Maccheroni alla bolognese

If you worked for Artusi’s PR machine and you wanted a single snippet of a review to paint this dish in a positive light, I would pick this:

“Artusi’s bolognese is certainly a refinement of Alvisi’s”

It’s the kind of soundbite which might tempt you to book a seat at the table, but you’d be well advised to read the rest of the review before following through with the reservation.

First the positives. This was our first homemade pasta where we switched to durum semolina flour, on Artusi’s request. As he promised, the pasta had the colour of wax which looks a lot more appetising against another fairly insipid sauce. The taste is also richer than we’ve become used to with our tipo 00 white flour. Durum wheat flour contains more gluten than white flour. Having also had the misfortune of tasting gluten free pasta, I’ve come to the conclusion that gluten is what makes pasta taste good. The more of it, the better.

The ragù itself was a let down. Artusi’s bolognese is certainly a refined version of Alvisi’s but, to my taste, he’s refined in the wrong direction. Instead of the dull meaty-floury taste of the sloppy macaroni, we are given a much more decadent taste given the increased silkiness of butter, pancetta and cream. The two tastes are kind of comparable, so hats off to Artusi for respecting the dish’s lineage.

The preparation was simple - you just throw all the core ingredients into a pan and cook through. After the Alvisi experience I wanted as much heat through the meat as I could and I cranked my biggest gas burner to full.

The initial aromas were promising. That herby smell of celery melting into the butter and bacon fat, with the browning veal steak and the “dirty” flavours of the more offaly chicken livers combined to great effect.

At the risk of offending any Italian readers (more than I already have), I actually smelt an association with good quality German doner kebab meat.

Who would have known!?

Unfortunately, things started to go downhill from there. I added a pinch of flour and a dash of brodo to nil effect. Then grated the nutmeg, which was once again absent from the final flavour.

However, it was the addition of cream which threw things off course for me. To be fair to Artusi, this was an optional, so should only have been introduced by those wanting to go down this path. On reflection, I’m not sure I’ve ever considered pastas, meats and cream to be a match made in heaven. The original flavours were still present, but the cream had reduced their powers.

It turns out I’m not alone in my cream conclusions. In Lynne Rossetto’s “The Splendid Table”, she quotes Giancarlo Roversi (already mentioned for surfacing Alvisi’s ragù) saying “whoever introduced cream into our cooking should be guillotined”. A very French end to those introducing such French ideas.

In combination, there were some unexpected highlights. Because there was no need to stew this sauce for a long period, the soffritto offered a bit of bite. With the slight crunch of the pancetta, the constituent texture on the al dente pasta made a good mix.

I also appreciated the mixture of parmesan cheese and pasta prior to merging our macaroni with the sauce. It tasted like a good way to subtly add cheese’s umami flavour, without the parmesan mountain of which I’ve grown accustomed.

Then came the lowlights. Veal filet is not the right meat for a bolognese. As hard as I tried to crisp up the small diced portions, it was never going to happen under Artusi’s instructions. The meat did turn slightly brown but inevitably, for a meat that should be heated to medium rare at most, the final texture was that of overcooked steak.

The chicken livers did not stand out, but I suspect without them the overcooked steak taste would have been even more dominant. And finally, truffle carpaccio packs none of the punch of the minced variety of truffle.

Having ventured back in time for both Alvisi and Artusi, my conclusion is simple. Neither dish tastes remotely “Italian”, at least not the Italian flavours an Englishman has grown up with.

There was definitely something missing…

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