I had this phase once where just about every Friday night I’d make chicken risotto, and every Friday night my son would curl up his nose and wail “that’s not risotto!” because where we live risotto may be very popular, just not with chicken. So I’d end up giving him pasta and ragù instead, whereas the other one would just sit in front of the TV with me, both with our bowls and eating it with a spoon. I can’t remember where my husband featured in all this – possibly he didn’t – but for ages it was my favourite comfort food. It felt virtuous somehow, eating chicken with rice and naturally with all the goodness.
Today it was meatballs. I have this book on loan from the library – a Slow Food touring guide to regional Italian cookery. Meatballs – Bologna. Oh yes please. It’s the kind of thing I can dream of. The last time I was in Bologna I went to Trattoria Anna Maria near the university and ate what are known as “assaggi” or tastes. Of course the ravioli were wonderful, but it was the fresh tagliatelle with ragù that stole the show. I’d been to a pastificio – or shop where they made fresh pasta. The woman there was telling me how she makes her ragù, assuring me that the Bolognese ragù was by far the best. She commented on my northern Italian accent and told me I hadn’t eaten ragù unless I’d eaten it here.
“Of course nowadays we’re no longer working in the fields so we don’t need all this rich food,” she said, giving me her healthy version ragù. I just sat there and smiled and said nothing. I didn’t tell her my husband often puts half sausage meat in ours for extra flavour, which isn’t exactly traditional but tastes so good all the same. If you’re going to make something something like tagliatelle with ragù, then surely this isn’t the time to skimp? Eat it less would be my own theory, but at least when you do eat it, eat it well.
The tagliatelle with ragù at the trattoria was the type of thing to wave your arms with excitement over, it was that good. Signora Anna Maria wasn’t there that day, and neither was she the other week when I rang in advance, but I’m hoping one day she will be. There are stories behind her tagliatelle and ragù, and I want to hear them.
Of course the meatballs I started making according to the trattoria in Bologna from the book didn’t quite follow the recipe. It’s the type of cooking that starts from sitting and reading a few cookery books, starting to make something and realising that you don’t actually have all the necessary ingredients. So you make it up, substituting as you go along. I started rolling out the meatballs in my hands, and then I thought I really want a bit of parsley in these, possibly because I’d just been repotting coriander. They all got mixed together again, this time with the finely chopped parsley. It was the link with the herbs. And the onion was substituted by a clove of garlic in the sauce, whole to be taken out, merely added for flavour.
There once was a time when I made meatballs with a friend up a mountain pass about twenty years ago. I’m not sure how many cloves of garlic went in the sauce, but I remember our Italian friends’ reactions. Needless to say I learned that you never presume that Italians like garlic, especially when you’re in the north, although really that’s a story for another day.