An important and embryonic version of our favourite dish was recorded in the late 18th century by Alberto Alvisi. Alvisi was the personal chef cum man-servant to the Bishop of Imola, Barnaba Niccolò Maria Luigi Chiaramonti (aka Gregorio to his mates).
At the time, this would have been equivalent to being a roadie at an early Rolling Stones gig. Chiaramonti went on to be Pope Pius VII and would butt heads with Napoleon, whereas Alvisi fades away through the sands of time.
It was a productive period for Alvisi though. He and the soon-to-be Pope would have shared an appreciation for fresh produce, fine food, and
altar boys good times. During his 1785-1799 tenure as Chiaramonti’s chef, Alvisi documented 25 of his best recipes in his manuscripts. Bolognan journalists Aureliano Bassani and Giancarlo Roversi resurrected these recipes in their 1994 book:
The title stinks of a life of servitude. A humble personal chef doing anything he can to keep his entitled God-bothering master satiated. Alvisi’s work is important because it had the first documented account of a ragù being served with pasta.
The dish was called “ragù per i maccheroni appasticciati” or “ragù for sloppy maccheroni”.
The recipe makes no mention of “Bolognese”, but this doesn’t mean the dish wouldn’t eventually fill those boots. Alvisi was most likely born in Cesena and lived with Chiaramonti in Imola. Just like London-Luton Airport, it’s all the same thing when you have no concept of another country’s geography.
The recipe was retold in Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s book “The Splendid Table”, this time called “The Cardinal’s Ragu”. However, Kasper’s book presents a modernised version of the original, so we are going to skip straight to the text of “Eminenza, il pranzo è servito” for a closer look.
Lardo ben fonduto ed un’oncia di buttiro con cipolla ben pesta e carne o di vitello o lombo di porco oppure anche magoni di polli tagliati minuti. Si mettono nella cazzaruola a fuoco violento a prendere un bel colore carrico, aggiungendovi del brodo, a poco a poco, ed un’oncia di farina, accio prenda corpo il sudetto ragu, avertendo che questo ragu deve essere ne troppo lungo ne troppo stretto, ma di perfetta cottura, condito sufficientemente con sale, pepe, canella o qualche altra droga.
Li maccheroni poi si devono cuocere perf ettamente a lesso o nel brodo o nell’acqua discretamente salata prima di servirli al sudetto ragu.
Levati dall’acqua, si mettono ben scolati in un vaso grande, versandovi sopra il sopradetto ragu, mescolandoli nel medesimo un poco, il che si deve fare almeno un’ora prima del pranzo.
Prima pero di servirli in tavola, che vogliono essere caldi bene, si devono condire e mescolarli con forma sufficientemente.
Avertendo pero che il sudetto ragu, per aver maggior sostanza, sarebbe necessario unire salari sicuramente, qualche funghetto tagliati mi-nuti, qualche poco di tartuffi.
Put well-rendered lard, an ounce of butter, a finely chopped onion, and veal, pork loin or even some finely-minced chicken gizzard in a pot, and cook the mixture over high heat until nicely browned. Add the broth little by little along with an ounce of flour to give body to the sauce as it reduces.
Be aware that this ragù must be neither too watery nor too thick, but perfectly cooked, and sufficiently flavored with salt, pepper, cinnamon or other spices. The pasta must then be perfectly cooked in meat broth or well-salted water before serving with the above mentioned ragù. Drain the pasta thoroughly and put it into a large bowl. Add the ragù and give it a stir.
It will suffice at least for a first course at lunch. It is essential that the dish be hot and well mixed before bringing it to the table.
Please note that in order to give the above mentioned ragù more substance it may be necessary to unify the savory flavors by adding some finely chopped mushrooms or truffles.
On the face of it this is a fairly simple recipe, but once again we will try and capture all the subtleties in our recreation.
First it is worth discussing what a ragù had come to mean in this period of Northern Italian cuisine.
The Italian ragù is a derivation of the French ragoût which in turn derives from the French ragoûter meaning “to revive the taste”.
In 1796 the French had chalked up a rare military victory over the Northern Italians, and rather than rain genocide over the good people of Emilia-Romagna, they introduced them to new ways of stewing meat or fish with vegetables. More accurately, it would have been a lesson reserved for noblemen and future Popes, because there wasn’t a great deal of meat to go around for the peasants of the time.
