Slow, simple and splendid

Ragù: From the French Ragoût or meat stew. This term has been adopted for long-cooked rich sauces, especially in Emilia-Romagna for their Ragù alla Bolognese which often served with tagliatelle.

Tagliatelle al ragù

I don’t know about you, but I like my ragù rich, dense, comfortable and cooked very slowly, a three hour gurgling simmer with an occasional blip of a bubble on the back of the stove. I like it made with half beef, half pork and a little pancetta, with red wine not white. It should be very very discretely tomatoey, so a soft brown colour rather than raging red, it should contain milk added towards the end of the cooking. I like it to cling- to but not overwhelm the pasta, which is usually fresh egg tagliatelle.

That’s how I like ragù.

It’s taken a while, I followed recipes and took advice, much advice – I live in Italy, advice about food is omnipresent and served in abundant portions with seconds especially if you are English. I made a lot of ragù, I ate a lot of ragù and ummed and ahhed and furrowed my brow in a….good but…..I can’t quite put my finger on it… you think if I added..….way.

For a while I settled on a very good and authentic Bolognese ragù recipe as my template, nearly nearly we all mumbled approvingly. Then I came across the wise and witty Rowley Leigh’s recipe, which is virtually identical to the one I’d been using (his recipe has clear Bolognese origins) except for a couple of little quirks in ingredients, proportions and style that nudged it towards pretty perfect in my ragù book. His recipe is beautifully balanced; first a trio of fat, oil, butter and the pancetta; then the holy trinity, onion, carrot and celery softened slowly slowly. Now the meat, half beef, half pork, a very discrete quantity of tomato, a flick of nutmeg, red wine, stock, the addition of milk towards the end of the cooking which is long and slow.

Talking of perfect, a word I overuse, I think tagliatelle al ragu is a pretty perfect laid back late autumn/ December supper and a relaxing one too if you make it in the morning for eating that night. The usual suspects arrive – it doesn’t matter if they are early or late as ragù is endlessly patient and accommodating as to when it’s served – you open the wine, Volpolicella maybe, some salami and olives to start while the water for the pasta comes to the boil and you gently re-heat the ragù. If you feel like it, you can make a green salad for after the ragù and before the deep ruby-red poached pears you made a day or two before. Supper, simple and splendid.

As you know, I don’t make pasta. I can, but not well and I find the whole experience quite stressful. I buy it wrapped up neatly in waxed paper from Gatti – pasta all’uovo in Via Branca who make better pasta than I can ever dream of creating at home. I suppose this address isn’t really very helpful if you don’t live in Rome, unless of course you decide to come and visit, in which case we will go together.

I am convinced ragù is better after a rest, the flavours are mellower, gentler and even more comfortable. I generally make ragù in the morning – sometimes the night before – to eat that evening.

The recipe

Tagliatelle al ragù

Adapted from Rowley Leigh’s ‘No place like Home’

serves 4 – 6

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 25g butter
  • 50g pancetta chopped very finely
  • 1 medium red onion peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 large carrot peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 sticks celery peeled and finely chopped
  • 200g ground beef (shin or chuck is good)
  • 200g ground pork
  • 2 tablespoons tomato purèe
  • 250ml dry red wine
  • 250ml chicken stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • a pinch of nutmeg
  • 100ml whole milk
  • 500g fresh egg tagliatelle
  • freshly grated parmesan

Warm the olive oil and butter in a large heavy based pan (earthenware or enameled cast iron is great) add the minced pancetta and cook on a medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring every now and then.

Add the finely chopped onion, carrot and celery to the pan, stir and allow them to soften over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes.

Turn up the flame and add the ground beef and pork, season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper then stir and turn the meat constantly, breaking up the clumps until it is evenly cooked on all sides and it has lost all trace of its red raw colour.

Add the tomato purèe and a grating of nutmeg and mix well before adding the red wine, stock and bay leaf.

Bring the pan to a gentle boil and then turn the heat down so the ragù cooks uncovered at the laziest of simmers with the occasional blip of a bubble for 3 hours.

The ragu will need very little attention at first, a stir every 1o minutes. After 2 1/2 hours the liquid will have reduced and the sauce will be thick, rich and syrupy and so you can add the milk, stir and leave simmering for the final 30 minutes.

