Food News

Battle of the Bol

We quizzed the best kitchen talents on their secrets to the perfect spaghetti Bolognese. The responses varied but were never ambivalent: this dish is unanimously loved, however it’s made.

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: For the full results of our spag Bol poll, including recipes and Q&As with 60 of the country's finest chefs, see the breakout box (right).
Pizza might be the world's most popular food of Italian descent, but spaghetti Bolognese has to be the first Italian dish most of us attempt cooking for ourselves. Of course, it's not strictly traditional. Spaghetti Bolognese as we know it didn't exist in Italy back in the day but is more likely the result of different Italian traditions colliding elsewhere in the world. Spaghetti, The Oxford Companion to Food tells us, is thought to account for two-thirds of pasta eaten worldwide. In Italy, it's a pasta associated with the traditions of the south of the country; in Bologna itself, the local ragù, the sauce from which the world's Bolognese is descended, was first eaten with lasagne. Even today, in the north of Italy where such meat-rich sauces are prevalent, it's typically fresh tagliatelle, pappardelle or the like doing the heavy lifting.
The closest thing we have to an "official" ragù alla Bolognese is the one that was offered by Bologna's Accademia Italiana della Cucina in 1982, which deployed pancetta, celery, carrot, onion, minced beef skirt steak, white wine and homemade tomato paste in a sauce enriched by milk and finished with heavy cream (little wonder Italians call the Bolognese the "fat and learned"). The pasta specified was fresh tagliatelle.
The authority of a recipe from even so venerable-sounding an institute as this one, however, has been called into question. Spaghetti Bolognese may be a dish with Italian roots, but it's a dish that came into its own outside the borders of the boot, a dish, dare we say it, of the world. So rather than pin down a single perfect recipe, we thought we'd ask 60 of the nation's finest kitchen talents what they put in their spag Bol. We've let them simmer and dished up the big-picture trends under the headings below, but if you want to get the specifics from everyone from Matt Moran, Shannon Bennett, Peter Gilmore and Neil Perry to Robert Marchetti, Lucio Galletto, Guy Grossi and Karen Martini, see the breakout box (left).
The meat While the classic Aussie all-beef mix is well represented, a combination of meats gets the biggest vote from our panel, with veal and pork specified most often. Some of the less common inclusions are lamb and chicken. Jacques Reymond offers a mix of pork, beef and chicken, as do Guy Grossi and Mark Best. Stefano Manfredi likes to use chicken giblets, hearts, crests and wattles when he can get them. Paul Wilson, former chef of Melbourne's Botanical restaurant, is a straight lamb man. Adam Liston, chef at Adelaide's Wine Underground, does half lamb, half beef, and Astral's Sean Connolly is all about a mix of lamb, beef and veal. Perhaps the most inspiring response, though, is that of Otto chef James Kidman: "A whole 25-kilo pig, stripped of all meat, the bones put to one side so that they can be used in the cooking of the ragù." It's not strictly classical, he admits, "but it's really nice".
The cut Secondary cuts are favoured regardless of the beast. For pork, shoulder and neck come up trumps, as does leg. "The basics are really good shoulder meat with an even distribution of intramuscular fat," says Icebergs' Robert Marchetti, "so it stays moist when cooked over the long period." The addition of a pig's trotter, he says, "gives it a rich, gelatinous flavour". For veal, shoulder and leg or shin are the typical specifications. When it comes to beef, shin is a popular choice after chuck. "The shin is the most gelatinous and this is what makes the Bolognese hold its texture and gives the richness," explains Jacques Reymond. We're already tipping 2009 to be the year of the skirt steak, and the number of chefs who use it in their ragù Bolognese adds further weight to the argument. Brisket pops up a few times, while Uccello's Massimo Bianchi mentions oxtail. "Anything with a good amount of fat that minces nicely," is Neil Perry's call.
The chop Machine-minced? Hand-cut? Most chefs prefer to mince their own meat fresh, though only the truly hardcore opt for hand-cutting it themselves. It is Bar Lourinhã's Matt McConnell who goes old-school here, opting to cook his meat on the bone. Matthew Wilkinson from Circa, the Prince, has a tip: if you're mincing your own, chill the meat in the freezer first so it cuts cleanly and doesn't get caught in the mincer.
