You say tomayto, and I say tomahto

One of the joys of spending time in Bologna is that I don’t need an excuse to order dishes with bolognese sauce every day. And one of the joys of growing old is that I can claim to do this in the name of “research”. Stuff and nonsense, as you well know. The main reason I have had some bolognese sauce every day is that I love it. Especially when it is well made.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Just what is a well-made bolognese? If you look up wikipedia, this is what you get. The article starts off with the following:

Bolognese sauce (ragù alla bolognese in Italian, also known by its French name sauce bolognaise) is a meat based sauce for pasta originating in Bologna, Italy. Bolognese sauce is sometimes taken to be a tomato sauce but authentic recipes have only a small amount of tomato.

…authentic recipes have only a small amount of tomato. Okay, let’s park that thought for a moment.

The article then goes on to say:

The recipe, issued in 1982 by the Bolognese delegation of Accademia Italiana della Cucina, confines the ingredients to beef, pancetta, onions, carrots, celery, tomato paste, meat broth, white wine, and (optionally) milk or cream. However, different recipes, far from the Bolognese tradition, make use of chopped pork, chicken or goose liver along with the beef or veal for variety, or use butter with olive oil. Prosciutto, mortadella, or porcini fresh mushrooms may be added to the soffritto to enrich the sauce.

Okay, so it would appear that tomato paste is definitely part of the “official” recipe. So let’s then take a look at what the Accademia Italiana della Cucina actually has to say about this. More precisely, let’s take a look at what the Accademia says about Emilia-Romagna ragu sauces:

Pomodoro maturi (oppure pelati o concentrato).  So we still have the tomato, with different options.

So then I took a look at Heston Blumenthal’s Spaghetti Bolognese recipe. And a few more. And it confused me.

Everything I looked at had quite a bit of tomato in it. Yet the locals (and even Wikipedia for that matter) keep stating “only a small amount of tomato”.

I guess it’s all down to taste. You say tomahto and I say tomayto.

After five days, I know what I like. For me, the stuff that looks like this:

tastes infinitely better than the stuff that looks like this:

[Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia]. All I know is that the bolognese sauce I really like doesn’t have any red about it, the tomato is either in small amounts or slow-cooked to extinction.

As I said before, it’s a matter of taste. So I am looking for recipes that are low in tomato. Of course there are a million other things that matter, people use different meats, different spices, different ways of cooking. I’m just trying to simplify things for myself  by concentrating on the behaviour of one ingredient: the tomato. Fresh or not? Hand-peeled and hand-pressed or not? And how much. Pomodoro is assumed, I guess.

Comments please. As usual I will learn from them, and share what I learn.

7 thoughts on “You say tomayto, and I say tomahto”

  1. Fantastic bit of food research JP! I am squarely placed in the ‘I know I’ve tasted good bolognese sauce before, but could never come close to explaining why/how’. I’ll have to print this post out and take it with me to a couple of my fav London Italian restaurants and do some personal taste testing. I was actually in Bologna a couple years back when I first landed in Europe, and now have a huge incentive to go back and do some food research verification :).


  2. James, thanks for the feedback. Arthur, Marcella Hazan is perfect for me; I took a look at her recipes, and they look just right. Checked her out on wikipedia and found out she comes from Emilia Romagna, which adds to the authenticity. Thanks again. Will try them out as soon as I can. And let you know the results.

  3. JP,

    please excuse the shameless plug, but as an Italian geek and foodie, I’m quite opinionated about ragù (no, you will never hear me call it “Bolognaise”). And yes, it’s all about very small quantities of tomato, with some exceptions.

    Here are a couple of recipes I hacked up: the first one is more tomato-based (something you can’t avoid if you want some moist in your lasagne), while the second one uses just a small quantity of red stuff – in line with the tradition of what we call “ragù bianco” (literally “white ragout”, where white means with little to no tomato).



  4. Thanks a lot, Gianugo. I don’t say Bolognaise either, though I do use “ragu”and “bolognese” almost interchangeably. Is that wrong? Please enlighten me.

    By the way I had the most fantastic meal tonight. In Bologna. Ragu based almost solely on salsicce fresche as the meat ingredient, and with gramigna as the pasta. Unbelievable. And not tomato-ey at all.

  5. JP,

    any variation of “bolognese” is an abomination to Italians, with “bolognaise” being the ultimate insult given it’s a french word. :)

    If you’re in front of italian folks and mention bolognaise, expect either blank stares or snickers. We might (might!) stand something like “ragù alla bolognese”, but the name of the meat sauce is “ragù di carne” or just “ragù”, full stop. Next time you hit an italian restaurant, ask for an italian menu and compare it to the english translation: I’m ready to bet that “bolognaise” will be translated to “ragù”.

    Great you managed to find gramigna! That’s the best way to have meat sauce. However, may I suggest you don’t leave Bologna without trying some “tortellini in brodo”? That’s the ultimate comfort food indeed!

Let me know what you think