Italy, as we know it now, is a very young country. It was unified in 1861 and as a result there is still a very strong regional identity as you move around the country.
This is particularly true when it comes to cuisine but don’t worry, I’ll save the history lesson for another time and just continue with the foodie facts.
There are certain dishes that you will find all over the country that can be easily recognised despite the regional variations. Ragù is one such dish and as a staple of any Italian kitchen, the variations may be more familiar than you realise.
While ragù seems as Italian as pasta itself the origins are actually French where ‘ragoût’ refers to any stewed meat in a sauce with vegetables. It reached the Emilia-Romagna region at some point during the 16th Century and was well known amongst aristocrats during the Renaissance, served as a second course but not with pasta.
The pairing of pasta with ragù didn’t happen until towards the end of the 18th Century. Prior to this it was common for pasta or ‘maccheroni’, the general term for any fresh or dried pasta, to be served with some sort of meat broth. The meat was typically removed and eaten as part of a later course.
Pasta with a ragù became more common place in the early to mid-1800s normally eaten on a Sunday, as a first course to top some pasta and then in a later course on its own. In the early 20th Century pasta became cheaper to produce thanks to industrialisation and as a result became more widespread.
Ragù made the perfect sauce as it was typically made using cheaper and tougher cuts of meat; as with many meat stews around the world. Cuts such as shin, shoulder, chuck, skirt, tail would all be cooked for a period of hours to form rich flavourful sauce. In Bari, a coastal town in the region of Puglia, it is common to use horse meat that is tenderised, rolled and stuffed with garlic and herbs. A dish known as ‘Braciole di Cavallo alla Barese’ or sometimes ‘ragù alla Barese’. The braciole is usually taken out of the pan after cooking and served on top of the pasta dish, or if it’s Sunday, as part of another course. Arguably the most famous of these sauces is of course Ragù alla Bolognese, which to non-Italians, is a tomato based sauce with minced meat of some description that is most commonly paired with…Tagliatelle. Yes, that’s right! Not Spaghetti. Traditionally it also contains no minced meat; in Italy the use of minced meat for Bolognese is a fairly modern concept, the norm would have been to use some finely cut beef, perhaps with some fatty pork added in for flavour.
While both types of Bolognese are delicious there is something very special about ragù prepared with a good quality chunk of well sourced meat ‘alla Napoletana’. At Punto, we use salt aged heritage breed beef shin from Block & Bottle on Heaton Road, cooked low and slow over a 12 hour period. However you prefer your ragù, it’s undoubtedly a firm favourite all round.