“There is no such thing as Italian cooking”.
This was the first thing my mentor Marcella told me as we sat down for my first cookery lesson in Florence. Sat between two bookcases of thick cookbooks (some of which were her own) and cradling an espresso in her hands, Marcella told me that Italian cooking did not exist.
I trusted Marcella instantly. When she spoke about food, she had a wisdom that could only come from treading the tiles of professional Kitchens. It was a knowledge she was proud to own and eager to share. You could tell her knowledge has come from years of professional and domestic cooking that has led her to the countertops of her own school in the heart of Florence.
But still, despite the fact I had come to Italy to learn how to cook Italian food, she told me it didn’t exist. Growing up in the U.K. in the 90’s where Italian food was defined by the lasagne, the Bolognese and the carbonara, I daren’t question her.
“Cooking is about two things – technique and ingredients. Knowing the best ingredients for the dish and the best technique for ingredient. This is cooking”
The needlepoint philosophy of what Marcella considered to be cooking started slotting into place for me. She started to explain that using the best ingredients in the recipe and then knowing how to care for the ingredient during the process would ensure that the best possible meal is put on the table.
Marcella explained that knowing the components of each ingredient and what it would bring to the dish would ultimately dictate the direction of my meal. She pointed my hand toward the ceiling and poured extra virgin olive oil into my palm.
“Drink”, she said.
I tasted the best oil I had ever tasted in my life (her own brand, of course) and she explained that even the flavour notes of the extra virgin olive oil at the beginning of the of a recipe could change the flavour balance of a meal. Furthermore, she told me that whether or not you added something to the oil when it was hot or cold, would then manipulate the taste.
These little nuisances, knowing your ingredients, what they do to a meal and what they do to other ingredients is what matters.
“This is cooking”, she said.
She started laying out ingredients on her steel countertop with a warm smile. I recognised the ingredients. I told her that beef mince always reminded me of Italian food and she laughed.
“Yes there is no such thing as Italian cooking, but that does not mean that Italians haven’t influenced how you think about food,” she said with a wink before passing me the salt. She told me to taste it. She told me to always taste salt and no two salts are the same.
I mentioned to her how I feel that the U.K. has bastardised “Italian cooking” and how something like a Bolognese is a ‘fall back’ meal. She nodded but didn’t look up from her ingredients. I told her that after researching a bunch of different meat sauce recipes, I could not trace any recipe back to an original incarnation and how I could not find the ultimate and original “meat sauce”. She looked up.
“Italians are able to fuse creative ideas once the basics have been established,” she said. “Basics will remain the same. Your creativity comes next”.
She handed me a knife and an onion. “Now… chop this”.
I impressed Marcella on my first day but not because of my cooking ability. In fact, she told me that my knife skills would kill somebody someday and that I do everything too fast. It’s as if she knew me. Hopefully not about the murder part, though.
What I impressed her with though, was my ability to eat five full dishes of pasta back to back without stopping. “Tall, strong boy – it’s a beautiful thing to watch you eat” she said as she handed me the fifth bowl. I could have eaten more but was suddenly aware they were closing the Kitchen.
But my favourite dish from that first day was the meat sauce. Sure, I’ve made several meat sauces in my Kitchen – all governed by the one-step two-step approach I had picked up from years of watching British people cook, but being mentored by an Italian chef as to how to make a meat sauce was a totally new experience.
Allowing the ingredients to fuse with each other so that they have the right amount of time to influence and adopt each others traits, seasoning at the right time so that the flavours don’t burn out, opting for one ingredient instead of another because of the properties it has.
It turned a meal into a sum of parts as opposed to a final dish and being able to appreciate the meal for the components that make it allow you to taste every note, appreciate every step and experience the meal in a dismantled way but without ever comprising the delight of the meal as a whole.
Meat sauce – or ragù – is overdone in British culture, in my opinion. It’s the fall back recipe. People up and down the country turn to a ragù when they don’t know what else to cook, or if they have to cook for somebody and they’re not confident. A ragù is safe. It feels familiar.
