Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Is there a right way to make a Bolognese?

There are few more satisfying ways to while away a few hours than pottering in the kitchen, attending to a gently gurgling pot of ragu, glass of wine in hand, with the radio muttering away in the background. But, it seems that we in Britain have been doing it all wrong. Italian chef Antonio Carluccio has been getting a little sweaty under his apron over the way in which we make our Bolognese sauce.

According to the Daily Telegraph, whilst at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Mr Carluccio said: 'There was spaghetti Bolognese, which does not exist in Italy. In Italy, it is tagliatelle Bolognese, with freshly made tagliatelle and Bolognese without any herbs whatsoever.'

Mr Carluccio is just the latest to berate the British for taking a classic dish from abroad and subjecting it to unspeakable tinkering with the subtlety of a house decorator trying to restore a Michelangelo fresco.  Poor Jamie Oliver suffered the wrath of Spain for the heinous crime of adding chorizo to his paella last week. And, according to Carluccio, the only way to cook a Bolognese is this:

'You should do this: oil, onion, two types of meat - beef and pork - and you practically brown this, then you put tomatoes, then a bit of wine, including tomato paste, and then you cook it for three hours. That is it. Nothing else. Grate Parmesan on the top and Bob's your uncle.'

His argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that on the same page an entirely different Bolognese recipe appears, shorter but with more ingredients, by a chap called Antonio Carluccio:

But, is there, in Italy, an agreed way of cooking a Bolognese sauce? In 1982, the Bolognese Chapter of the Accademia Italiana della Cucina declared this to be the official 'classic' Bolognese ragu:

As with Carluccio's recipe, there are no herbs or garlic but it still differs significantly. And I doubt whether every household is equipped with the compulsory terracotta saucepan and a mezzaluna chopping knife. 

But, here lies the problem: in Bill Buford's 'Heat' - a book which revels in the robust, macho, end of cooking - he writes 'there is not one Bolognese but many'.

'A Bolognese is made with a medieval kitchen's quirky sense of ostentation and flavorings. There are at least two meats (beef and pork, although local variations can insist on veal instead of beef, prosciutto instead of pork, and sometimes prosciutto, pancetta, sausage, and pork, not to mention capon, turkey, or chicken liver) and three liquids (milk, wine, and broth), and either tomatoes (if your family recipe is modern) or no tomatoes (if the family recipe is older than Columbus), plus nutmeg, sometimes cinnamon, and whatever else your great-great-great-grandmother said was essential.... In any variation, the result is a texture characteristic of all ragu: a crumbly stickiness, a condition of being neither solid nor liquid, more dry than wet, a dressing more than a sauce.... Gianni speaks of the erotics of a new ragu as it cooks, filling the house with its perfume, a promise of an appetite that will mount until it's satisfied.'

Later in the book, Buford cooks an eight-hour Ragu alla Medici which used red onions, garlic, as well as the usual suspects, carrot and celery.

But, with such diverse opinions on the matter - while I appreciate Carluccio's frustration - hoping to maintain the purity of a dish to continue when, perhaps, it never truly existed in the first place, is tricky.

I had a quick look at recipes in a few cookbooks I have at home. Predictably they were all different. 

Below is from the Prue Leith's & Caroline Waldegrave's 'Cookery Bible', in which Carluccio's 'no herbs' diktat is ignored and the addition of marjoram or oregano encouraged.

Elizabeth David, in her classic 'Italian Cooking', chooses to add chicken livers, as well as nutmeg, to the pot:

I found another from Sandra Totti's 'A Taste of Tuscany' - ultimately intended for a lasagna admittedly - which uses fresh basil, thyme and sage, as well as a bay leaf and a clove of garlic. Asking a few colleagues for their interpretations, variations included adding a bay leaf to the oil and mushrooms and even olives to a classic ragu and letting it cook for as long as possible;  another might even use lamb, the addition of chilli and it's all cooked in 20 or 30 minutes. It may well be that there are wrong ways of making a Bolognese but it does seem that there are many right ways.

And, speaking personally, my Bolognese ragu often depends on how much time I have to prepare it. I use beef and pork, prosciutto, wine and, scandalously, some herbs, and try to leave it on the hob for as many hours as are available before the demands for food from my wife and children become impossible to ignore any longer. 

I'm afraid, Mr Carluccio's vision of what an authentic Bolognese is and should be has pretty much evaporated in this country. It may once have been a dish which emerged from Italian families, with all the variance that entails, and Italian academics may once have wanted to codify exactly what it needed; but, it has taken on a different form in Britain. It is not the classic Italian dish it may once have been - as this is not Italy. The spaghetti Bolognese is a British dish now.

