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Bolognese Sauce History
Bolognese sauce,“ragú Bolognese,” would not be found on the Food Table of our Italian American grandparents or great-grandparents who left the villages of Southern Italy.This sauce comes from the North: Bologna,"Bologna la grassa," "Bologna, the Fat." In America, Bolognese sauce is a post jet travel innovation.While Bolognese sauce may be a recent arrival to the Italian American kitchen this rich and flavorful ragú has a long history. Clifford Wright’s essential work, “A Mediterranean Feast” dates the sauce to the 14th century. As I mentioned, Bolognese sauce is of North Italian ancestry and was unknown to the Italian American immigrants who made their way from the MezzoGiorno, the South of Italy. In America, Bolognese sauce, like pasta putanesca and fettuccini Alfredo arrived not on the immigrant boats of the early last century but by the first flights of the Boeing 707 in the 1960’s. The Boeing jet made European travel available to the newly affluent grandchildren of Italian steerage immigrants of the previous century. The jets took the American sons and daughters of Italy back to the country of their ancestors and to an Italy that in no way resembled the American Little Italys of Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Chicago.
SS. India 1885
I was one of those sons of Italy who made that first trip to the homeland of my ancestors.My great grandfather came to America aboard the SS India on a fourteen day voyage in April and May of 1885. A century later my first encounter with Italy was in the spring of 1962 on board a Lufthansa Boeing 707 nine hour flight. I cannot imagine my great grandfather’s first American experience: his arrival at Castle Garden followed by transport to work in the quarries of Monson, Massachusetts.But by 1895 he had his own farm in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania.
In contrast, My adventures in Italy revealed a new world of wonder and imagination.The Italy that greeted me opened my eyes and mind to a world of delightful dimensions. Yet, there were other more subtle layers to my first Italian experience. In some ways my time in Italy recognized and embraced my life as an Italian American. It inflated a sense of pride in a culture unlike the bland WASP world of America. On the darker side, it made me more cognizant of that dark curtain draped across the doorway of so many Italian American homes, a curtain that defended the Italian immigrant from a world of mistrust and suspicion.
In Italian there is a word that describes the isolated world of the southern peasant. The word is “campanilismo.” Campanilismo derives from the word “campanile,” “bell tower.” In every small Italian hillside town the bell tower rises over the flat cubed houses as the social, architectural and visual apex. Campanile rise over the hilltops and distinguish one village from another. The campanile tolled the hours and determined the work day. The tower bells called to Sunday Mass and set out the hours of the wok day. The bells rang the time for the three daily prayers called “The Angelus.” They rang at dawn, at noon and again at sunset. When the bells rang, all work stopped and all were called to prayer. The 19th century French Artist, Daumier, illustrated the beauty of that sacred moment in a work that curiously became a work whose print version was cherished by fundamental American Protestants in the previous century
For the peasant farmer, the world was determined by the area in which he might hear the bells of his church tower. Whatever was in the range of his hearing was his world; he was a child of “campanilismo.” Anything beyond that familiar ringing was regarded with suspicion. In the Italy of those days a person you knew was a “paesano:” What the Italian Americans called the “pie-zahn.” The word derives from “paese” meaning “country”. “Country” for the Italian peasant was not the nation of Italy. “Country” was the immediate area where you were born, worked and dies. There was no notion of being “Italian.” The peasant was a citizen of his province. Among Italian American a person identified himself as, and I use the Italian American dialect, ”Gah-lah-brays” (Calabrese) or “Broot-says” (Abbruzze) or even “Sihh-gee,” (Siciliano). One group was always mistrustful of the other. People from the next town over were not to be trusted. Marriages between groups may even been made grudgingly.
Colladi’s wonderful tale, “Pinocchio” is a perfect example of Italian mistrust of anything beyond your front door. What happens to poor Pinocchio when he leaves home, when he abandons the secure confines of his village? Pinocchio finds nothing but trouble. The world outside is filled with swindlers, tricksters and monsters that will swallow you up.
In the Italian American world, even something as simple as the introduction of a new food, or a new preparation of food may be met with suspicion. After my time in Italy I proposed a try at the Bolognese sauce that I had so much enjoyed in Florence. This minimal yet dense sauce was so different from our regular baroque Sunday gravy that I found it a quite enlivening food experience. When. returning home,I suggested the recipe my suggestion was met with the minimal interest: a sideways glance and that understated suspicion so characteristic of the Italian American insular family. Even my Italian trained, Irish descent mother was reluctant to change what she had learned about making "gravy." The ingredients for a Bolognese sauce posed significant objections. First, it was new. For anything new, the question was “why would you want to do that?” But there was something even more troublesome. Bolognese sauce violated one of the fundamental rules of tomato sauce. Bolognese sauce included milk. While many of our Italian American sauces included cheeses, none of them included milk. Milk was to be avoided. Even we children did not drink milk with Sunday macaroni gravy. Eventually and from time to time the kitchen acceded to my new import. But Bolognese never replaced or even competed with Sunday gravy. It was not until I had my own family and was my own cook that Bolognese sauce made regular appearances. Yet, here again, it had little popularity. Curiously, when I had my own children, Bolognese sauce was one they never particularly cared for. It seems the appearance of carrots in tomato sauce contradicted my daughters’ sense of a certain orthodoxy of ingredients. Then too, they didn't seem to care for the overall texture.
