What was ragù at the beginning of its history? Why did he have this name? When did the name begin to appear in ancient culinary treatises? How does this preparation go from a French dish to an Italian symbol (Bolognese, Neapolitan…)?

At Trattoria Pomposa al Re Gras in Modena, a great chef like Luca Marchini (also owner of the adjacent L’Erba del Re) and a gastronomy historian like Luca Cesari (author of volumes that have already explored the subject in great depth such as “The History of Pasta in 10 dishes” for Il Saggiatore) got together and organized a vertical ragù from 1651 to the present day in 6 steps. “We started from the oldest results, that is, from when some recipes began to be called ‘ragù’, or rather in the French ragoût, until today. The Bolognese ragù that we know only appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, but before that this term was still used and indicated a particularly tasty way of cooking meat, with a sauce. It is no coincidence that the French term ragout comes from ‘ragoûter’ or to revive, to restore flavour“.

In the video above Cesàri and Marchini tell us how this project was born, what were the challenges and complexities it presented. Below we see, dish by dish, what emerged from the tasting, complete with photos and dishes described one by one. Will the exceptional vertical tasting be held again or will it remain a unique and unrepeatable event? “We are preparing to do an encore in the spring, but it is still too early to reveal when” they say from Modena.

François de La Varenne's chicken with ragout

1651 – François de La Varenne \ “Pullets in ragoust”

That’s right: Lavarin calls them “in ragoust”. Chickens that are fried in lard and other meats. Broth is added with small pieces of mushrooms and then served with livers alongside. It is the first time that the concept of cooking “in ragoust” appears: at the time our old ragù was just a meat dish

Eggs in mushroom ragout by Vincenzo Corrado

1773 – Vincenzo Corrado \ “Eggs in mushroom ragout”

Corrado is the chef of the Neapolitan aristocracy of those years. Since Naples at that time was by far the largest city in Italy, a huge city where the aristocrats made use of these great chefs by incorporating recipes from Spain and France. Vincenzo Corrado makes many dishes of ragù, meat, offal, and then he makes eggs in ragù. Which are nothing more than hard-boiled eggs cut in two with a sauce of only mushrooms pulled with a sauce. Compared to the first recipe based on French culture, here we are in Italy, linked to a fashion that was still rooted in the Renaissance, and very linked to the use of spices. While the French cut back on spices and focus on cooking juices, here we remain with a strong focus on this ingredient: in this dish there is in fact a preponderance of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. To tell the truth, there would also be truffles on top: “The recipes we studied were always full of mushrooms and truffles everywhere”, say the chef and the historian.

Francesco Leonardi's liver ragout

1790 – Francesco Leonardi \ “Ragu of livers”

Francesco Leonardi was the greatest Italian chef of the late eighteenth century. He has worked in all European courts and, in St. Petersburg, he is the personal chef of Catherine II of Russia. After that he is… too cold and decides to return to Rome; he retires and starts writing a seven-volume cookery treatise. He has a very strong French background; he also makes various ragùs and in particular a type of livers. Being a cuisine of the late eighteenth century, we are talking about complex dishes that relied heavily on broth (something that remained even in the nineteenth century), on very complicated, highly processed meat broths, fragrant consommés and coulis. This ragù – a small bowl with a strong flavor of livers – begins to approach in a certain way to the modern ones… And again in his treatise “L’Apicio Moderno”, Leonardi will be the first to introduce tomato in the ragù. In 1807.

Ippolito Cavalcanti's Neapolitan macaroni

1837 – Ippolito Cavalcanti \ “Neapolitan macaroni”

Another Neapolitan chef. Which makes the first treatise in which he collects popular recipes and bourgeois and aristocratic recipes, dividing the publication in two. And in popular recipes he adds ragù. And what was ragù? It was a nice piece of veal stewed with onions: the meat part was eaten as a second course, the liquid part was used to season the macaroni. This is why the dish is brought out by chef Luca Marchini divided into two services. In short, the meat was the ragù and the pasta was seasoned with the ragù sauce and of course with the cheese, which was still the main condiment. It should be noted that the “macaroni” of the time were what today we would call bucatini or rather “mezzanelli”, a format that very few pasta factories make today: very long spaghetti to eat with your hands.

Macaroni Bolognese by Pellegrino Artusi

1891 – Pellegrino Artusi \ “Macaroni Bolognese”

The dish that truly marks the history of Emilian ragù: what we mean as “ragù”. The first to codify them was Pellegrino Artusi, who spoke of “macaroni alla Bolognese”. Before this, ragù was something indefinite and generic, as we have seen: it was a sauce, it was a stew, it was a piece of meat, a sauce or something else. This one from Artusi is a macaroni flavored with celery-carrots-onion, the “dried meat” which would be bacon and veal, browned and tossed in broth. In his publication, Artusi also details the macaroni, which must be “horse teeth”. In short, Artusi is one of the first to standardize this preparation. Moreover, in a context that did not yet have pasta as a main dish: its boom came between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, despite the fact that it is thought that Italians have always eaten it. With Artusi we are talking about a pasta that becomes so important that it almost becomes a single dish. However, the ragù remains in moderate quantities, because the main condiment was still cheese: it was seasoned with cheese and then flavored with a little ragù.

Chef Luca Marchini's tagliatelle with ragù alla Pomposa

Today – Luca Marchini \ “Tagliatelle with Pomposa ragù”

In more recent years, ragù has become increasingly enriched with meat, tomato has entered (in the concept of Bolognese ragù) and its quantity will continue to increase. An inversion occurs: no longer pasta with cheese and enriched with ragù, but rather pasta with ragù and then enriched with cheese. And then they make a name for themselves, tagliatelle. We speak of “bolognese ragù” because everything referring to Emilia was identified with the capital, which since the Middle Ages was characterized by a particularly rich and fatty cuisine. But that doesn’t mean that preparation wasn’t done in other cities. Sauteed carrot, celery and onion for 45 minutes and then half the beef, a quarter of the sausage and a quarter of the pork neck. To be cooked for many, many, many hours. The only characteristic of this legendary dish that has remained unchanged over the centuries.

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