What this does though is breed negligence. I’ve seen a lot of people literally just throw all the ingredient for a ragù into a pan, turn on the heat and hope for the best. After learning to cook a ragù in Florence, I will never cook one the same and I urge you to do the same – your meal will be all the better for it.
Now – having said that – there are a few twists I’ve made to the ingredients and technique of the meat sauce I learnt in Florence. And titling it a Florentine Ragù has nothing to do with it having any influence from Florence or being a Florentine recipe, I called it this purely because this is where I was inspired to make it.
I’ve cut corners in the method by using a food processor to dice my ingredients (Marcella, if you’re reading this, I’m saving lives by putting down the knife!) and I have added some real tomatoes in with the canned (I like the differentiation of texture) as well as some goose fat at the very beginning to make sure the vegetables get that meat gloss right from the beginning.
I have also added some dried oregano. This was gifted to me by my other cooking mentor at the school, Antonella, who gave it to me as a goodbye gift and every time I use it, it transports me to straight back to the school where I felt welcomed and at home.
Now I know there is always a cold war around what pasta to pair with sauces. A lot of people tend to just go with their favourite (and I absolutely encourage this) however Marcella told me something very simple that has stuck with me ever since – “Thick pastas for thick sauces, thin pastas for thin sauces”. It’s that simple.
So given the meaty texture of the ragù, I’m opting for wide tagliatelle. Not just because the curled nest of the un-cooked pasta makes me happy but because they are perfect to wrap up the ragù in an egg-rich tangle. You can taste both the pasta AND the sauce in one swoop and it’s this amalgamation that I look forward to with food.
Just as my mentor said “There is no such thing as Italian cooking”, I can agree that this recipe is not authentic. What it is, is an inspired recipe that has taken shape in a Cardiff boy’s Kitchen.
It’s the fusion of creative ideas on top of established basics, which in theory, what Marcella told me was the essence of cooking.
Take two red onions, two sticks of celery, two peeled carrots, two cloves of garlic and blitz them in a food processor. Don’t blitz too much, you want diced vegetables, not vegetable mush.
Heat a little goose fat in your biggest pan and drop in the vegetables. Add a little salt and give them a stir.
While the vegetables soften, grab 3 sausages and remove the meat from the skins. Once the vegetables have softened and the onions are beginning to turn a light pink, add the sausage meat and 400g of good beef mince.
With a spoon, break up the sausage and beef meat and beginning mixing it into the vegetables, turning up the heat slightly so that it can brown. Add a teaspoon of dried oregano, a little more salt and some pepper.
Remove some rosemary needles from it’s strand, finely chop them up and add to the pan, stirring once more. Squeeze in a generous squirt (a good two tablespoons or so) of tomato paste. Stir both into the meat and vegetables and allow to cook for a few minutes.
Now add in a can of chopped tomatoes but don’t throw away the empty can. Drop two beef stock cubes into the can, fill the can up half way with boiling hot water from the kettle and pour into the pan. Give everything a stir.
Now finely chop up two fresh tomatoes and add into the pan.
Now pour in about four cups of good red wine (the rule is, if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t cook with it) and drop in two bay leaves. Bring the whole thing to a boil, and then drop it down to a very low simmer (on my electric hob I went all the way down to notch 2!) and leave this on the hob for literally 2 and a half hours, it could even have been 3.
I think this is the key. Keeping it on the hob for a while means the acids from the wine burn out and your left with the deep, fruity notes infusing the meat which falls apart softly in the braise as opposed to being speed fried and soaked when you do it under an hour.
When you’re ready to eat, cook your tagliatelle just under what the packet instructs you to do. Before draining the pasta, take out a small cup of the salted pasta water. After you drain the pasta, fling them back in the dry pan, add a small dash of the reserved water and then ladle in your meat sauce.
If you take ANYTHING from this blog post, please let it be how you serve the pasta.
I hate when I see us Brits serve a ragù by presenting a bowl of cooked pasta and then a lumpy dollop of brown meat sauce on top. A ragù needs to be run through pasta like any other sauce, tossed together so that each strand is glossily coated.
Finish off with some basil and parmesan.