Zia Nerina’s Ragu alla Bolognese
Bologna is only 100 kilometres from Florence yet it is a food-world away. The home of mortadella, tortellini, lasagne, cappelletti and tagliatelle pasta – served of course with the most famous pasta sauce in the world, ragu alla bolognese – Bologna is in many ways the centre of Italian cuisine.
It helps that this food-centric city is in Emilia-Romagna, a region also blessed with other staples of good Italian food including the balsamic vinegar of Modena, Parma’s prosciutto and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and that wonderful flatbread, piadina. And that’s only scratching the surface. This inspirational and touching video by Massimo Bottura, chef of Italy’s most revered restaurant, Osteria Francescana, tells the stories of some of the region’s most traditional dishes, rustic dishes that speak of the past. It’s an incredible array of regional foods to be surrounded by.
The other culinary claim to fame that Emilia-Romagna has over other Italian regions is that it is the home of Pellegrino Artusi, the author of the 1891 bible of Italian cuisine, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well and, as you may know, one of my favourite cooking references.
In short, it’s a region whose cuisine deserves to be devoured, quite literally, in any way possible. So this is a start. Ragu bolognese. And not just any ragu bolognese but one that I think will beat any bolognese recipe. It the one described in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, which is the recipe of Zia Nerina (zia means “Aunt”), a woman that David describes as “titanic of proportion but angelic of face and manner.” Zia Nerina ran and owned the famous Trattoria Nerina in Bologna in the 1950s.
This is the sauce that should be layered with lasagne verdi, fresh sheets of spinach-laced lasagne, and bechamel or tossed with that other Bolognese classic, egg tagliatelle (pronounced with a silent ‘g’, please!)– long, flat noodles enriched with egg yolk, usually fresh rather than dried but found both ways.
Note that tomato paste (concentrato di pomodoro in Italian) was used much more frequently in the 50s when this recipe was written down by Elizabeth David. Today you could use passata (tomato puree) or canned chopped tomatoes, in larger quantities of course. I find the tomato paste gives an extra depth of flavour, beautiful colour and a silky sort of texture to the sauce so I tend to use tablespoons rather than the teaspoons that Elizabeth David gives. The chicken livers are a must – they give the ragu an additional earthy flavour. It’s hearty, meaty, delicious – everything you want in a good ragu bolognese.
Some Bolognese cooks are known to add a cupful of milk or cream right at the end, before serving, to make a smoother, creamier ragu. The choice is yours.
Zia Nerina’s ragu bolognese
Adapted only very slightly from Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. Makes about 6 portions. If you’re not using all of it at once, note that this recipe freezes well. Just heat up the defrosted sauce in a pan over medium heat with a ladleful of the water that your pasta is boiling in and away you go!
- 220 gr lean minced beef
- 110 gr chicken livers
- 160 gr pancetta, chopped into small pieces
- 1 small carrot, finely chopped
- 1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
- 1 brown onion, finely chopped
- 3 tbs tomato paste
- 1 wineglassful of white wine
- 2 wineglassfuls of homemade beef stock or water (here is Artusi’s recipe for classic beef stock or brodo)
- a knob of butter
- salt and pepper, to taste
- fresh nutmeg
- Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Brown the pancetta gently in a deep, wide saucepan in the butter. When a lovely golden colour, add the soffritto of chopped carrot, celery and onion and gently sauté over a low heat until the onion is transparent.
Add the minced beef, stirring and turning to brown evenly, then add the chicken livers, chopped into small pieces. Brown for 2 or 3 minutes before adding the tomato paste and the white wine.
Season to taste with salt, pepper, and “a good scraping of nutmeg”, then add the beef stock or water. Cover and let simmer on low for 30-40 minutes.
Serve this ragu with tagliatelle (calculate 80 gr per head), tossing the hot pasta with the sauce in heated dish to thoroughly coat the pasta – a little knob of butter for this process doesn’t hurt either! Serve immediately with a huge chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, passed around the table with the grater.