Ask Peter: An authentic bolognese
Why do some people put milk in their bolognese? What is the most authentic bolognese recipe? Megan
Ah, that old chestnut! The making of bolognese sauce, like so many "classical" dishes, is mired in emotion due to perceived historical facts and opinions. Obviously it started life in the fabulous foodie town of Bologna, where the Western world’s first university was founded almost 950 years ago — a fact I was thrilled to discover when I first visited, 25 years ago. I remember going out for dinner, amazed that at 9pm whole families would be chatting and eating together not worried that the children should be at home in bed, or eating meals different to their parents.
Bologna is in the fertile Po River valley in northern Italy and because of local terroir, the often rich local cuisine involves much meat, cheese and other dairy products. So, its more than likely that adding milk or cream to bolognese sauce is authentic. Adding red wine may be less so, but that’s a point of contention, and most recipes I’ve read call for white wine.
As to why milk should be added, I believe it adds an almost fatty layer to the minced meat pieces as they’re cooked. The milk is reduced before the wine (I use white) and tomato puree are added. If you make a batch with milk, and one without (should you have the time or inclination) you will notice a difference. I do prefer the milky one.
To make an authentic bolognese sauce — and this is according to various Italian friends over the years — you should saute a garlic- free soffritto (see my last column) in butter to which you also add finely diced pancetta or fatty bacon. Add lean coarse-minced beef (although a mix of 80 per cent beef and 20 per cent lean pork is also considered okay) and cook out so it’s all nice and crumbly. Then add a handful of chopped chicken livers — although these are optional they add a real richness to the sauce and I suggest you make the extra effort to add them. Add a cup of milk for every 500g beef and stir it in, then cook over rapid simmer, stirring occasionally, until it has evaporated. Add white wine, and either chopped plum tomatoes or tomato passata, and season lightly (you will always add more seasoning once finished) then cook over a gentle simmer with a lid slightly ajar, for two hours. You can also cook it in the oven set to 125C — which can be easier to control. Serve with grated parmesan on top.
The last points worth noting are that in Emilia Romagna, the region Bologna is located, you will never be served bolognese sauce, or ragu as they call it, with spaghetti. It will come with tagliatelle. Also, unlike in New Zealand where we serve pasta as a main course, pasta in Italy will always be a smaller portion known as primo — which is served before the actual main course.
Do what you want of course but maybe just don’t say it’s traditional!