3 January 2013

Bolognese di Casa Mia and a Pasta Factory Tour in The Heart of Italy

Bolognese di Casa Mia

Bolognese sauce is one of those classic Italian dishes. Italians like Lidia Bastonovich, Marcella Hazan, Mario Batali, Giorgio Locatelli, and David Rocco, all share their own recipes, probably a version of what came out of their own mothers kitchens. We all have our versions tweaked over the years to suit our own tastes and satisfy our souls. There’s no denying that the creation of a good, full-bodied bolognese takes time, because it does. It’s a real labour of love. 

If you were to ask your Italian nonna or your next door neighbour for their recipe you would have as many secret recipes in your arsenal as there are Italians. Each is a bit different depending on the authors personal taste, but, one thing they all have in common to create the Holy Grail of sauces are sofrito (the trinity of finely diced carrots, celery and onions), perhaps wine, and very little tomato. A sauce heavy on tomato is a false rendition as a true Bolognese is a meaty well-executed marriage of flavours and like an Italian lasagna has many layers that make the whole. 

While the dish has been a staple for millions of diners around the world for decades, I have read that Italians claim the original recipe has become so corrupted it is in urgent need of a culinary intervention. There is even a recipe that conforms to a recipe set down in 1982 by the chamber of commerce in Bologna, the home of  bolognese sauce, as seen here on A Canadian FoodieIn my humble opinion there is no right way or wrong way as long as you stay true to the essence of a true Bolognese. Tweak tradition and add your own thumb print I always say.  

In Lidia Bastianich's cookbook, Lidia's Family Table, she explains bolognese is a traditional Sunday staple in Italy. There are two distinct versions, one with milk, referred to as 'antica', and one without, called 'tradizionale'. I was intrigued by the antica preparation, where the milk solids help break down the meat, allowing it to have a smoother, creamier texture. The flavour and texture it adds to this sauce are so rich and complex that it is worth every minute of preparation and cooking time for a well-developed and satisfying sauce. My version today is a combination of recipes and of course my own intuition in the "antico" style and inspired by my trip to La Fabricca della pasta di Gragnano

The kitchen cupboards of this "wannabe" Italian are always overflowing with pasta of every shape and description. I swear that as I wander the aisles of our local Italian grocers I am hypnotized, "What is one more?" One of the latest additions to their pasta family are from Gragnano which is famous for it's pastas in Italy. These pasta companies have produced pasta for generations in time-honoured tradition so a chance to visit their factory in Gragnano this past fall was a dream come true for someone so star struck. There were once over 300 pasta factories in the area which has now been reduced to approximately 12 at last count, a mere shadow of the past. The city of Gragnano has always been well known for its production of prestigious pasta, sparkling wine and its delicious "Monk Provolone." 

Alongside large manufacturers like De Cicco and Barilla there are smaller artisanal and organic companies like La Fabricca della Pasta di Gragnano owned by the Moccia family(Mr Ciro and Antonino Moccia) in the mountains of Lattari overlooking the Gulf of Naples. On my recent journey to Italy I had to make this part of my journey and found myself at La Fabbrica della Pasta di Gragnano courtesy of Amanda Murray and Marco Predieri on what was to be one of the highlights of my trip. It was late October when the air has that hint of crispness. The fall after all is my favourite season and the perfect time to travel in Italy. Along the Sorrentine peninsula I had been swimming in the sea and sunning myself along the pebble beaches, but, as we drove higher into the Lattari mountains, which are the backbone of the Sorrentine Peninsula, the countryside revealed that it was indeed late October with the leaves in the chestnut forests taking on a goldenrod hue in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius. The air smelled of firewood and the earth of rain! 

After a half hour winding up through the enchanting scenery of the Valley of the Mills where the forests and cultivated terraces were blanketed by an ethereal early morning mist and hot pink cyclamens dotted the landscape we found ourselves in the industrial town of Gragnano east of Naples where the pasta factories were lined up like soldiers along Via Roma, also called Corso Sancio, the ancient boulevard. These grey sentinels made of tufo stones in the liberty style have been the home of artisan pasta makers who have been producing high quality pasta for as long as 500 years. 

    To be born and grow up in Gragnano located on the eastern side of the Bay of Naples under the shadow of a volcano means to be surrounded by history, culture, family traditions and the exalting taste and scent of durum semolina. The fertile valley of Vesuvius, with its volcanic soil, was ideal for growing durum wheat. On the banks of a river this region is abundant with natural springs that provide power to the mills for grinding durum wheat into semolina flour allowing the area to produce large quantities of pasta. The city of Gragnano boasts that its pasta has been renowned for its quality for centuries. This is mainly due to the local pure spring water, durum wheat, and traditional production methods( including extrusion of the pasta dough through bronze dies). When all of these conditions align outstanding pasta is made. Pasta makers in Gragnano once draped great strands of spaghetti from rods along the city's wide main street lying perpendicular to the Sorrento Coast to take advantage of the constant sea breezes, so the pasta could dry slowly and naturally in the warm sunshine.