Cured meat Nearly three-quarters of our panel includes a cured pork product in their Bolognese, and the bulk of them are talking about pancetta, with the large part of the remainder prosciutto. Some mince a decent fraction as part of the meat mix and others simply throw in scraps, skin or end pieces they have lying around the kitchen for flavour. Shredded sausages, too, have a following, while Javier Codina, from Brisbane's Gianni, reveals his Spanish roots in his inclusion of jamón. As far as the pancetta goes, the common idea is to brown it at the beginning of cooking so that it releases its fat, which you then use to sauté the soffritto (that is, the vegetables which form the base of the flavour). According to Colin Fassnidge from Sydney's Four in Hand, it "should be like the bass player in a band; it's there somewhere in the back, but not up front".
The cooking medium "Lard is the traditional medium," says Nino Zoccali, chef/owner of Sydney's Pendolino, "though what is strongly characteristic about a Bolognese sauce for me is the presence of butter. I usually use half olive oil, half butter." That combination of oil and butter proves popular in our poll, but straight olive oil is more popular still, with only a minority preferring straight lard or butter. (Shannon Bennett, we're pleased to note, likes to use goose fat.) As far as the oil is concerned, some chefs have said they only use extra-virgin olive oil, while others wouldn't be caught dead frying with the stuff. As Colin "Papa" Fassnidge from the Four in Hand puts it: "A normal cooking oil; none of this EVOO lark. It's hard enough trying to pay the rent without throwing good EVOO out."
Soffritto A gentle but thorough cooking of the chopped vegetable base is one of the few things pretty much everyone agrees on. Where some traditional recipes eschew carrot, it's present in most of the versions we've received alongside the more standard onion and celery. Garlic isn't in most traditional northern Italian recipes, but is a mainstay of spag Bol down under. Paul Wilson also adds fennel.
Herbs and spices
Bay leaves, usually fresh, are a common addition to the soffritto, as is thyme. Other herbs nominated include oregano, parsley and marjoram, and fresh basil at the end also comes up. Mace or nutmeg, elements of some classic northern Italian ragù recipes, are favoured by several chefs. Scott Minervini from Hobart's Lebrina speaks of a "subliminal quantity". Lucio Galletto of Sydney landmark Lucio's mentions cloves in his recipe, Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection gets the nod in a couple of instances with the inclusion of star anise, and the influence of Australia's southern Italian and South East Asian communities shows itself in the use of red chilli, both fresh and dried, in quite a few versions.
Mushrooms "No" is the consensus here, and Guy Grossi's "None! Oh my god," is worth noting for the vigour of its conviction. A few of our respondents like fresh field mushrooms or buttons in with the soffritto. Alla Wolf-Tasker of Lake House enjoys the occasional "deviation" of fresh forest mushrooms such as slippery jacks, and Massimo Bianchi likes fresh chanterelles with, like a few of our Italian panel members, the addition of dried porcini. "One or two tablespoons of porcini powder," Karen Martini reckons, "if you're feeling fancy."
Livers Not everyone's cup of tea, certainly, with fewer than a quarter of our surveyed chefs giving them the thumbs-up, but liver - usually chicken livers - is an essential part of some authorities' Bolognese, enriching both its texture and its flavour. Duck livers have their fans, and Stefano Manfredi notes that goose livers are also pretty good. "I'll finish the sauce with chicken liver parfait if that's on hand," says Chui Lee Luk. Restaurant II's David Pugh likes to include the calf's brain and sweetbreads in his recipe. On the broader subject of offal, while Otto's James Kidman is shredding a whole pig for his Bolognese (see The Meat, above), he makes a point of reserving the kidneys for the sauce.
Wine seems to be pretty much an essential part of almost everyone's spag Bol. White wine gets a healthy response, but red is still well ahead. Almost everyone, too, prefers a dry wine, though a couple of chefs like to mix things up a little. "Red and a splash of Marsala," is Matt McConnell's call, and James Kidman throws in some Madeira, too. "Anything left over," is the word from Attica's Ben Shewry. Damien Pignolet takes 375ml of white wine per kilo of meat and reduces it separately down to 100ml before reducing it further in the pan. And in true chef style, Restaurant Assiette's Warren Turnbull nominates "something good so you can drink the rest while you wait".
Dairy Cream and milk are regarded as classic components of the ragù alla Bolognese; here, the dairy-lovers make up around 20 per cent of our sample. Karen Martini says milk can sweeten a tough cut of meat - she adds hers after the meat and vegetables have been browned. "Milk or half its amount in cream seems to protect the protein from becoming tasteless," says Damien Pignolet of Sydney's Bistro Moncur. "I sneak cream into it when the staff aren't watching," says Chui Lee Luk of her staff meal spag Bol. Cold diced butter to finish the sauce, too, is another chef secret.