Jamie Vardy latches onto a ball over the top at the Bridge of Arcole
So the stage is set for its preparation. There is an element of a low and slow cook.
We’re offered a pretty mixed choice of meats.
Pork loin is to a pig as sirloin is to a cow. It’s a relatively lazy lump of flesh which hasn’t worked particularly hard during the pig’s life. The result is a lean, prime cut, which is normally reserved for a roast or sliced into medallions rather than a slow cooked stew. It’s not quite as prime as tenderloin, but this is still quite a big difference from our cartella di manzo experience in the official ragù alla bolognese, where we were technically using offal for the finished dish.
It’s not clear whether the veal is also intended to be loin, but there is no mistaking that the offer of finely minced chicken gizzards on a restaurant menu would be perceived as sub-prime.
Chicken gizzard is a tough piece of offal meat from the digestive tract. You will struggle to get gizzards from UK supermarkets.
I can’t see that the choice of meat was taken too seriously in those days. It’s likely Chiaramonti was living on his own estate, where his staff would rear his pigs, cows and chickens for slaughter. A big part of Avisi’s job would have been the domestic management of reducing food waste. If he’d slaughtered a pig on Tuesday, he was unlikely to be preparing his ragù with chicken gizzards on Wednesday.
Chicken gizzards might make for an interesting choice. I’ve never seen one, let alone eaten one, but know they are often used for making rich chicken stocks. However, I’m going to opt for the pork loin as the base for the sauce as it’s clear from the recipe I’ll be using the cut Avisi intended.
I would rather be using shoulder but I’m once again opting for authenticity over personal choice. The recipe doesn’t tell us how much to use so we will have to apply some judgement. I will make a decision as the rest of the meal is constructed.
In the late 18th century dying of coronary heart disease would have been a luxury afforded only to the elite. Surviving cholera, smallpox and the boredom of having no internet was the order of the day, so chefs certainly wouldn’t have worried about the saturated fat content of their dishes.
Alvisi pens what would be considered a rather decadent mix by today’s standards.
We’ve translated the fat requirements too literally here. In the same way that UK bacon does not equal Italian pancetta, neither does the industrially rendered pig fat we call lard equal Italian lardo.
Lardo is consumed across Italy but is recognised as a speciality of the Tuscan hamlet of Colonnata, where it’s been produced since Roman times. It begins as the fatback of the pig and, just like pancetta, is also salt cured and left to age in a cool dark place. The curing process would have allowed Alvisi to keep his master fed through a harsh winter, without poisoning him with spoiled animal products, but in addition adds a depth of flavour to the fat.
I’ll be using some imported lardo which has been cured and aged for 60 days. Once again, we will need to balance the quantities ourselves as the weight of lardo is not provided in the recipe.
It should come as no surprise to us that butter is once again favoured over olive oil by our northern Italian friends - French influences shining through once more. This time we are given a quantity to work with, which should provide a useful marker for the other weightless ingredients.
The Three Tenors - onion, carrot and celery - appear to all be working on their solo albums as our 18th century “soffritto” looks more of a one-man-band. But at least there’s no yellow carrot! If it’s good enough for His Holiness, it’s good enough for me.
The sauce is a fairly simple affair.
We’re working with some lean meat, but the volume of cooking fats and the browning of said meat, and the flavour from the onion should result in a pretty tasty base for the sauce. Adding broth “little by little” implies we will be reducing this down, as we’ve become accustomed to with ragù preparation.
Our brodo from the previous recipe was simple, but I can’t imagine Alvisi was using the meats from three animals at the same time in his. I would imagine he would be on a cycle, if he’d slaughtered chicken, then pig, then veal, he was probably using chicken stock with pig, pig stock with veal, and so on. They may also have been combined to make them last longer - the dregs from the chicken stock being combined with fresh pig, etc.
Anyway, I’ve ended up with multiple ice cube tray’s worth of the stuff, so I’m going to stick with the same brodo I prepared for the ragù alla bolognese, even if it is a bit fancy by 18th century standards.
The ounce of flour is a bit of a turn off for me. It is being used to add substance to the sauce, but I’ve seen the overuse of flour in sauces result in a gluggy, tasteless mess. We’ll have to see how this translates in the final dish.
The closest we have to some cooking advice comes from the sentence
Never have so many words delivered so little information. Basically, don’t mess it up, but it’s up to us to work out what that means.