Taste and add more salt if necessary.

Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and gently drop in the tagliatelle and cook until al dente – still firm but not hard in the middle. Drain immediately in a colander, saving a little of the cooking water and then return the pasta to the pan and add the sauce. Working quickly mix and turn the pasta in the sauce and add a little of the cooking water to get a nice creamy coating of sauce on the pasta.

Serve immediately with plenty of freshly grated parmesan


I have not abandoned my chestnut cooking, far from it, we are overwhelmed by the nutty brown things around here and the kitchen is very very sticky from another very chaotic session of chestnut jam making and my adventures in marron glace making. Not sure which part to inflict on you next.


Filed under food, meat, pasta and rice, recipes

16 responses to “Slow, simple and splendid

  1. The Ragu looks absolutely delicious and something that I aspire too, I will definitely be trying your version next time I make it. The supper with friends you describe sounds wonderful.

  2. Oh by the way, chestnut jam sounds very interesting and something I have never heard of so I am looking forward to that post.

  3. There might be something very wrong with how much I want to eat this dish right now. For breakfast.

  4. It does look splendid. Time to make Vincenzo some arancini with ragù nestled in the center.

  5. Oh, this is so good—not just the RAGU, which is just how it should be done–but, I have friends recently moved from Bologna to Rome who have yet to locate fresh pasta in their neighborhood. (they are currently in the states, set to return before year end–shall send this link post-haste!)

  6. no chicken liver? please advise!

    • rachel

      Claudia, I really like chicken livers in my Ragù and some of the most excellent ragùs I’ve ever eaten (the best in Bologna) contained chicken livers. I was quite surprised that this recipe (Rowley Leigh’s) doesn’t, but it doesn’t and its still beautifully rounded, rich and I don’t think you miss them. Or maybe you do ? you could add them I suppose.

  7. marcella hazan’s recipe also does not have them…

    well i am making your version now

    • I am used to using Marcella Hazans recipe and she puts in the milk after browning the meat and even before the wine. However, a lot of modern recipes add the milk at the end. What has changed to have people now add the milk only in the end?

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  9. Michelle

    If you do want to add chicken livers, how much would you add to the above recipe? How do you prepare the chicken livers before adding them tot he sauce?

    I can’t wait to try!

    Thanks much.

  10. johanna

    ate this at my friend’s house last winter and was blown away. glad i finally got around to making it myself this week. thanks for such a great ragu!

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  12. Julie Friedeberger

    Rachel, I’ve been loving your Guardian column, I have and love your book (it’s now on my Kindle as well), and I’ve been so enjoying your blog. I have a question about ragu. You have three recipes: this one, influenced by Rowley Leigh from 2009, the one in the Guardian of a few months ago, and the one in the book. All three sound wonderful. Which one (before I part from Elizabeth David’s, which I’ve been using for I don’t know how many years) do you now cook most of the time?

    Thanks and all the best.

    • rachel

      Hello Julie,
      aha, the problems of writing a blog, then a column and a book, and saying different things in different places. I have my book open when I made ragu now, which probably sounds rediculous and book vain, but I like a book open. the recipe there realy is ED and RW rolled into one, and a recipe I trust, The Guardian one, is more or less the same. hope that helps and thank you for reading along. R

      • Julie

        Hi Rachel

        I do see the problem. :o) Anyway, I came to the same conclusion even before your reply arrived, and cooked my ragu from the recipe in the book. It’s wonderfully sound, and it’s for my husband’s 94th birthday tomorrow.

        When I moved to London from New York in 1961 I learned to cook from Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. My copies of Italian Food and French Provincial Cooking are in shreds and have departed from their bindings but lately I’ve felt at a jaded standstill with my cooking, and have badly needed some new inspiration, which you’re supplying. Today I realised that the essence of the inspiration is your joy of discovery – your delight in learning and finding things out and communicating your delight and your discoveries. This works better for me now, than the laying down of rules from on high by those great Olympians: it makes me want to make things, and I’ve got my eye on your recipe for lentils for my next effort. After Klaus’ birthday – with sausages.

        Thank you very much, Rachel,


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