We arrive in Bologna in mid-August and it’s more or less deserted. We’ve looked at a Ten-Best-Things-To-Do-In-Bologna website. Number 9 is ‘Meet the Locals’. This is proving difficult. The Bolognese have all buggered off, leaving us tourists lurching around like abandoned lovers. Curious system. Yes, as a tourist you don’t need the services of estate agents, composers, oncologists, sign-writers, I can see that, but you do want a palpable sense of local life; and to find a city abandoned feels like a betrayal.
It’s a beautiful city, in a hundred shades of terracotta, gorgeously colonnaded to the extent that it’s scarcely necessary to walk in the open air. At this time of year it’s compromised by the endless rows of roller shutters, and on them eye-watering amounts of graffiti, the scribbly type rather than the creative type. It’s like a city-wide outdoor art festival produced by idiots. As the main 21st century contribution to the urban landscape (along with an unusually discrete MacDonalds on the main square – you have to pass it several times before you register it) it doesn’t quite stack up compared to the previous stuff.
Some of the previous stuff is glorious. We walk up and up through an astonishing mile-long colonnade to the Basilica of San Luca, quite a mission, but worth it, and then, gluttons for punishment (a cliché that has to get used eventually in a food blog), climb the austere Asinelli Tower, a hundred metres high but feeling a lot more, to get a view over the red red red and more red rooftops. Apparently in the 13th century there were more than a hundred such towers in the city. It’s difficult to imagine what their function was. Keeping an eye on the opposition? Showing off? The remaining ones have a curiously industrial look, like factory chimneys.
What’s on the menu here, when there is a menu to be found? Lovely pizza-related breads: piadine, essentially toppingless pizzas; tigelle, the same dough cooked between two cast iron paddles, and resembling old-fashioned muffins; gnocchi fritti (confusingly named), the same dough deep-fried in pig fat, making light hollow balls like poori.
Plenty of pig products. including Mortadella, local, and Parma ham of course, from up the road. Parmesan, balsamic vinegar, also from up the road. Limited fish. In Bologna, beef is king (beef is baron?) - mostly Black Angus. Carpaccio. Bressaola. Steak tartare with chopped onion, capers, gherkins. Tagliata. If you’re in town, try Trattoria dal Biassonot, confidently trad, which makes excellent versions of all these dishes.
And of course Spag Bol. Around these parts, Spaghetti con ragu Bolognese. Strangely enough, having made it to Blighty in the first wave of dishes exported from Italy, it became the default dish of students and indeed anyone in search of a quick fix for supper. Strange – to make a ragu properly is so time-consuming. Why not carbonara? Why not pesto? What happened was a nasty short cut: minced beef fried briefly with tinned tomatoes and mixed herbs. (Actually this was a minor indiscretion compared with the ready-grated parmesan which was like rancid sawdust.)
Let’s look for a practical position on the spectrum between this dodgy bol and Heston’s exhausting In-Search-Of-Perfection extravaganza. Two essentials: patience, and milk.
Marcella Hazan, who is at the Heston end of things, says, ‘The ragu must cook at the merest simmer for a long, long time. The minimum is three and a half hours; five is better.’ For Sylvia, our Bologna host, garlic is an anathema. Red wine or white wine? You make your choice. Cream? Surely not. Herbs: possibly. What meat? Beef only, beef+pork, beef+pork+chicken livers,… Hazan, to preserve the sweetness of the meat, cooks it first in the milk and then in the wine and tomatoes. Locatelli and Carluccio don’t use milk at all. And so on.
Try this (serves 4, generously):
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
225g minced beef
225g minced pork
200ml passata, or preferably home-made tomato puree
200ml white wine
200ml vegetable stock
2 bay leaves
generous pinch ground nutmeg
salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and butter in large frying pan, and sauté the onion, garlic, carrot and celery gently for at least 15 minutes, until soft. Add the minced beef and pork and cook gently till it looses its raw colour. Add the rest of the ingredients, and bring to the boil. Reduce to a blip and cook for two hours, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let it dry out. The aim is a sauce that just coats the pasta.
What type of pasta to use? Surely it’s got to be spaghetti? Not at all. The Bolognese overwhelmingly favour tagliatelli, presumably because of its greater coatability. Serve, obviously, with grated parmesan.
‘The secret of perfect spag bol?’ says Carluccio; ‘don’t let a Brit cook it’. And, presumably, don’t what ever you do let a Brit give you a recipe for it.
Words by Orlando Gough