Once, in a plane, sailing high above the ocean, through the dark night to a meeting about detergent or nappies (I don’t remember), I watched a cooking show about Spaghetti Bolognese.
Normally, we don’t ruminate on those cooking shows we watch on planes when we’ve exhausted the entire Bourne franchise and every episode of Friends that was ever made. But, this one stuck. Because the chef in question was Heston Blumenthal. Crazy, experimental, Heston with more stars than the Michelin Man himself. And here he was, on my tiny flickering screen, like a gastronomic Plato, on a quest to find the objective Spaghetti Bolognese.
Smash the words spaghetti and Bolognese together, and almost everyone on the planet would know what you mean. Spagbol is the Coca-Cola of dishes. It’s comforting in its recognisability and easy to make. Best of all, its flavours and texture taste like a long hug with a satisfying slap on the shoulder at the end.
It’s so much part of everyone’s idea of home that it has injected itself into so many cultures. In Belgium, where I live these days, many churches, schools and sports clubs host spaghetti evenings as fundraisers. Massive strings of pasta, boiling up next to huge pots of pale ragu brings the benefactors to the yard. And once, I caught a clip of a woman in Bristol being interviewed about European food. “Nah,” she said, “We don’t go much for that foreign food. We like traditional British cuisine. Like Spaghetti Bolognese.”
But, of course, Heston knew better. And in his quest to find the perfect spagbol, he sets off to Bologna — where the dish originated. He grabs a table in Antico Trattoria della Gigina where Chef Carlo prides himself on making the world’s original Bolognese ragu. And as Heston sets himself down to receive the One and Only Spagbol, he makes his first startling discovery.
The Bolognesi don’t add spaghetti to their Bolognese.
It’s simple if you think about it. Stringy pasta cannot hold the sauce in the same way that thicker cuts can. Which is why Chef Carlo’s ragu is served in neat piles on freshly boiled tagliatelle. In a Bolognese dish, the job of the ragu is to be the gravitational force that holds everything together — the meats, the carrots, the celery and onion and tomato. Which is why a wonderfully textured pasta like homemade tagliatelle is ideally suited to grip the umami flavours from the ragu and deliver them to your taste buds.
So, Heston’s only just in the foothills of his quest, but he’s already helped us to question all the convention around the dish. You can’t really call it the proto Spagbol if there is no spag to speak of. But, on we press, with Heston as our guide, we join him in Chef’s Carlo’s kitchen to hear from the maestro himself.
And it is in this kitchen, in the heart of Bologna, that the truth emerges. Heston carefully asks about adding milk to the ragu, something millions of home cooks do every night. Of course, in Bologna, Chef Carlo’s says, this is anathema. But just go 30km to Modena, he says with a disapproving scowl, and you will encounter ragu chefs who will happily add milk.
But, the addition of milk is just the beginning of a long line of sins against the original. As Heston expands his travels, he begins to encounter many variations of the true Bolognese. At one point, he meets another Italian chef who has taken the DNA of Bolognese and mutated a variation that sits on the outer rim of possibility. Chef Massimo, as he is introduced to us, poaches unlaid chicken eggs — or embrionali — in a chicken and beef broth. Then the yolk is extracted, and the embryo is injected with a ragu concentrate. This is served on a cracker made of pasta and fried in pork fat.
Thus, from the centre of Bologna, where Chef Carlo’s traditional ragu is cooked with the basic sofrito (onion, carrot and celery), to the culinary experimentation of Chef Massimo’s micro Bolognese egg, a vast gulf opens up before us. And in between, many shades of Spagbol, spreading over the globe, according to taste and tradition.
I remember my own Afrikaans mother, preparing our own version by adding a few spoons of sugar which I think would even have Heston’s eyebrows raised behind his steel-framed glasses — not to mention the eyebrows of many nutritionists and medical professionals.
But, this is the beauty of the dish. With a few constant ingredients, a universe of possibility opens up. It’s a dish that allows anyone to make it their own.
I myself have experimented with different variations on the underlying structure. When I want to make it more hearty, I will slice the carrots into thicker chunks, but sometimes, when I’m feeling artsy, I’d chop it into very fine crumbles that would be spangled across a ground beef sky. I’d experiment with different supplementary meats and cuts, to control the taste of the ragu — adding either chopped bacon — or when I’m feeling fancy — Guanciale — the jowl of the pig.
So, as Heston Blumenthal summits Mount Spagbol and surveys everything he found, maybe this is most paramount: That the objective truth of the dish is subjective. The basic ingredients of Spaghetti Bolognese are carrot, celery, onion, meat and tomato. And personal taste. And whatever home is.
That’s what goes into Spaghetti Bolognese.