Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The perfect spaghetti bolognese?

We've seen him attempt to produce the perfect bangers and mash, the perfect pizza and the perfect roast chicken. Tonight's episode of Heston Blumenthal's In Search of Perfection was the one I'd been looking forward to the most - the perfect spaghetti bolognese. I sneered at the thought and even said to my Mum 'I bet it's not as good as mine'. Yeah ok, so I'm a bit arrogant. But my ragu is damn good if I may say so myself. It's based on Delia Smith's but with a few extra additions like carrots, celery and milk.

Famous for his snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream, Heston's restaurant The Fat Duck in Bray was voted best restaurant in the world in 2005 and the previous year it was awarded its third Michelin star. Not bad.

He's been described as a 'culinary alchemist' for his innovative style of cooking. His scientific approach to food involves researching molecular compounds of dishes in order to understand flavour. The lengths he goes to with his dishes seem totally ridiculous. Everything he cooks seem to involve slow cooking, plunging in water, cooking again, measuring the temperature with an expensive themometre and cooking again. But I wouldn't mind trying some of his dishes. He puts a lot of effort into it and he always uses the best ingredients.

Tonight's episode however had me in shock. It must have had every Italian in the country recoilling in horror. Here's a brief description of what he did.

Fry onion, carrots, celery, brown oxtail. Deglaze pan with white wine, add together and cook for six hours.

Meanwhile make a tomato compote. Fry onions and garlic, then add skinned and deseeded tomatoes. Put coriander seeds, cloves and star anise in a muslin and add to compote. Next add Worcester sauce, tobasco, ketchup, sherry vinegar, thyme, bay leaf and Thai fish sauce. Cook for 1 hour.
Fry the compote in olive oil, drain, add to ragu and cook for another 2 hours. Just before serving, add tarragon, parsley and celery leaves. Season to taste, add more sherry vinegar and butter.

At this point he wraps the cooked spaghetti around a meat fork, snips of the excess bits and puts it on a plate with the sauce on top - it looked more like a kebab of spaghetti that the simple dish it's supposed to be!

This recipe should be about simplicity - a simple process using simple ingredients. I can understand the use of star anise to a certain point as it's supposed to enhance the flavour of the meat. But fish sauce? Coriander seeds?

I find him irritating, but there's something likeable about this guy. I'd love to eat his mashed potato which he cooks first in the skin. I'd jump at the chance to try his roasted chicken, cooked for 4 hours to perfection. He has 3 Michelin stars and there has to be a reason.

But I'm sceptical about this bolognese recipe. I like the idea of cooking it for a long time, and I'm not against adding a few unorthodox ingredients like a bit of Worcester sauce for example. But I don't like the idea of adding Asian and Thai ingredients to a classic Italian dish.

I love his passion for food and the lengths he goes to in order to find perfection. He even went to Italy to find the restaurant that made the best bolognese in Bologna.

I hope he keeps on doing what he's doing, but I really would ask him to do one thing - lay off the Italian food.


Red said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Phantom said...

I have to defend Mr B. (even if he does look like a "cock")about his addition of Thai fish sauce to the ragu. A good fish sauce adds an incredible savoury flavour to a meat dish such as this. And as for it not being "authentic"? Fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies, and is the modern day equivalent of the staple flavouring of the ancient Romans, which they called "Garum".

ginkers said...

I think I once mentioned my dislike for recipes which add one ingredient too many to a perfectly good existing one. Well, it sounds like he added about 28 ingredients too many.

My cousin once said that Britain was crying out for Italian restaurants just doing the old classics - bolognese, carbonara, milanese, etc - as they should be done. No adornment necessary.

They'll be making cocktails with grappa next!

Anonymous said...

I will not even comment...

Anonymous said...

I'm with Ginkers. The minute I see things like brown oxtail, star anise, sherry vinegar and Thai fish sauce in what should be a simple recipe I switch off.

ems said...

A couple of strange ingredients there!

Come on, a.c.t give us the recipe for your ragu.

mat said...

I saw that programme too and I agree with some of the comments about using too many strange ingredients to what is a very simple italian ragu (with tagliatelle, by the way as they seem to bind with the sauce much better and not slippery spaghetti). It should be cooked for 2/3 hours but not all day. I normally add to my ragu a few porcini mushrooms and I use red wine.

Susan in Italy said...

It was the Thai fish sauce that really kicked me in the face. Who knows? It might be good but you'd have to cook down your aromatics and oxtail for 6 hours to find out. I'd give him the benefit of the doubt if he explained exactly what the fish sauce (and all the other unorthodox stuff) was supposed to do for the dish. Did he explain?

a.c.t said...

