and peppery taste but also need to point out the textural element the pork brings in the original ragù alla bolognese.
L’Accademia’s cooking instructions are explicit in their request for pancetta preparation:
"…first cut into small cubes and then finely chopped with a mezzaluna."
The instructions lead you to a minced mountain of tiny pork and fat bits. Under a medium heat this produces not only a completely rendered fat content, but also small specks of bacony bits with a slight crunch.
To replicate this flavour and texture I’m starting with finely sliced rashers of unsmoked streaky bacon - the type with more meat than fat. I’ll be cooking these in a mixture of rendered lard (for a savoury, fatty flavour), jarred goose fat (for a cream, fatty flavour) and plenty of pepper.
Combining the two fats is the closest pancetta equivalent I can make. The way the bacon cooks into dry chunks is, admittedly, a crime against Italian cooking. However, after the upcoming two hour stew, the bacon does eventually break down.
The rendered lard will require a batch of pork stock to be prepared on top of the beef stock we needed for the beef dripping. If you decided to instead double your quantities of goose fat, I’d be willing to turn a blind eye.
We’ll now have a solid pancetta taste but will be lacking the final crunch. For this element, I’m shallow frying the salty, cured Italian antipasti - prosciutto. This is broken down into small specs and reserved for stirring into my ragù towards the end of cooking.
With most of the hard work done it is now time to turn our heads to the formality of a good soffritto. Barely worth mentioning, but a diversion from the original recipe, which bizarrely calls for yellow carrots to be included in the soffritto mix.
You can comfortably switch to orange carrots with no tangible difference to taste, texture or appearance of our finished dish.
An authentic taste with inauthentic ingredients
After a long and slow cook, and the final inclusion of milk and my reserved crispy bacony-bits, we have a very close approximation to what l’Accademia had in mind for their ragù alla bolognese. In true Northern Italian style, I combine it with tagliatelle and a sprinkle of parmesan.
The taste is every bit as good as I remember when making this dish with the official ingredients. You can quickly hone in on the animal fat decadence, with a mild acidity that expertly cuts through it.
You may now be suitably inspired to make the original with all the trimmings for comparison. In the meantime, however, feel free to fake it ‘til you make it!
The ragù can be refrigerated or frozon.
- 250g diced braising steak (aka Top Rib, or any equivalent lean, hardworking cut)
- 30g beef dripping (separated from oxtail brodo, or purchased in a jar)
- 50g chicken livers
- 15g goose fat
- 15g pork lard (separated from pork rib brodo, or an additional 15g of goose fat)
- 115g streaky bacon (the variety with more meat than fat)
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 50g onion (about ¼ medium)
- 50g orange carrot (1 small carrot)
- 50g celery stalks (1 celery stick)
- 50g butter
- 300ml passata
- 125ml red wine
- 50ml pork rib brodo
- 250ml whole milk
- 2 slices prosciutto
- 4 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 400g tagliatelle (preferably fresh)
- 4 litres of water
- 40g salt
- Finely slice the onions, carrots and celery, using a sharp knife or a mezzaluna. Set aside
- Finely slice the chicken livers until the livers start to resemble a thick paste. Set aside.
- Chop and finely slice the beef using a sharp knife. Set aside.
- Chop and finely slice the bacon and set aside.
- Combine the goose fat and pork lard in a pan and bring to a low heat. Add the sliced bacon and fry until the fat is fully rendered and the meat turns to a dark red.
- Add the butter to the pan and cook until the butter starts to foam gently.
- Add the onion, carrots and celery and cook over a low heat for 10-15 minutes, or until the soffritto has softened.
- Stir in the cartello di manzo substitute ingredients (beef dripping, chicken livers and beef top rib) and cook on a medium heat for 10 minutes as the beef starts to brown.
- Add the wine and allow to bubble away until reduced by about a half.
- Stir in the passata, lower the heat and place a lid on your pan. The ragù will need 2 hours to cook and will require stiring every 15-30 minutes
- Gradually add the pork brodo throughout the cooking and check the seasoning is to your liking. Add more brodo if you’re losing too much moisture (although this shouldn’t happen on a low heat).
- Meanwhile, slice the prosciutto into small squares and shallow fry in 4 tablespoons of vegetable oil. The heat should be very low to avoid burning and the prosciutto should turn a deep red and be dry enough to crumble in your fingers. Transfer to paper towel to dry the oil from the meat. Set aside and allow to cool.
- Once cooled, crush the prosciutto in a pestle and mortar or with your hands.
- About 5 minutes before you are ready to serve, add the milk to the ragù and give it a good stir.
- Stir in the prosciutto crumbs.
- Bring a large pot of boiling water to the boil. You should be using 1 litre of water and 10g of salt per 100g of pasta.
- Cook the tagliatelle until al dente (with fresh pasta this will not take long)
- Once cooked, drain the tagliatelle in a colander and shake off as much of the water as possible.
- Mix the tagliatelle with the ragù and plate even portions between each bowl
- Spoon out any remaining ragù over the top of the tagliatelle.
- Top with a light sprinkling of parmesan.