With our experience of pulling together a bolognese, we should have a feel for the required “sauciness” of a ragù, but it will be anyone’s guess whether we’ve replicated the true dish with our attempt.
My hunch is that people in the 18th century would have been more used to a slightly looser consistency with their food, but am possibly basing this on my knowledge of the tastes of old British grannies.
The next set of ingredients is intriguing.
Salt and pepper are run of the mill (pun intended), but cinnamon and “other spices” may seem completely alien to a dish destined for bolognese stardom. However, this was not unusual for French ragoûts of the age - they would regularly be prepared with fruits and aromatics.
This trend gradually went out of favour as the world’s ragoûts and ragùs became more and more savoury, but at the time this would have been completely normal in the French influenced Northern Italy.
Sadly, for my tastes at least, the “other spices” is not a reference to ground bhut jokiah, Carolina reaper or any of the other chillies which say “hello” on the way in and “goodbye” on the way out. Instead, think “old people spices”, like caraway, allspice, clove and of course cinnamon. If we were to go overboard the resultant mix is likely to give that mulled wine aroma.
The delivery of pasta is another of those elements of the dish which looks straightforward on paper but will require inspection under the microscope.
The title of the recipe is quite clear in it’s request for “maccheroni”, however, don’t reach for the mac’n’cheese variety just yet.
In 18th century Italy, maccheroni was a catch-all term for all types of pasta, the same way we use “pasta” today.
The pasta tastes of 18th century Italy were not too dissimilar to today. In the north, they tend to favour flat and wide pasta, while in the south, round and tubular is preferred.
You should already be familiar with the importance of these norms with the fire and fury we’ve suffered from mixing bolognese with spaghetti. You’d need to speak to an Italian etymologist to understand exactly what maccheroni would have meant to Alvisi, but I’ve found a perfect get out for us to hedge our bets.
Garganelli is a classic pasta of the Emilia-Romagna region and is a perfect choice for Alvisi’s recipe. The pasta is made by rolling a square of egg-dough diagonally over a ribbed board with a thin stick. The result is something that looks a bit like penne, but is clearly made from a flat sheet.
Like all good food, its inception is liberally sprinkled with local folk tales that have that faint whiff of bullshit about them.
Legend has it that another Bishop’s personal chef invented garganelli on New Years Eve 1725, this time it was Bishop Bentivoglio D’Aragona (God’s earpiece in Romagna) and his chef used a weaver’s comb to roll leftover dough.
Legend also has it that garganelli was invented 200 years earlier by the personal chef of Caterina Sforza - the Countess of Forlì and Lady of Imola - who ran out of filling for that evening’s cappelletti when the cat ate it. He was forced to magic up a dish with imaginatively shaped pasta to avoid a flogging from his master.
Naturally, I prefer the cat story, and indeed any other story where inventiveness outshines incompetence. Regardless of the origin of this pasta, it is the one we will use because it is both flat and round, and is also sometimes called “maccheroni al pettine” (“maceroni of the comb”), which matches the title of the dish nicely.
There’s also a word of caution with 18th century pasta preparation for it to be “perfectly cooked”.
We had earlier been waxing lyrical about the al dente taste, but it is fair to say in the long and winding history of pasta, “al dente” is a relatively new concept. For a long period of pasta’s existence, chefs have been overcooking it.
It’s not clear when the masses switched preferences to a firmer finish, nor how this would have filtered through to the likes of Alvisi, but we can assume this pasta would have been cooked for longer than we suggested for the tagliatelle of our bolognese.
Anecdotally, it has long been acknowledged that what a northern Italian would call al dente would be considered mush by those to the south. This is probably less true than it used to be, but points to another reason why we should let our garganelli stew a little longer than we normally would. For this reason I’ll be making a relatively thick pasta to stand up to the cooking time. This is probably how things were done anyway when the only pasta making tool at a chef’s disposal was a rolling pin.
The recipe instructions point to further considerations for cooking pasta in the 18th century.
We’re given the option to cook the pasta “in meat broth or well-salted water”. Alvisi worked under Chiaramonti, who was destined to become one of the most powerful men in the world, but I don’t believe they would show such infrugality as to cook their pasta in gallons of meat stock. This seems to rule out Heston’s 1:10:100 rule discussed previously.
Our garganelli shall be cooked for a long period, and crammed into a shallow pan of meat stock.