Red, I agree he looks like a 'cock'and yes his molecular cooking is probably a money making venture, but what chef's cooking isn't if we're totally honest? All the top Italian chefs in London charge a fortune for their food.

Phantom, the punget flavour of fish sauce is an essential for a Thai curry. Although it is made from anchovies, anchovies don't go in a ragu.

Ginkers, grappa cocktails, now that's not a bad idea you know!

Travel, no words necessary. I feel your pain.

Martino, the ingredients you mention sound like a good Asian recipe to me.

ems, I wrote about it in my Delia post. I will post a proper recipe one day. I'd be interested to hear everyones opinions, someone's bound to disagree, but that'll be part of the fun.

mat, are you sure that's not your daughter's recipe?

Susan, he did explain a couple of things but not in great detail. He said the star anise brought out the flavour of the meat and something about the fish sauce doing the same. But that was it - not enough to justify it.

wrinkled weasel said...

I am a bit older than most of you and when I was a lad we were told that in the future, (now) we would all be eating little pills instead of food. We were also assured that there would be hover cars and personal communicators.(They got the last bit right)

It now looks as if the futurologists could not have been more adrift. Six hours to make stock! Star Anise! Bacon Ice Cream!

I have to chuckle a bit about your outrage over the spag bol. It's gone like Chicken Tikka Masala - a very anglicised dish that probably bears no relation to its notional country of origin.

As for Heston. I think he went to the crossroads and made a pact with the devil. He can do things with food that are just not of this world. Except I am not impressed. Food is not a cult, it is an art. It needs passion, love and imagination, not alchemy.

Spangly Princess said...

oh my GOD! I have to show this to my housemates who might just faint in horror.

star anise?! coriander seeds?! cloves?! tarragon?! TOMATO KETCHUP?! as for the thai fish sauce... lasciamo perdere... how can you taste anything at all in that dog's breakfast of a dish?

given how much debate rages in Italy over whether, for instance, you shold use both onions and garlic or only one, and between those areas (the veneto? not sure) which put piselli in their ragù versus everyone else who thinks it's an abomination, the thought of what this recipe might do to people's heart rates here doesn't bear thinking about.

soffrito, pomodori, meat, red wine... what more do you need? with pancetta permissible at a push, I guess. tsk. I'm firmly in the 'aint broke' camp here.

a.c.t said...

Spangly, here it is in full if you want to give your flatmates a heart attack.


Anonymous said...

hahaha... sounds like a very interesting chef. i love that you have such a passion for food and culinary adventure! i hope someday i have a kitchen big enough to delve into more experimental cooking... but right now i have NO counter space or storage space.

ahh... well, i'll just live vicariously through you when it comes to food and all things culinary :)

The Phantom said...

Whoa! People. Mr B's series is Not called "Authentic Italian"... It is called "In Search of Perfection". Slow down on the "Authentic" bit. How far back is o.k.? Tomatoes only got to Europe in the 1600's - are they "authentic"?

And a.c.t. says "I'm not against a few unorthodox ingredients like a bit of worcester sauce" - jolly good, but one of the biggest flavourings in it is.... Anchovies.

Surely the fact that it tastes good is all that matters?

Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone saw, but there was a really interesting atricle and interview in The Observer last sunday. He is an interesting chef who obviously cares about food.

Nicoletta said...

Hahaha, I'm glad to read that I'm not the only one who's slightly pissed at Blumenthal's version of the ragù alla bolognese (see my post on H.B.). :)
OK, the show is not about authentic Italian food as the phantom says but about trying to find "perfection". I just wonder: how can you find a "better" perfection in something that is already perfect and has been for at least one hundred years? That is, to me, purely the ego tripping of an excellent cook (three stars just don't come like that). Excellent but still ego tripping. And yes, a bit of anchovy doesn't even taste like fish and yet it boosts all the other flavours but ketchup, coriander, tarragon and the rest really bring this perfect recipe to a completely different level. The one in which the ragù has been alchemically turned into something completely different that could, as far as I am concerned, get a completely new name as well. Ciao!

a.c.t said...

Martha, we don't have that much storage space either and we even have to cook on an electric hob which I HATE...but that's rented accommodation for you. I dream of a huge stainless steel kitchen with a tib table in the middle. Sigh.

