International Day of Italian Cuisines

Spaghetti Bolognaise, not the “real thing” but it can be good

Ragù alla Bolognese
Spaghetti Bolognaise with garlic bread:
Italians don’t eat that way

It’s the most beloved dish of the Britons; according to the statistics, they eat up to 670 million portions a year. Americans love it, Swedes go crazy about och köttfärssås, Danes about the similarly named og kødsovs and in Tokyo it’s sold even (and sadly) in sandwiches. For the Chinese they are the Western shajiang mian, a traditional dish that is topped with meat. We are talking about Spaghetti Bolognaise o Bolognese that recently has been voted the favourite meal of the Australians, who don’t hesitate to make it with Vegemite beside hips of canned tomatoes PLUS tomato paste, as well as capsicums and mushrooms. Known as spag bol or spag bog (in the UK) it sounds very Italian, and people make it with Italian ingredients, or with those they perceive as such, regardless of quality (plenty of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, canned peeled tomatoes, and ugly “parmesan”). Then they add whatever it comes at their hands: anchovies, peas, vegetable, all sorts of cheeses and serve often with garlic bread and even eggs. “You can put anything you have in it and it tastes a treat!”, wrote an enthusiastic pseudo foody blogger. It’s not true, but the magic seems to work.

Ragù alla Bolognese
Spaghetti Bolognaise, Italians
do not serve pasta in that way

Back in Italy purists say that Spaghetti Bolognese has nothing to do with the Italian culinary culture. Some time ago, Stefano Bonilli, a renowned Italian gastronomer, who was born in Bologna, wrote: “Spaghetti alla bolognese never existed.” The line of attack? “Spaghetti is dry pasta from Southern Italy, in Bologna, we have tagliatelle, freshly homemade, al ragù bolognese”. The fact is that at least one other ‘sugo’ (sauce) 'alla bolognese' exists and is the one described by Pellegrino Artusi in his The Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well. Not only is Artusi’s ‘bolognese’ not ragù, but the recipe includes maccheroni (macaroni), which are dry pasta, exactly as “Southern” spaghetti are. So, can we say that Spaghetti Bolognese come from that recipe? No way. Artusi doesn’t include tomatoes in his sugo, while Spag Bog is a sauce made with tomatoes (as we have seen, the presence of tomatoes is very limited in the original ragù alla bolognese). So, where does Spaghetti Bolognese come from? It’s hard to say.

Ragù alla Bolognese
American soldiers in Italy

Some think that all happened during War World II, when American (and British) soldiers passing through Emilia, ate tagliatelle al ragù and liked them. Back home, they asked for the dish and unscrupulous Italian restaurateurs created the Frankenstein dish we know today, with spaghetti. There’s no evidence but the story could well be true. When American and British came back to Italy as tourists they asked for their beloved Spaghetti Bolognese and Italian restaurateurs gave it to them. Spaghetti Bolognaise is not ragù alla Bolognese; its image is really bad, because it's wildly commercially exploited, even sold in cans and ready to be microwaved. However, if correctly prepared, they can be a pleasant dish and can even be considered an offspring of Italian culinary culture.

Ragù alla Bolognese
Heston Blumental

But on one condition though: that Italian ingredients of quality are used, for instance, canned peeled tomatoes, pasta, grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, extra virgin olive oil. In that case, they deserve to carry the name Spaghetti Bolognese. When Worcestershire sauce or nam pla are added, then it’s another story, no matter if the name of the chef preparing them is Heston Blumental or Wolfgang Puck. (Recently an association called “Balla degli Spaghetti Bolognese” was born in Bologna; its members want the city to take advantage of the huge popularity that the dish has given to it...).