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Spaghetti bolognese, the strange story of an “Italian” dish that doesn’t exist in Italy

It’s not an Italian recipe, but spaghetti bolognese has become a popular “Italian” dish. An impossible error to correct – but now the people of Bologna want to adopt it.

In Italy, it sounds like heresy. Spaghetti bolognese would probably horrify the good people of Emilia-Romagna (the region where Bologna, the city that hosts the largest agri-food centre in world, Eataly World, is located) but beyond Italian borders this dish is highly appreciated and requested. Those who order it are convinced they’re eating a real Italian recipe, but they’re not. The belief that spaghetti bolognese is from Bologna is an error that has gone viral, and it seems it can’t be corrected, bless the goodwill of the people of Bologna, the “bolognesi”.

Read more: What to do in Bologna in 36 hours according to the New York Times

bologna
Bologna © Bogdan Dada/Unsplash

The popularity of “traditional” spaghetti bolognese

Spaghetti bolognese is one of the specialties preferred by German families, who buy it frozen or purchase the sauce in packets or cans. In 2014 it was in third place among the most popular dishes eaten by German employees at their workplace cafeterias (while pizza ranked in ninth place), as noted by the company Apetito, which provides 1,300,000 meals for German workers ever day. According to Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of an English fast food chain, pasta bolognese “is now the second most popular dish served in the homes of Great Britain”.

Read more: Eataly World in Bologna, photos from the Italian food theme park that is every foodie’s dream

spaghetti sign
Traditionally, ragù alla bolognese contains tomatoes and is only served with tagliatelle, tortellini or gnocchi, and not spaghetti © Ben Neale/Unsplash

The not so simple origins of the dish

Ragù in Italy is a general term used to indicate any meat sauce cooked over low heat for many hours. Each ragù is composed of numerous ingredients, which vary according to each region: “alla bolognese” is only one of the many ways which ragù is prepared in Italy.

Like anything that goes viral the origins of this recipe aren’t easy to trace, but its vast worldwide diffusion could now come in handy for Bologna, where the world thinks it comes from. “We could use the false myth of the sauce as a trademark, adopting it for our network of ambassadors in the world – comments Matteo Lepore, who works in the marketing department of the city’s council  –. While we can capitalise on the products that may actually have origins in Bologna, they’ve done very little to promote the name of the city. Bolognese sauce is a challenge, but it does in fact mirror the melting pot of this fine city. So is it all just a myth? Yes, but we’d better make the most of it. It could be the brand that brings together Bologna’s ambassadors abroad”.

spaghetti bolognese
A plate of of spaghetti “bolognese” © ingimage

It’s no betrayal, but rather something that is intrinsic in every work of translation, adaptation or dissemination. It confirms that cultural influences are harbingers of new ideas and inspiration, never forcing things one way and instead engaging in a dialogue or osmosis.

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