Now that my daughters are out on their own Bolognese sauce has made a return to my Food Table. I've done quite a bit of research on its preparation. Bolognese sauce seems to have wide parameters of ingredient and method orthodoxy.This is yet another of those recipes that vary from kitchen to kitchen. Most recipes, but not all, call for the use of two somewhat contradictory elements, milk and wine. How these ingredients are used also varies. Some recipes like Marcella Hazan’s call for the introduction and reduction of the milk in the early stages with the wine added later. Other recipes like Bugialli’s (Bugialli on Pasta) call for the wine to be added and reduced first and reserve the cream as a last finishing element. The Lydia Bastianich recipe has no milk at all. In almost all cases, the goal of the recipe is to render the meat into a very dense and somewhat fatty richness.
The meat to be used for a Bolognese sauce takes many forms. Most recipes call for a mixture of beef, veal and pork. In all cases, the meat is either ground or finely chopped. Many recipes also call for the addition of pancetta, prosciutto and mortadella which would add even more fatty substance to the ragú. The version I use here owes its ingredients and inspiration to my butcher, Sonny D’Angelo on Philadelphia’s 9th Street. The ground meet is what he calls his “hunter’s mix:” a blend of boar,deer, rabbit, pheasant,and kangaroo. While a meat blend like this may not be available to all, its broad mix suggests the many possibilities of meats to create a rich Bolognese ragú. In this version I have opted for the milk reduction first with the wine to follow. In order to simmer the ragú for at least five hours it is also necessary to add a bit of water from time to time. You might also keep the sauce liquid by the addition of beef broth. Towards the end, however, the liquid needs to reduce until you have a rich, fatty cream.
The pasta for the Bolognese should be a dense tagliatelli or fettuccini. Buccatini, the pasta in the photos, is also a good choice. The way I finish this sauce is with homemade pasta. I used the machine to cut the noodles in somewhat wide strips. But, knife cut, irregular pasta would even be better. This is gut food and needs to be served at full strength. Garnish with the best Parmigiano Regiano.
Coda: Bolognese sauce may not be limited to Italian traditions. Bolognese may take a very different form as suggested by the excellent cuisine of David Paternack and Ed Levine’s “Young Man and the Sea.” Pasternack proposes a richly savory version of Bolognese made from tuna and mackerel. Pasternack’s version may not be orthodox, but proposes a heady taste experience for those who appreciate the complex depth of seafood subtleties.
Heavy duty pot: enameled, "Le Creuset" type, or iron or very solid material.
Some ingredients are variable except for the carrots, celery and onion.
This is my version.
Ground meats. In this case, wild boar, deer, beef and kangaroo.
White or red wine.
Canned whole tomatoes to be hand crushed.
Salt, pepper, and nutmeg..
Hot pepper flakes optional.
Pasta - a heavy type like tagliatelli or buccatinni or even better, home made.
The Trinity base
Heat the oil and butter in the pot,
Add the onions, carrots and celery.
Sauter until the onions are clear,
Do not let them brown.
Add the meat mixture of your choice.
Add some salt at this point to draw out the liquids in the meat.
Stir evenly until all the meat is perfectly browned and begins to color and stick to the base of the pot. As it sticks use the spoon to scrape up the browning.
When the meat has browned add a cup of milk.
Simmer slowly until all the milk absorbs.
(Note: some versions use wine first and some versions contain no milk.)
When the milk has been completely absorbed add a cup of wine.
White will give a sharper flavor. Red will give a richer taste.
Simmer until the wine is absorbed.
Add the hand crushed tomatoes and a shaving of the nutmeg
Simmer very slowly for at least four hours.
From time to time, add water as needed.
Four hours on the stove
After four or five hours you should have a sauce that is primarily meat with only a hint of liquid. The flavors are now all condensed.
The pasta on the left is the buccatini from Pasta Setaro.
You can also use any other hearty pasta or make your own.
The pasta in this image is my own (see the recipe) but any other hearty dried pasta would serve as well. I prefer Pasta Setaro, available online at Buon Italia.
At this point you need only to "condire" the pasta, that is, let it finish cooking in the sauce. Garnish with an excellent grated Parmesan.