This is not a bolognese

Spaghetti almost-bolognese

Only a fool would be stupid enough to lay claim to a "traditional" Italian recipe. In Sicily they kill you for saying that sort of thing, by way of old Italian women hitting you with rolling pins. Even in Italy, the idea of what's authentic changes from one kitchen to the next.

With that in mind, I make no claims that this is a traditional ragu alla bolognese. It's not served with fresh tagliatelle and it does contain tomato. If that offends your orthodox sensibilities, either cover your eyes or polish your pitchfork because you won't be happy with the anchovies or star anise. But isn't it possible that this wide world of food might just be big enough for more than one Italian meat sauce? Let's make a deal: I won't call this real bolognese, if you concede that science and the expertise of Heston Blumenthal (oh, only the man behind the best restaurant in the world) might possibly, you know, maybe, make for a recipe that isn't so bad?

If you can get past the big deviations from tradition and understand why they were made, you'll find that this recipe (based on Blumenthal's from the Times) really isn't so inauthentic. Consider this:

  1. When star anise is cooked with onions, a chemical reaction occurs producing a substance that enhances the 'meaty' flavour of a dish. It's true, Heston says so. It's effect isn't simply limited to beef either.

  2. Anchovies are rich in glutamate, which is umami central and the 'active ingredient' in MSG. Like any taste umami can be overpowering and unpleasant when used to excess, but used judiciously it boosts the flavour of savory food. In case there is anyone who doesn't know this yet: beyond the baseline expected rate of hypersensitivity to any ingested substance, glutamate or MSG is not bad for you.

  3. Pork makes everything better. If you are pork-averse, replace the pork with beef for veal mince but be sure to use a fattier cut like chuck. Bolognese is much more a meat sauce than a tomato sauce, so for this bolognese-inspired recipe use good quality meat. Because you're using tougher and less presentable braising cuts, even from best-quality animals it will still be pretty cheap.

  4. You can't make this when you get home from work and have it for dinner — this sauce takes at least 7 hours to cook. Thankfully most of that time is slow-cooking in the oven, so you can go and do something else. It tastes great freshly made, but even better the next day.

  5. Eat your sauce with whatever the hell you want to eat it with. The bolognese were definitely on to something pairing ragu alla bolognese with fresh tagliatelle, but spaghetti or rigatoni are a different and equally enjoyable alternative. Have it in a toasted sandwich with cheddar cheese, I don't care. This isn't about creating an authentic cultural experience, it's about making food you want to eat.

A recipe for food you want to eat is after the jump.



  • 50 ml peanut oil
  • 50 g unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
  • 4 sticks of celery, finely chopped
  • 250g beef mince1
  • 250g pork mince
  • 4 anchovy fillets
  • 150 ml whole milk
  • A pinch of nutmeg
  • 150 ml dry white wine
  • 400 g canned tomatoes
  • Salt to taste
  • Lots of cracked black pepper

1. Cook the onion, garlic and star anise on a low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent browning. Add the carrot & celery and cook for another 20 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 120ºC/250ºC. Stir in the meat and cook over a medium heat until the mince is cooked through. Season well with salt, then add the anchovies, milk, and nutmeg and cook on a medium-low heat until the milk has just about evaporated (the anchovies will dissolve into the sauce).
3. Add the white white and tomatoes, and bring to a simmer on the stove. Transfer to the oven, covered, and cook for at least 6 hours. Check it every now and then, and if it's simmering too fiercely add half a cup of cold water and turn the oven down.
4. When at least 6 hours is up and you can't bear to wait any longer, remove from the oven and season generously with cracked black pepper.

(1) Use mince from a cut of beef that's not too lean if possible. I recommend chuck.

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