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Generational Recipes: "Never Start Your Ragù in the Supermarket"

03 March, 2021

Photo ©Stockfood | simpleinsomnia_| Flickr | Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Tomato pesto, also known as 'pesto rosso' or 'pesto alla Trapanese' is a Sicilian variation of the famous green pesto from Genoa.

“We have come to realise that ragù can only be made with locally-produced raw materials. This is absolutely the most important thing about ragù.

"The recipe arrived from my nonno, who opened the trattoria in 1934, but we have adjusted it according to the higher-quality raw ingredients that we have found, which are better than what they used 90 years ago."

So, the preparation of ragù begins with the sourcing of the ingredients, the planning. It’s not something you can just whip up at the last minute. Typically, if you’re planning on cooing ragù for a Sunday lunch, you might start planning it early in the week. Then the actual cooking takes time.

Alberto Bettini

“The other important component for ragù is time,” says Bettini. It depends on the type of meat you are using but four and a half hours to five and a half hours. You can only understand a ragù by tasting, when it is done it is done.

“The real ragù Bolognese is made with tomatoes, but we use fewer tomatoes than you see people using around the world. It is a meat ragù, with tomato, not a tomato ragù with meat. This is a mistake.

“The other mistake is that people buy their ingredients in the supermarket. Never, ever start your ragù in the supermarket. You should talk to your butchers, you should source your vegetables at the farmer’s market.

“There are thousands of recipes, all depending on what meat you are using. It was created as a recipe to use whatever meat was in the house. Historically we hear about the recipe with the meat of adult cow and pancetta, we use cuts from the rump or the neck, piece that have more fat.”

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and in a highly localised past, people cooked with what was at hand. That’s how the ragù came to be. It is ironic that as we live in a modern world of infinite choice, that element of inventiveness is discarded in favour of tradition. For Italians, food is associated with family and memories, so it becomes purely emotional and there is no room for the disruption of innovation.

Indeed there is perhaps no point in trying to find the perfect ragù. There is no definitive answer as to what is correct or not. The white ragù is no more authentic, even if it predates the existence of tomatoes on Italian shores during the Renaissance.

Italy was once the centre of the world, the most globally outward-looking country, which linked east and west. But despite the misconception that Italy looks inward when it comes to food, the global influences are hidden in plain sight – spaghetti and ravioli from China, and tomato from the Americas. These elements have, over time, become assimilated into Italian cuisine. It can be easy to forget that.

The key ingredient in the recipe, and in the cultural evolution of ragù, is time. Just as the ingredients break down and transform in the pot over hours, so too has its cultural meaning transformed over the centuries. It’s a dense and complex layering of histories and flavours, and to try and deconstruct may well be impossible, no more than you can uncook a ragù.

The only ragù is the one you make at home. It is a completely subjective thing. Maybe that’s the meaning of this most famous of Italian sauces, and why it has travelled so widely. It’s a recipe that morphs and adapts to exactly the environment it finds itself in, while somehow maintaining its identity.

Is there anything more Italian than that?


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