Il Tocco Finale
Alvisi provides us with a couple of options for finishing our ragù.
Given the way the dish is shaping up, this is a tempting offer. Pork loin is great, but it’s not going to offer up much of itself to the sauce, not like pork shoulder would. Our onion could do with some bedfellows and the combination of mushrooms and truffles will definitely add a savoury depth to our ragù, as Alvisi suggests.
We could spend some time trying to second guess the mushrooms Alvisi had in mind for this dish, but I’m going to assume that in the late 18th century a recipe would have been advising you use anything you could find whilst foraging in the forest.
A mushroom hunting raccoglitore would have a working knowledge of which fungus would provide a tasty lunch, which could kill us and which could get us high. In a similar vein, I’ll be using any mushroom I can find whilst foraging in my local supermarket.
Truffles, preserved in oil, can be delivered over the internet quite easily these days. They are an expensive treat but pack a punch, so a little goes a long way.
Well, that’s at least if we are talking about the same truffles.
The European varieties are often sold as either summer or winter truffles, but you can ignore the distinction as it makes no tangible difference. Anyone offering you this choice has already presumed you are looking for black truffles.
Black truffles are forager friendly. They grow 9 months of the year and can be frozen or preserved in oil to be sent through the post. They are punchy, in the same way as an olive tapenade.
White truffles, by contrast, have a short season, are hard to find, cannot be frozen and only last 10 days without spoiling. They are, apparently, delicious.
Having never had the pleasure of tasting them I can’t offer any first hand knowledge, other than to say the price is prohibitively expensive for this, or any other dish I’m likely to prepare. It just so happens white truffles flourish in northern Italy. Alvisi could have had access to them, but I think he would have appreciated their rarity and saved them for something other than a meat stew.
Work is still required to assign some weights to some of these ingredients. We are told to use 1 ounce each of butter and flour but need to determine the rest ourselves. I’ll approximate 1 ounce to 30g.
It seems appropriate to mix equal parts for the fats, so 30g of lardo will kick us off. One onion will weigh about 50g and we have 30g of flour, but there is a long way to get us to an equivalent sauce bulk as compared with our ragù alla bolognese (assuming this was even our goal).
For the other dishes we’ve been well served with 400-500g of meat. The bottom end of 400g seems to make the most sense, given livestock was probably smaller in those days. I’m going to fill the sauce gap with a lot of brodo.
My brodo has already been reduced but we can go further for a thicker consistency. I’ll have 500ml ready to use plus, will need some for the pasta. This seems like a lot but maybe that’s the point here, who can argue against a dish with that volume of stock? On top of this I will add 50g of finely sliced mushrooms and a teaspoon of minced black truffles.
The final decision for our ragù is the addition of salt, pepper and cinnamon. I can handle the salt by taste, but need to consider the pepper and cinnamon more closely. “…sufficiently flavoured with salt, pepper, cinnamon and other spices…” - to me this statement suggests we need to be able to taste both the pepper and the cinnamon. I’m going to have ¼ to ½ teaspoons of both ready and will decide at the end whether I can sufficiently taste them.
For the garganelli, I will stick with the standard 400g of flour and 4 eggs.
Alvisi advises us that for this meal “It will suffice at least for a first course at lunch”. That seems like quite a big lunch to me - the morning’s papal duties clearly take their toll.
So, the final ingredients will be:
- 30g lardo
- 30g butter
- 1 medium onion
- 400g pork loin
- 500ml broth (plus 200ml for the pasta)
- 30g flour
- salt to taste
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- 50g mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon minced black truffles
- Garganelli (from 400g ‘tipo 00’ flour and 4 eggs)
Other than the overcooked pasta, there’s not much to the preparation. I’m going to assume we were expected to cook the ragù slowly, despite the pork loin not being the ideal cut for slow and low. We are instructed to serve this hot (which seems like a given to me) and with ragù and garganelli already combined before serving.
So giving this a good lick with the taste buds of the mind, I’m left a little underwhelmed. It feels like we’ll get rubbery meat, a sauce that is stodgy and all served with overcooked carbs.
It’s old people’s food!
Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a 200+ year old recipe. Maybe the volume of brodo can rescue us, but regardless of the outcome, it’s an important step on our journey.
I will reserve judgement for the tasting notes and thank Alberto Alvisi for his pioneering combination of ragù and pasta.