    To make the pasta the dough is extruded through the die (trafila in Italian) to obtain the desired size and shape. Dies are made of teflon or bronze. Standard pasta that is teflon drawn is quite smooth and yellow. High quality pasta from this factory is bronze drawn (trafilata al bronzo) and has a lovely powdery surface. The bronze extruder makes the surface of the pasta more porous so that sauce clings to the uneven surface. Pasta di Gragnano is chewier, nuttier and more roughly textured than most supermarket brands which is necessary to catch and hold pasta sauce after cooking. I like the bite of dried pasta cooked al dente, something you cannot achieve with fresh, homemade pasta.

    Another important difference lies in the drying time. In the artisan method the pasta is dried in slow ovens for days and in the case of very large pasta shapes like caccavella (below) up to a week or more. This ensures the pasta is more toothsome and gives it a lovely chew. Dried pasta has long been a staple of Southern Italy, but, it is a fairly new addition to the northern Italian diet. Northern regions like Tuscany, Lombardy and the Veneto have always relied on bread, polenta and rice for their starches, with fresh egg pasta made on Sundays and holidays. As Southern Italians moved north to find jobs in factories with the Industrial Revolution and after WWII they brought their favourite food staple of dried semolina based pasta with them and it began to be sold to the homes of northern Italians as well.

  • In 1976, Mario Moccia operated a business producing cheese in Gragnano, yet was so fascinated by pasta making that he bought a troubled pasta factory. The Moccia family was forced to sell their factory in 1994 but the children reopened the factory in 2006 "as a tribute to our father." They've been working very hard to live up to the storied history of their city. 

  • In fact, the city and region are so important to the production of great pasta that in 2010, Gragnano pasta obtained the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) mark, a European Community quality endorsement assigned in Italy. The law is designed to ensure that only products genuinely originating in a specified region can be identified as such, to protect the reputation of the regional foods, promote rural and agricultural activity, help producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products, and eliminate inferior knock-offs. That quality assurance is important to Gragnano where these dozen pasta manufacturers remain.

  • In a very special prearranged tour we donned hair nets and lab coats, and were able to experience the various stages of the production of artisanal pasta, observing firsthand how even today, it is produced in accordance with the tastes and knowledge of the past. We were lucky enough to taste the local ice cold spring water that is a key ingredient in the pasta production. After the tour we moved into their special showroom where we enjoyed a steaming earthenware vessel of caccavella with bolognese sauce prepared by chef  Annamaria Moccia or “Zia Poppo" a member of the family in the tasting room surrounded by old tools and prints. Caccavella pasta was introduced in 2009 at the Flavours and Knowledge Fair in Pompeii, Italy. This "big boy" pasta is currently the world's largest pasta shape. This is one time when size really does matter since one 'caccavella' measures approximately 4 inches (11cm) in diameter at its widest point. Caccavelle are delicious when stuffed with bolognese sauce, squid or fried chopped eggplant, covered in a simple tomato or b├ęchamel sauce, and cooked in a hot oven for 20 to 30 minutes. 

    Italians are known for taking ‘simple’ dishes and basic ingredients to the height of perfectionTasting bolognese in Italy is a surprisingly different experience being meaty, but surprisingly delicate, aromatic, creamy and subtle. Our pasta was served alongside a sparkling red wine from the town of the same name with notes of red berry fruits and a slight fizz. 

    Although it does not play a key role, and is not a usual ingredient in a classic bolognese, I couldn't help adding some Porcini mushrooms which Italians affectionately call "the piglet." The meat-like texture of Porcini, with its earthy and somewhat nutty flavour is unequaled among mushrooms and lends itself to countless dishes. Italy is probably the world's biggest market for porcini.  Every grown-up full-blooded Italian eats porcini at least three times a week from August to December  when the forest floor offers a delightful feast for the eyes and the nose. 

    Dried porcini are featured in this dish which have a concentrated flavour and mushroom aroma that is excellent in risotto, soups, and amazing sauces like this one. Their addition is "a celebration of the tastebuds." To prepare dried Porcini steep them in enough boiling water to cover until they are reconstituted. After draining the Porcini mince them, but, keep the steeping liquid. This liquid adds even more concentrated Porcini flavour to the recipe, just make sure you strain it first. When buying dried Porcini look them over carefully. A strong mushroom aroma should greet you once open the package, if the mushrooms have no fragrance, then they have no flavour either.

    Some things in life are worth waiting for, and a good sauce is one of them (at least for me anyway). And no surprise then, this is one of those sauces worth its weight in gold!  It’s an amazingly rich, beautiful, robust sauce. Create your own in 2013.