But, if there is one way in which the British 'spag bol' and the Italian ragu are still related - and this may not please Mr Carluccio - it is this; as Italian families had their own versions, often passed down through the generations, it seems there may be as much variety in the domestic kitchens of Britain. Some, even Mr Carluccio, might find quite edible.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Theresa May; the red and purple Tory PM

Has a prime minister ever had such an opportunity to seize and control the political narrative as Theresa May does currently?

Sure, Margaret Thatcher dominated the political weather of her era but she came pre-loaded with a free market ideology which she applied, with more pragmatism than is remembered, during her time in office. And, of course, Blair swept all aside in his climb to power but, despite the country crying out for a change after 18 years of Conservative rule, he was timid in ambition, still fearful of electoral defeat.

Theresa May, though, is an accidental prime minister and already a lucky one. She is unencumbered by the baggage gathered by David Cameron after a decade of leading his party, emboldened by a Labour Party which seems content for now to wallow in protest populism, meanwhile Ukip seems to be permanently locked in petty, internecine battles. May - who was something of a Teflon-coated Home Secretary - is left clutching a broad, blank, canvas upon which she can paint her own vision for the Conservative Party and the country.

And so, we have her first major keynote speech at a Conservative Party conference as prime minister. Broadly speaking, it was a very successful, clever, speech. Much of it could have been written and said by Ed Miliband, bulked up with a few additions from Nigel Farage, though most of his script had been left with Home Secretary Amber Rudd a day previously. Delivered without fuss from a lectern, Ms May didn't feel the need to display any flashy skills. She didn't take a suit jacket off to show she means business, or memorise the whole speech in an attempt to display her oratorical prowess. Down to earth, unfussy and practical, getting on with the job; that was the message.

While many still struggle to come to terms with the result of the Brexit referendum on June 23rd, Ms May described it as being a symptom of wider issues within society. The vote to leave was about a broader vote for change, 'about a sense - deep, profound and let's face it often justified - that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them'. She went on:

'Our society should work for everyone, but if you can't afford to get on to the property ladder, or your child is stuck in a bad school, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our economy should work for everyone, but if your pay has stagnated for several years in a row and fixed items of spending keep going up, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. Our democracy should work for everyone, but if you've been trying to say things need to change for years and your complaints fall on deaf ears, it doesn't feel like it's working for you. And the roots of the revolution run deep. because it wasn't the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifices after the financial crash. but ordinary, working class families.'

Compare and contrast with what Ed Miliband had to say in his conference speech in 2014.

'You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn't care about me. Our politics doesn't listen. our economy doesn't work and they're not wrong, they're right....

'Prosperity in one part of Britain, amongst a small elite. A circle that is closed to most, blind to the concerns of people. Sending the message to everyone but a few: you're on your own. See, think about it for a minute. In our economy, it's working people who are made to bear the burden of anxiety, precariousness and insecurity.'

All three paragraphs could easily have come from the same speech. But, while Ed Miliband suffered a humiliating defeat at the last general election, Theresa May is Prime Minister and received a standing ovation. She is busy taking Labour's clothes.

Corbyn himself recognises this. In his own conference speech, he acknowledged that Ms May knew there was a need for change:

The problem Labour and Corbyn faces, though, is that it currently isn't seen as a viable alternative for government. With that in mind, Corbyn is fortunate that Theresa May has ended speculation that she might call an early election for if she did, it seems fairly certain she would be rewarded with an enlarged parliamentary majority. 

Ms May currently faces bigger challenges from within her own party than the official opposition. Many Tory MPs object to the expansion of grammar schools.  There is a cohort of disgruntled Remainers. And the balance of the House of Lords is also still stacked against the Conservative Party. But all this could change. 

The Prime Minister acknowledges that the whole Brexit process will be a 'bumpy' road, the Conservative Party is still split over what Brexit actually means, and if the economy does indeed struggle as many experts fear, it will be this government that is blamed. Moreover, if her fine words remain just fine words and little effort is made to actually seize the centre ground, this will be noticed and Labour could still return there.

The Labour leader has been dismissed many times but he has weathered an almighty battering. It may be hard to imagine now, but, there is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn has galvanised a movement behind him. Many may not recognise it as the Labour Party they have known for decades, but it is huge in number, over half a million in strength, and could still prove a formidable election fighting machine. The next election, however, remains Theresa May's to lose.