So popular abroad, so vilified at home. Spaghetti alla Bolognese: do they have any historic roots in the traditional cuisine of Bologna? It depends on who you ask.
Like most Bolognesi, I’ve always been sure that spaghetti bolognese, or bolognaise as I’ve seen it spelled abroad (meaning spaghetti paired with ragù sauce) was just a foreign invention. You know, like lasagna Alfredo, spaghetti with meatballs and other strange dishes that don’t exist in Italy.
Of all deranged interpretations of an Italian dish abroad, spaghetti Bolognese seems to be the most popular.
Not so in Bologna. The reasons why spag bol is mostly frowned upon here are mainly two:
- It is said that in order for the pasta to absorb the ragù, its texture must be porous, coarse, like the one you obtain when you roll a dough made of flour and eggs by hand. Spaghetti are too smooth: they cannot hold the sauce like tagliatelle, so the sauce will fall off and the dish no longer makes sense.
- All too frequently, spaghetti alla Bolognese abroad are quite terrible; the sauce is a far cry from Bolognese ragù, hence the contempt on the part of the Bolognesi (alla Bolognese has come to mean any sauce that has minced meat in it and may result in really terrible things).
You may find spaghetti alla bolognese in restaurants in Italy, but never, ever in Bologna. Local restaurateurs will generally sneer at the foreign patron who very excitedly just ordered spaghetti alla bolognese, eager to try the famous dish in its supposed hometown, then proceed to explain there’s no such dish as spaghetti bolognese. Even the mayor of Bologna started a sort of crusade against the dish, comparing it to ‘fake news.’ He said, “It’s embarrassing to be known abroad for something that doesn’t exist.”
Cari cittadini sto collezionando foto di #spaghetti alla bolognese in giro per il #mondo, a proposito di fake news. Questa arriva da #Londra. Se potete inviatemi le vostre 😉 Grazie! pic.twitter.com/3NnDfTQl0V
— Virginio Merola (@virginiomerola) February 25, 2019
Spaghetti alla Bolognese: Are They Legit?
In recent years however, a small group of local gastronomes, writers and chefs have put forward the theory that spaghetti paired with ragù sauce were eaten in Bologna in the past, as an alternative to tagliatelle, which were more expensive and time consuming to make and therefore were reserved for festive occasions and Sunday lunch. Backers of this theory have even created a website, spaghettibolognesi.it, with the intention to promote the dish as typical of Bologna; although their ragù is different from the one used for tagliatelle, it even includes peas; and the spaghetti they suggest to go with the sauce should be thicker (Gragnano, they recommend), and if they have a bit of egg in the dough even better. If you’re curious about the recipe, you can see it here.
I tried to contact the people who are promoting these spaghetti bolognesi, but they didn’t respond to my requests for an interview. I then contacted Bolognese food journalist and writer Giancarlo Roversi, who is quoted on the website when the history of the dish is recounted. Roversi describes himself as an “archeological-food” journalist because, he says, he digs for archival documents to “go to the roots of dishes.”
The following information is condensed from a phone interview I had with him and an article he wrote for Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, titled “Gli spaghetti alla Bolognese: verità storica versus leggenda.” (Spaghetti Bolognese: historic truth versus legend.)
Tagliatelle were a dish reserved for Sunday lunches and festive occasions, Roversi explains. According to him, it just does not make sense to think that housewives prepared the dough by hand every single day; nor that people went to fresh pasta shops like you can do today. Such shops didn’t even exist until the mid-1800s. Tagliatelle, like tortellini, lasagne and tortelloni, were all intended for special occasions and holidays, not for daily consumption, although the wealthy may have eaten them on a more regular basis.
A type of pasta that was very popular in Bologna since the 1500s, as certified by historic documents, Roversi says, was vermicelli, the ancestors of spaghetti – the term ‘spaghetti’ was introduced for the first time in 1819 in Naples.
So popular indeed they were that the city of Bologna issued decrees every year to set the maximum price at which they could be sold. They wouldn’t have done that for a product that didn’t have a lot of demand, Roversi points out. Dry pasta was indeed consumed by the Bolognesi and this led the city government to open the first pasta factory in the second half of the 16th century (before, pasta was imported from Genoa and Puglia).