  • **Bolognese di Casa Mia**

  • 2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms, 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 oz pancetta or slab bacon
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 4 fresh thyme sprigs, leaves stripped from the stem
  • 2 fresh oregano sprigs, leaves stripped from the stem
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, hand-crushed
  • 2 cups dry white or red wine (add the reserved porcini mushroom liquid to the wine to make the equivalent of 2 cups)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound dried tagiatelle pasta (a true Bolognese is not served on spaghetti)
  • 1 handful fresh basil, hand-torn, for garnish
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving

  • Boil some water in a kettle. Place porcini mushrooms in a bowl and pour enough water to cover and allow to soak for 20 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water with a spoon and roughly chop. Strain the mushroom liquid through a strainer so as not to add the sediment to your sauce. Place the mushroom water aside for use in the recipe. 
    In a food processor, process bacon or pancetta and garlic into a smooth paste.  Heat olive oil over medium heat and add this paste.  Break apart and allow to cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until fat is rendered and paste begins to brown slightly. Add the porcinis, onion, celery, and carrots; stirring to combine. Toss in the thyme, oregano, and bay leaves. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring, until the vegetables are very tender but not browned.
    Push the vegetable sofrito over to one side. Raise the heat a bit and add the ground pork and beef in small batches; brown until the meat is no longer pink, breaking up the clumps with a wooden spoon and adding more meat as each batch browns. Add the milk and simmer until the liquid is evaporated, about 10 minutes. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and wine mixed with the porcini mushroom liquid to be equal to 2 cups; season with salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a boil, then lower the heat and cover. Slowly simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring now and then, until the sauce is very thick. Taste again for salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves.
    When you are ready to serve, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or until tender yet firm (as they say in Italian "al dente.") Drain the pasta well and toss with the Bolognese sauce. Shower with basil and pass grated cheese around the table.

    You are reading this post on More Than Burnt Toast at http://morethanburnttoast.blogspot.com. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and or owner of More Than Burnt Toast. All rights reserved by Valerie Harrison. Best Blogger Tips


    1. Wonderful dried pasta. Your Bolognese looks really appetizing.

      Best wishes for 2013!



    2. What a great and interesting post. My sister in law who is Italian and 80 years old makes the best Bolognese sauce ever. I am intrigued that there is milk(have seen this in other recipes). I find Pancetta makes everything better.

    3. Your recipe sounds so yum. I like all the pictures as well. Happy New Year!!!

    4. Sounds like the perfect day for a culinary enthusiast and your Bolognese looks "to die for"!

    5. I'm convinced that every Italian's family has a bolognese and every Italian is convinced that their mother's bolognese is the best. :) It's such a classic for a reason!

    6. What a fantastic opportunity to visit this factory, Val!! I would've loved to see this up close and personal. :-) I too am entranced by the array of pasta shapes. Being in Italy introduced me to shapes I'd never even heard of!! They are all delightful. :-) Your sauce sounds amazing. And now I'm craving pasta. :-)

    7. Val, I really enjoyed reading the history of Bolognese sauce. It's fascinating to learn that it isn't all about the tomatoes!

      I bought a pasta maker and learn to make my own, but my kitchen was such a mess with flour all over the place that I finally gave it up. I would have really enjoyed seeing this factory.

    8. I was chuckling to myself a bit reading about ways of drying pasta. I haven't made my own in ages, but when I did, I would throw a paper towel over a wire hanger and then drape the pasta over it, hanging the hanger from the cabinet knob. My husband always found this amusing. My pasta maker has a tagliatelle and a cappellini setting. It seems I have the perfect bolognese set up.

      I haven't made a good bolognese in a while. I love that you made yours with pork. I have done it with a beef/pork mixture in the past. I need to revisit it. I just have to kick my husband out of the house.

    9. This is so similar to my ragu - only the ragu uses a few tomatoes and that's it. Will be trying this. I discovered in Italy that there isn't a Bolognese sauce on the planet I don't love. That factory tour must have been simply grand! Kudos to the family for making a go of it.

    10. what a cool experience! that's one of the most appetizing bowls of pasta i've seen--it's my ideal creation!

    11. This was an enthralling post, Val. I could almost taste the high quality pasta, and there is a difference. As far as bolognese, I always say it's a meat sauce with a little bit of tomato, opposite of meat sauce in America. I always use milk and only white wine, never red. But other than that, I'm willing to experiment and try porcini mushrooms. I might be dreaming about that bowl of pasta of yours for a few days.

    12. Love the idea of this with a nice thick tagliatelle.

    13. Great post Val! I've been obsessed with trying to find an"original" version of bolognese sauce for ages. Thank you! I've bookmarked everything for future experimenting.

    14. Saving this for a soul-satisfying meal! It looks delicious and what a great story.

    15. Ohhhh Val I miss pasta!
      This up close shot is heavenly I tell you!

    16. This sauce is truly amazing. I am so impressed and may I say just a wee bit jealous of your adventure. Okay a lot jealous.

    17. The recipe I use comes from Time Life Foods of the World - very similar to this, but less tomato. I haven't made it in years, thanks for reminding me - and for the tour. I have had proper Bolognese in Italy... wonderful!

    18. Great post! I brought 4 packages of that amazing pasta home with me. One of these years I'll be taking the week long pasta program with Judy where she tours pasta producer sin the Naples area and leads cooking classes with the products. YUM

    19. What a great recipe~I enjoy making my own pasta. Could not wait a week to have it dry out,though..I make it the day I want to eat it. Loved all the pasta info!

    20. Your bolognese looks fabulous Val and I love the addition of the porcini mushrooms and the combination of the pork & beef. The porcinis bring such a depth of flavor.


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