The History

Bolognese sauce is an Italian meat-based sauce for pasta which originates in Bologna, a city in Northern Italy. A thick, full-bodied meat sauce that's a staple of northern Italy's Bologna. The term alla Bolognese (in French, à la Bolognese) on a menu designates a pasta or other dish sauced with ragù, which is a meat based sauce. The words for Italian ragù and French ragoût (though for entirely different dishes) are both derived from the verb ragoûter, which means "to stimulate the appetite." A true Bolognese sauce includes a small amount of tomatoes or tomato paste in a rich sauce with meat and other ingredients. It tends to be served on thick pasta, as larger pasta shapes hold meat much better than finer pastas such as capellini. Variations on the sauce outside of Italy often include much more tomato and vegetable ingredients, which change the flavor profile considerably. 

The Pasta

The first certain record of noodles cooked by boiling is in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in Aramaic in the 5th century AD. The word used for the noodles was itriyah. In Arabic references this word stands for the dried noodles purchased from a vendor, rather than homemade noodles which would have been fresh. Dried noodles are portable, while fresh must be eaten immediately. More than likely, pasta was introduced during the Arab conquests of Sicily, carried in as a dry staple. The Arab geographer, Al Idrisi wrote that a flour-based product in the shape of strings was produced in Palermo, then an Arab colony. As the climate and the ground of Italy was better suited for the production of durum wheat, Italy became the center the center of durum wheat pasta manufacturing.

Although Spaghetti alla Bolognese is very popular outside of Italy, it never existed in Bologna, where ragù is served always with the local egg pastas tagliatelle or lasagne. Spaghetti is a durum wheat pasta from Naples, and the Naples Ragù of a meat flavoured thick tomato sauce clings much better to slippery spaghetti than Bologna's ground beef ragù.

The Sauce

The base of Bolognese sauce is a soffrito, an assortment of aromatic and flavorful vegetables such as celery, onions, and carrots fried in olive oil and butter. Next, chunks of meat such as beef and pancetta are added to the soffrito to brown. A dash of milk or cream is added and the mixture is briefly stirred before white wine is poured in and the sauce is allowed to reduce, concentrating the flavor and creating a rich broth. Next, tomato paste and stock are added, along with a dash of butter and salt. The Bolognese sauce is stirred and then simmered gently until the meat breaks down.

Serving

The Bolognese may be tossed with pasta, or drizzled on top. Some cooks dress it with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, while others prefer to let the natural flavor of the sauce come through. Freshly cracked salt and pepper may also be used in small amounts, to bring out the flavors of the Bolognese sauce. Typically, pasta with Bolognese sauce is served with a wine of choice, such as a rich red.

Outside Italy

Some think that all happened during War World II, when American (and British) soldiers passing through Emilia, ate tagliatelle al ragù and liked them. Back home, they asked for the dish and Italian restaurateurs created the dish we know today, with spaghetti. There is no evidence but the story could well be true. When American and British came back to Italy as tourists they asked for their beloved Spaghetti Bolognese and Italian restaurateurs gave it to them.

In recent decades, the dish has become very popular in Sweden, Denmark and Norway as spagetti och köttfärssås, in Swedish, spaghetti og kødsovs in Danish, and spaghetti og kjøttdeig in Norwegian, especially among children. A version is popular in the United Kingdom (where it is colloquially abbreviated to spag bol). In the United States also the term 'bolognese' is applied to a tomato-and-ground-beef sauce that bears little resemblance to ragù served in Bologna. Outside of Italy, Bolognese sauce may seem more like a tomato sauce than a ragu. A more tomatoey version of Bolognese sauce is especially popular in Britain and Northern Europe, as well as the United States. It is also more known to be served with dry spaghetti and not tagliatelle.

Back in Italy purists say that Spaghetti Bolognese has nothing to do with the Italian culinary culture. Some time ago, Stefano Bonilli, a renowned Italian gastronomer, who was born in Bologna, wrote: “Spaghetti alla bolognese never existed. Spaghetti is dry pasta from Southern Italy, in Bologna, we have tagliatelle, freshly homemade, al ragù bolognese”. The fact is that at least one other ‘sugo’ (sauce) 'alla bolognese' exists and is the one described by Pellegrino Artusi in his The Science in the kitchen and the art of eating well. Not only is Artusi’s ‘bolognese’ not ragù, but the recipe includes maccheroni (macaroni), which are dry pasta, exactly as “Southern” spaghetti are. So, can we say that Spaghetti Bolognese come from that recipe? No way. Artusi doesn’t include tomatoes in his sugo, while Spag Bog is a sauce made with tomatoes (as we have seen, the presence of tomatoes is very limited in the original ragu alla bolognese).