Tomato The question of how much tomato to add gets a great variety of answers, from none or "just enough to bind" to "a lot", with several of the chefs pointing out that as a northern sauce, it should be more about the meat and less about the tomato. Presented with the options "a little" and "a lot", most of our respondents favour "somewhere in between". The preference for the kind of tomato product runs the gamut from fresh, to your own sugo or passata or conserve, to standard canned peeled numbers (with several chefs name-checking Italy's famed San Marzanos). Guy Grossi likes Leggo's tomato paste, and the combination of ripe fresh tomato and paste comes up more than once. Karen Martini says all are appropriate.
Stock With so many chefs working with collagen-rich meat to begin with, it's generally a "no" on this score, with "chicken if necessary" making up the bulk of the remainder, along with the occasional fan of light veal stock. "No," says Neil Perry, "wine!"
Worcestershire and Tabasco are classic Aussie mum-and-dad additions made to give the sauce body, but are options taken by only a few members of our professional panel. (Matt McConnell's "No thanks, Heston," and James Kidman's "No, leave that to the uni students," are typical responses on this front.) Fish sauce and Maggi Seasoning, less usual variations on the theme, are isolated occurrences. Paul Wilson's suggestion of ras el hanout seems odd, but only until you note that his lamb-based recipe also contains broad beans and finely shredded iceberg lettuce. Robert Marchetti likes to throw in a parmesan rind and also suggests the addition of orange to balance the acidity of the tomato, and Karen Martini sometimes adds a little sugar at the end for the same reason. Massimo Bianchi's secret ingredient is hard to deny: "love".
Cooking time A controversial question. The great bulk of our panel favour either one to two hours or two to four hours, with outliers in the under-an-hour and four-hours-plus camps. Long and gentle cooking are the go, with many urging time be taken not just in the simmering of the sauce but in the cooking of the soffritto and the meat as well. Damien Pignolet says very long cooking results in a dully flavoured sauce, but that at least an hour and a half is necessary (he covers his sauce with baking paper to restrict evaporation and cooks it at 125C) to achieve the slightly gelatinous look he's after.
Pasta For it to be true spag Bol, it's got to be spaghetti, even if the purists point out that the shape of it doesn't hold the sauce especially well. After spaghetti, the most popular res-ponse is tagliatelle, freshly made. Fettuccine, pappardelle, stracci and lasagne get the nod, and more than a couple of chefs like their Bol with potato gnocchi. Jacques Reymond says it's all about short pasta - rigatoni, maccheroni or penne. Javier Codina concurs. "With all my respects to our neighbours the Italians, in Spain we like it better with penne." Then there are the Antipodeans: "Like all good old-fashioned Kiwis," says Warren Turnbull, "on toast is another winner."
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the grana cheeses, Grana Padano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, are the near-universal choices here, and freshly grated is the go. Paul Wilson mixes it up a bit with ricotta salata, Dietmar Sawyere with Fontina, Javier Codina with Manchego, and Ben Shewry, in a moment of Kiwi pride, opts for Tararua tasty cheddar.
The secret Apart from good ingredients and slow, gentle and loving cooking, things get a bit mixed up here - not least of all when it comes to mixing the pasta and the sauce. Matt McConnell says "don't toss the pasta in the sauce". Massimo Bianchi's counsel is to not use spaghetti and "keep the pasta very al dente, nearly raw, and finish cooking it in the sauce", while Tobias Gush of Adelaide's Chianti Classico prefers to serve the sauce on top of the pasta. "Encourage your guests to mix the ragù gently through the pasta themselves as they eat - not all at once," he says.
Cutler & Co's Andrew McConnell highlights the importance of really caramelising the meat and "scraping all the goodness from the bottom of the pot" before deglazing with red wine. Guillaume Brahimi notes the importance of drinking a good Tuscan red wine and listening to Puccini while you cook. Karen Martini says it's all about finishing with a splash of good extra-virgin olive oil and teaming it with a bitter leaf salad. Neil Perry has three words for us - "Love. Patience. Care." - but perhaps the last word should go to Dan Hong, chef at Sydney's Lotus: "You know you've made a really good spag Bol when you want to have it on a jaffle the next day," he says. "It's awesome!"
This article appeared in the May 2009 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.