Phantom, you do have a point there but I think what we are all annoyed about is the fact that he's called it 'bolognese'. It's fair enough to change a recipe, people are entitled to do what they want but call it something else. 'Heston's meat sauce for pasta' wouldn't be a bad idea because that's what it is.

Neillisimo, I've just read it online. I found the quote from Gordon Ramsey interesting: 'A chef should use his fingers and his tongue - not a test tube.'

Hi Nicoletta, great minds eh? I'll drop by to your blog later.

Nicoletta said...

a.c.t., great minds indeed ;D
Our reaction was quite simultaneous, right after the program (I posted mine first on my Dutch blog and then translated it for the English versione the morning after). I guess you can really call it una reazione a caldo. :)

Anonymous said...


Nicholas Clee said...

The proof of the ragu would have been in the eating. I guess we'll just have to ask Heston to invite us round for a spag bol one day.

Still, we can decide whether we want to copy him. I have a few doubts.

There was an awful lot of oil in this sauce -- from the onions, from the sofrito, from the meat, and from the tomato compote.

Nam pla, Worcester sauce, ketchup and so on: these are ingredients for a shepherd's pie or an oxtail stew, not for a pasta sauce.

I agree with Mat about the timings. Meat should be cooked for only the length of time it takes to become tender. After that, it gets more and more dry. I don't believe that there is likely to be much gain in flavour from an extra three hours' cooking. If you want the flavours to mature, prepare the ragu a day ahead.

Anonymous said...

I might be in the minority here, but I have never been a big fan of fusion cooking. Like you say, I don't mind the odd unorthodox addition to a dish, but I'm not likely to mix seasonings or flavors of one region in the world with another. So, yeah, this particular recipe for Spaghetti Bolognaise would not be a huge hit with me. I did enjoy reading about Blumenthal however, he seems like a very scientific and intense foodie. Nice post, a.c.t!

cappy said...

i think the problem lies in the title of the programme. i like him, and love to read his recipie ideas in the sunday times, but he might have prevoked a different reaction from you if he had said it was going to be 'his' version of spag bol, not the 'perfect' version. i suppose the only real 'perfect' version is the first one ever made. not just this, but every dish!

but what do i know? i am a fully skilled fishmonger and baker, doesn't mean i know what to do with the damn things!

would you have been so upset if it wasn't something italian? (tell me he hasn't tried to 'perfect' yorkshire puds or i will have to send my mum round to batter him. bad pun i know!)!

one final thing, i first heard about him round about the snail porridge period, and always thought it sounded vile, but after seeing him make it, and what it actually looked like, i would try it. and i am a yorkshireman!

bruise said...

i agree with the phantom -

the use of fish sauce to enhance meat dishes is different from its use in a Thai curry - a few sprinkles doesn't add a fish taste - that gets cooked out - it just adds a depth and a beautiful savoryness (is that a word?)

Mr B is clearly not afraid to attack or re-think sacred cows - and that's a good thing to my mind. Quite a few Italians I know have an absurdly purist attitude towards food - which, to be honest, seems only to amount to 'that was how my mother used to cook' and tend to be very hide-bound about what is right and wrong.

Being English there's no good cuisine to be hide-bound about. Which is cool. ;-)

David & Raffaella said...

ACT - Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

Anonymous said...

I think we may be looking at this the wrong way, but have a read and see what you think. Many comments above seem to be as though he has claimed "this is how everyone should make bolognese", which I doubt he has done. At the end of every show, he always emphasises the "my" in "my perfect ***" and I think he does this intentionally.

We should be looking at the show as though he is discussing ideas with us, rather than telling us the way to do it. Of course we don't all agree with every ingredient, and no matter how he cooks it he will not achieve that note of familiarity we have with our mother's.

But surely in a half hour's discussion on bolognese, we each found at least something interesting that we might pursue as an idea? Perhaps it's looking for the bronzato style pasta, perhaps we'll try other meats such as the oxtail or the shoulder, perhaps we didn't know about the chemical properties of star anise.

Put another way, if we find ourselves criticising his ideas we disagree with rather than finding other ideas interesting, I think we're missing the point of the show.

caviar said...

I cooked it, and it was really good. if you want it simpler then make it simpler its not like there's not a billion other recipes of it out there. try it out before you criticize it.

Tobtoh said...

I've read all the comments with amazement. Besides Caviar - it doesn't not appear anyone has actually tried the recipe ... yet you are all willing to pass judgement on it.

Surely the proof is in the eating?

tudoquemegustaeillegal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tudoquemegustaeillegal said...

what was the brand of pasta he recommended?