The Great ‘Bolognese’ Debate

Oh dear, Mary Berry. Since Mary offered her own version of Bolognese sauce a couple of nights ago in the second episode of her new BBC series, Mary Berry Everyday, it’s been less of a storm and more of a volcano erupting on Twitter, TV and in national newspapers with fiery, incensed remarks flying in her direction. I was a bit taken aback by Mary’s recipe myself (I even discussed it with my daughter Nicola while eating in a favourite local Italian restaurant last night), but in Mary’s defence – and even Giorgio Locatelli has risen to defend her with the same argument – there is no authentic recipe for a Bolognese sauce. Her mistake was to call it ‘Bolognese’ rather than ‘ragù’, or even, simply, a meat-based pasta sauce. What she did get right – again as Giorgio points out – is not serving it with spaghetti. She chose pappardelle, though the more popular Italian choice is tagliatelle. These are both ribbons of pasta and that’s the correct kind of pasta for a thick meat sauce so it can cling to the pasta.

I was less concerned about Mary adding white wine (which is common anyway) instead of red, than to see her put it in so late, after the tomatoes and passata, whereas I would say you have to add it after the meat has browned and allow it to be pretty much absorbed (for a full, rich flavour) before adding anything else. Another thing she got wrong – if she was claiming any Italian heritage to her dish – was just spooning it on top of her pasta. I have to confess that my own Bolognese ragù post from 2011, just a couple of months after starting the blog, shows me doing the same – hence photo above! (For which I apologise to all Italian friends, but especially Antonio who suggested I write about this.) Now, I would never plonk any kind of sauce on top of pasta but follow the Italian way of adding the sauce to the cooked pasta in a pan and stirring it through well before serving. But I’ve learned a lot in the last 6 years of food blogging! I also know that the Italians would put in much less sauce that we Brits traditionally do – it should be more pasta with some sauce rather than sauce with some pasta. This makes sense when you remember that simple traditional dishes like this were created as ways of making a little meat go a long way to feed a big family for little money.

Antonio Carluccio made a big fuss last year about the Brits ruining Spaghetti Bolognese. But then if the dish doesn’t exist as such, how can we ruin it! His grievance was the adding of herbs, but then other people get upset about which colour wine – red or white – is used or the addition of tomatoes (the northern Bolognese wouldn’t add tomato but further south they probably would). Ragù, a meat-based sauce, varies according to the part of Italy you live in or are eating in. Italian food is very regional and the Italians tend to be very passionate about their own regional version, for example, see my post on different kinds of focaccia (click here) or even pizza (click here). I wouldn’t claim my own version of Ragù Bolognese is authentic at all (click here), although I did do a fair amount of research when writing about it. What I do claim is, like Mary, I think of it as an ‘everyday dish’, something I cook frequently and think of as a favourite family meal. It’s turned out to be one of my 2-year-old grandson’s favourite things so whenever I make it, I freeze little portions for him. But I’d be rather wary of serving it to an Italian!

Posted by

A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

7 thoughts on “The Great ‘Bolognese’ Debate

  1. Not having seen the TV show, and living here in India I most likely will never either, I can not comment. But, I think it bad for certain viewers to tear her apart – most of them probably can not cook a decent meal anyway. “Spagbol” is not only a favourite dish for Youngsters in the UK, my home country Germany and here in my new country India. And nobody cares if the meat sauce is the original or not; even spaghetti (or penne) is the preferred pasta here. Carina😉

    1. I think we’ve become so much more knowledgeable about food in UK that it’s always risking criticism if you claim a dish is a particular classic – though in fairness to Mary she only said it was her version. I have a lot of admiration for her, though in all honesty am not always a fan of her recipes and the way she cooks, but she has a great following and I’m sure all this fuss will soon die down and not affect her too much.

  2. As an everyday/everyone standby spagbol (as your earlier commentator and most families I know call it) has been in my cookbook since I was 12 years old with a mouthwatering version my mother used to make (never forget the teaspoon of sugar and the bayleaves).

    Oh dear what a fuss people make. The most important thing for me is a) no-one (except veggies of course) ever turns it down – probably even up to third helpings with lashings of parmesan topping b) you can scale up or down the sophistication depending on your diners and c) many a good bol was made to get vegetable portions hidden in for highly particular young eaters.

    Yes, I’m probably one of the sinners against purity.

    1. I think most of us are sinners against purity where spagbol is concerned in the eyes of Italians but as there isn’t a pure version we can’t really get it right! As I said, I don’t think I’d serve mine to an Italian but have been doing much the same recipe for years and years, and my family love it. I think it you’re a famous TV cook you need to be careful what you call it … (Thanks for following the blog now 🙂 )

Leave a Reply