Pop quiz guys. Can you guess what the most famous dish to come out of Bologna, Italy? Well of course it’s Bolognese. Many people back home probably know it as the good old family favourite Spaghetti Bolognese. But did you know that in Italy it goes by the name of Tagliatelle al Ragu di Selvaggina?
Talk to anyone in the north of Italy though and they will tell you that authentically speaking, true ragu is never served with spaghetti, only tagliatelle pasta. This is because spaghetti comes from the south of Italy while tagliatelle is the typical pasta of the Bologna region.
Another surprising fact is that true Bolognese ragu contains not one shred of garlic (we were as surprised as you). Yet the dish practically bursts with flavour in every mouthful. This is because what it does have is a whole lot of slow cooked deliciousness (also known in Italy as heaps of extra virgin olive oil).
But rather than just trust just the city of Bologne to provide an authentic ragu, we decided to head further out into the surroundings, to a gorgeous Agriturismo farm-stay accommodation outside of Rustignano. With our backpacks on we hiked under the setting sun, step after step up the steep hill. What a relief when Agriturismo Ben ti Voglio came into sight at last. Our efforts were about to be rewarded with a night’s stay in their beautiful renovated farmhouse.
Chatting with the lovely owners, we were invited into the kitchen with head chef Roberta and Maître Davide to learn how to prepare a delicious variation of ragu called Ragu di Selvaggina. A key difference? This version uses game meat such as venison for a richer flavour. Commonly known as ‘black meat’, it has a much stronger flavour than the standard pork mince used in Bolognese ragu.
While Roberta and Davide were busy grinding the venison we set to work chopping the vegetables; celery – chop… err, check! Carrots – yep. And onions (no crying, promise). These we would cook in extra virgin olive oil until soft and tender.
A humungous pot was set on the stove and we started to pour in the oil… and pour… and pour… and pour, until Roberta told us at last there was enough. This dish needs a lot of oil to cook the authentic way!
Into the oil we threw an intriguing mix of herbs and spices; aromatic bay leaves freshly picked from the garden, juniper (which we had never used before), 20 or so cloves and around half to one clove of ground nutmeg. Here you must be very careful not to add too much or you will ruin the dish. After all as the saying goes in Italy, ‘Three cloves of nutmeg will kill a man’!
With the vegetables merrily stewing away it was time to add the meat and cook until nice and brown. The key here is to keep cooking until all the liquid in the pan evaporates and it starts to… scream. Yes it sounds a bit morbid, but to cook a really good ragu, she told us, the meat should literally start to burn, otherwise all you end up with is steamed meat and no flavour. No flavour? No no! We couldn’t have that.
We love to cook with red wine and this dish called for lots of it. Since we were cooking to restaurant proportions, a whole bottle of a delicious 2012 Merlot (made with the grapes grown on site) went straight into the pot with a huge jug of water. And that was it, apart from a good deal of patience… for a really good ragu you’ll need three to five hours from this point for the liquid to boil down and the flavours to develop.
One final piece of advice from Roberta? Never eat a ragu on the first day, always wait until the second day. Or even better, freeze it! When making a huge batch it’s a good idea to freeze the sauce in 100g portions, ready to grab when needed and perfect for a single serving size.
Below is our version of Roberta’s delicious venison ragu recipe, quartered down to size suitable to make at home.We hope you enjoy making it as much as we did, and we’d love to hear from you if you do so feel free to let us know how you go.
Big thanks to Roberta, Davide, and the wonderful guys at Agriturismo Ben ti Voglio for teaching us this delicious Italian dish.
- 1 kg ground venison
- 2 carrots chopped
- 1 stick celery chopped
- 1/2 white onion chopped
- 50 g lard
- 2 tbsp oil
- 2 fresh bay leaves
- 5 cloves
- Small handful juniper berries
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 3/4 cup red wine preferably merlot
- 3 cups hot water
- Heat the oil in a large cooking pot over a high heat. Add the herbs and spices and cook until fragrant.
- Add vegetables and cook for 5 to 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
- Add the meat and lard. Stir fry until all the liquid evaporates and the meat goes very brown. It should start to ‘scream’ from the water evaporation and become quite dark.
- Add the wine and stir through, then add the water. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer – you should see small bubbles rising to the surface. Cook for approximately three hours, stirring occasionally, until the ragu reaches a thick smooth consistency.
- Once cooked, allow to cool then divide the ragu into 100g containers and place in the fridge or freezer. Remember, it's always best to eat ragu on the next day for the best flavour! 🙂
- To serve, reheat as many portions as required (allow 100g per person), stir through half tbsp of butter and a little water to bring back to a smooth consistency. Ladle over freshly cooked tagliatelle.