“People are generally proud of their food. A willingness to eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice… they open up to you in ways that somebody visiting who is driven by a story may not get.”

Anthony Bourdain

I’m not sure as to whether it was the early restaurant going metropolitan aristocracy of London’s NW3 or someone who simply could not get their tongue around the romance of the Italian language, but our popular contraction of Spag Bol entered the civic lexicon only a few decades ago. Its flawed abbreviation proving difficult to withstand, as evidenced by the frequent use in countless lacklustre Italian restaurants across the English speaking globe, and still heard today from Islington to west SoHo as the wistful cry of numerous hungry ristorante patrons eager to consume their abiding urban scoff.

All well and good in London, or New York for that matter, but Spag Bol is simply not recognised in Italy.

Just as Chicken Tikka Masala is a complete mystery for most citizens of the Indian sub continent, Spaghetti Bolognese invokes an Italianate smirk, a knowing shrug of elegantly accoutred shoulders and the upturned palms reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pietà. It is not a dish that any cittadino of Bologna has ever eaten – unless of course they are holidaying in the UK and mistakenly hoping for their Nonna’s cooking.

At the same time, chefs commanding the lucrative waterside restaurants of Venice’s Grand Canal still reluctantly concoct the dish for English speaking tourists, who, oblivious to their immersion in stateless, pan-European gastronomy, remain busy eyeing the vista – still curious as to whether the industrious Canaletto secretly used a Pentax.

And heaven forbid that the dish should ever be confused with the many Bolognese cook-in sauces which pour from a jar like sludge from an overworked sump, or that spaghetti (translated charmingly as small strings) would originally be made so far north in Italy – individual regions still fiercely guard their signature pasta profiles.

Thankfully the city of Bologna in Emilia-Romagna does have a justifiably famous sauce, known simply as Ragù. It is unwaveringly coupled with a distinctive local pasta style – the best traditionally extruded from bronze dies and left to dry naturally – called Tagliatelli. Flushed with predictable Italian pride, the chamber of commerce in Bologna displays a solid gold reproduction of a single strip – a Tagliatella. A distinctly Latin gesture for the avoidance of any Anglo-Saxon doubt.

The provincial name of the dish, defining one of the benchmarks of authentic northern Italian cuisine, is Tagliatelli con ragù a la Bolognese. A bit more of a Latin mouthful, I’ll grant you that, but it’s well worth nailing down the bona fide here.

Tagliatelli con ragù all Bolognese from The Food of Italy – Claudia Roden (2014)

50g unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
600g minced beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
300ml dry red or white wine
200ml whole milk
A good pinch of nutmeg
1 x 400g tin peeled and chopped tomatoes
600g Tagliatelli
Grated Parmesan

Serves 6

Heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan.
Add the vegetables and sauté for about 10 minutes until they are soft.
Add minced meat, season with salt and pepper and turn the heat up.
Then cook, stirring, turning the meat over and crushing it to break it up, until it changes colour.
Add the wine and let the sauce bubble, uncovered, until the wine evaporates.
Add the milk and cook, stirring occasionally until it is absorbed, then add tomatoes.
Continue to cook the sauce, uncovered over a very low heat for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally and adding water so that it does not dry out.
Adjust the seasoning towards the end.
There should not be any liquid left at the end but the sauce must be moist.
Cook the tagliatelli in boiling salted water until al dente, drain and toss with the sauce.

When back home in Norfolk, our son Matthew’s favourite pasta dish.

Wine thoughts

West of Emilia-Romagna lies Piedmont, and Piedmont is home to some of Italy’s most exciting wines. Remarkable reds, all made from the same grape variety – Nebbiolo – and incontestably some of the the most exciting in Europe. In Piedmont we find ourselves with an embarrassment of riches – Barolo, Gattinara and Barbaresco. But so often I find myself yearning for that other local grape variety – Barbera. Unlike France, who’s young, tannin-rasping Cabernets are frequently selected to accompany beef cuisine, Barbera’s refreshing astringency and bitter-sweet acidity provides a warming mix of red-cherry fruit to match the partly caramelised beef ragù.