On the 17th of October 1982 Bologna’s Chamber of Commerce agreed and recorded the official recipe for Ragù alla Bolognese. It marked the end of a long process which was initiated in the 1970s by the City Council and l’Accademia Italiana della Cucina di Bologna to bring about a modicum of official clarity to what is regarded as one the world’s most popular dishes (although, strictly speaking it’s not a dish, rather a sauce).
It’s not the only Italian dish that has been officially registered. Costoletta alla Milanese was given Denominazione Comunal (De.Co.) status on the 17th February 2008. Risotto alla Milanese was granted its badge of authenticity as a typical Milanese plate in 2007. The list is long and includes such household names as bistecca alla Fiorentina, pesto Genovese and even traditional Neapolitan pizza.
Registering a dish that stems from a city or the surrounding territory is not simply a question of laying claim to ownership. Certainly that’s part of it. But more than that, it’s a question of cultural heritage. In Italy food is an expression of cultural heritage. Gastronomy and place are synonymous - it’s what sets one region apart from another. Just as such great architectural landmarks as the Coliseum, Piazza San Marco or the Ponte Vecchio conjure images of historical cities such as Rome, Venice and Florence, so too do its great dishes. Risotto alla Milanese and Costoletta alla Milanese are as much a part of Milan’s cultural and historical heritage as the magnificent Duomo or the Galleria.
Earlier this week Italians across the globe celebrated their culinary heritage with the 5th edition of International Day of Italian Cuisine. The rationale behind the event, at least in part, is to promote and help preserve the authenticity of Italy’s traditional dishes. It’s a worthy cause. The dishes selected each year to mark the event are those most recognized throughout the world – they also happen to be the most imitated, misunderstood and often abused. Anyone who as ever sat down to a plate of spaghetti and boulder-sized meatballs or spaghetti drenched in a meat ragù, often erroneously labeled spaghetti Bolognese – or worse still, ‘Spag Bol’ – should at least appreciate it has nothing to do with the fair city of Bologna.
‘Isn’t this a lot of fuss over a name’, you might well ask? It’s like this: if I happen to be in Milan doing some shopping I can go to practically any restaurant, order a plate of risotto alla milanese or osso buco alla milanese or costoletta alla milanese and know exactly what I’m going to get. Similarly, if I happen to be working down south somewhere, in the heat of the summer, I can order an insalata caprese and I know that the light refreshing plate that will follow won’t have me struggling back to the hotel for a siesta. The Italian menu is, in effect, a road map – one that’s easy to navigate (once you know how to read it) and it keeps you on track.
Over the past years Bologna, like other cities across Italy, has felt compelled to put an official stamp on their culinary heritage. It’s about more than just protecting or laying claim to a name as nnyone who has ever been to a restaurant and ordered an old friend, only to be confronted with an impostor, will understand. And don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against meatballs… or spaghetti for that matter. Just call it what it is and keep Bologna out of the equation!