The sauces that accompanied vermicelli were varied: a tuna-based sauce was for example very popular, especially on vigil days, when, according to a Catholic precept, you could not eat meat. But many also liked to eat them with ragù, as evidenced in various recipes contained in family recipe books, Roversi says.
Now, this ragù sauce was widely different from ragù as it’s intended today; originally, ragù wasn’t even meant to be a sauce for pasta, but rather a sauce in which to soak the bread, consumed since medieval times as a dish in its own right. It was made of beef, pork, lard, bacon and chicken giblets (yuk) and remained popular in the countryside surrounding Bologna until the mid-20th century. It was the so-called ragù in bianco, that is, without tomato. Tomato, introduced to Europe after the discovery of America, wasn’t used in Italian cuisine until much later, and the modern version of ragù wasn’t introduced until the 1800s.
Spaghetti alla Bolognese: What’s the Deal with Tuna?
As is often the case with traditional Italian cuisine, there’s no universal consensus around this theory of spaghetti eaten with ragù in Bologna, and the debate is fierce. Some dispute the existence of the dish all together. Among them, the Accademia Italiana della Cucina (Academy of Italian Cuisine), a cultural institution whose goal is to preserve and promote the traditional cuisine of Italy.
The Academy claims that the real spaghetti ‘alla bolognese’ are…with tuna. In 2018, the Bologna delegation of the Academy even registered the recipe with the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna, which also guards the official recipes of some of the city’s most famous and traditional dishes, like, you guessed it, tagliatelle and ragù.
“Spaghetti in Bologna have always been eaten mainly with tuna,” says Guido Mascioli, who is the Bologna representative for the Academy and guided the research on this dish before the delegation submitted the application to the Chamber of Commerce. “It is a traditional Bolognese recipe documented in recipe books and various written records. To pass off spaghetti with ragù as a traditional recipe of Bologna is a historical mistake.”
In the official document presented to the Chamber of Commerce, the Bologna delegation states that they found proof of the existence of the dish in numerous conversations they had with academics, food historians, the elderly, and in written documents, including collections of recipes and even poems.
According to the Academy, spaghetti con il tonno became popular in Bologna between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, when canned tuna was introduced, and, around the same time, industrial production of pasta began. Because tuna originally was expensive, spaghetti con il tonno were mainly eaten on Christmas’s Eve among the poor, whereas the wealthy also ate them on Fridays, which were vigil days. (I never gave it much thought, but in my family we do eat spaghetti con il tonno on Christmas’ Eve; I just didn’t know it was typical of Bologna.)
In the original Bolognese recipe of spaghetti con il tonno, tuna was mixed with a sauce of onion and tomato, which was already the base for a very popular sauce in Bologna, friggione, a side dish eaten with bread, more proof, according to the Academy, that the dish has roots in the traditional cuisine of Bologna.
The Academy clearly states in the official document that “the only spaghetti you would find on the tables of the Bolognesi, since the beginning of the 20th century, were those with tuna. These are the real, albeit little-known, spaghetti alla bolognese.” In fact, they’re now registered as ‘spaghetti con il tonno alla bolognese’.
Curious about the official recipe? Here it is.
The Official Recipe for ‘Spaghetti con il Tonno alla Bolognese’
Ingredients for 4 people
320 g spaghetti
180 g good quality tuna in olive oil
1 pink onion (possibly from Medicina, a town in the countryside that surrounds Bologna)
700 g fresh tomatoes (or 400 g can of peeled tomatoes)
Salt and oil to taste
Cut the onion into very thin slices and lightly fry it in olive oil until it becomes transparent. Add the tomatoes, peeled and cut into chunks, and cook over low heat for about half an hour, until completely blended. 10 minutes before you finish cooking the sauce add the drained tuna in small chunks. Meanwhile cook the spaghetti al dente, and add the dressing after having drained them.
My understanding is that those who claim that spaghetti with ragù were used are presenting them as the poorer and quicker alternative to tagliatelle. The Academy refuses this theory saying that there’s no evidence that spaghetti with ragù were customary.
Personally, I know instinctively not to eat spaghetti with ragù! But in the end, I think that, in general, the best recipe is the one that works for you 🙂
[Photo credit for the lead photo: Guido Mascioli.]
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