Mary Berry's bolognese controversy

 ragu bolognese

Few things are more contentious in the cooking world that fights over authenticity. People become incensed when a chef adds, substitutes, or omits ingredients in a recipe that they view as sacrosanct. Whether it's cream in carbonara or peas in guacamole, you can expect a bitter war of words on social media. Beloved BBC food host Mary Berry recently found herself embroiled in such a controversy when her "unusual ingredients" in a ragù bolognese sparked heated debate

Berry's alleged offenses were using white wine, adding a touch of double cream, and using Italian herbs. All of these ingredients prompted social media outrage. Detractors tweeted their displeasure, saying things like "Shocked and appalled about Mary Berry adding double cream to her bolognese" and "this is NOT ragu Bolognese." Many of Berry's fans came to her defense, however, saying things like "Mary Berry is channeling Elizabeth David. 1958 recipe, adds cream, white wine, chicken livers, and bacon." 

Are these ingredients really that controversial? Of the over 950 bolognese sauce recipes in the EYB Library, 156 include cream as an ingredient, including recipes from Domenica MarchettiNigel Slater, Claudia Roden, Ina Garten, and  Lynne Rossetto Kasper. It's not a new concept, either; Elizabeth David included heavy cream as an ingredient in her Ragu Bolognese from the classic Is There a Nutmeg in the House? 

Concerning the white wine issue, more bolognese recipes in the Library specify white wine than red wine (246 vs. 232). Again, respected Italian cooking authorities like Marcella Hazan and Mario Batali are among those who recommend white wine in the sauce. 

The herbs that Berry adds - thyme, bay leaves and basil -  might be a bit less traditional, although over 190 bolognese recipes in the Library call for basil, and over 201 specify oregano. However, Batali, Hazan and other noted Italian cooks do not include these herbs in their recipes. One interesting side note is that Lidia Bastianich and others call for bay leaves in their bolognese. 

What do you think? Is it a no-no to use heavy cream, white wine, or herbs in ragù bolognese, or are you a bit more laissez-faire about which ingredients are appropriate?

Photo of Bolognese ragù with pappardelle from BBC Food by Mary Berry, indexed by an EYB Member

11 Comments

  • Smokeydoke  on  3/9/2017 at 11:02 AM

    I'm sure Hazen's famous bolognese recipe requires braising the meat in milk. Milk to double cream is not a huge leap of faith. People need to get a life.

  • Fawndarellabakes  on  3/9/2017 at 12:08 PM

    Maybe they could channel their outrage of additions to GMO products and processed foods.....that's outrage that can make a difference.

  • FJT  on  3/9/2017 at 7:16 PM

    There is no set recipe for an Italian ragu - it varies from household to household as some top Italian chefs have pointed out in response to this uproar. I really can't see what the fuss is about ... if it tastes good, it's fine.

  • SoRefined  on  3/9/2017 at 10:20 PM

    Peas in guacamole is clearly a much graver 'sin' than any of these potential additions to bolognese.

  • ellabee  on  3/9/2017 at 11:07 PM

    The herbs are the untraditional move by Berry IMO; people outraged about cream or white wine are simply in error. It's hard to imagine a cookbook that devotes more space to explaining and discussing the history and traditions behind ragu bolognese than The Splendid Table by Lynn Rosetto Kasper. Her recipe for the classic version includes heavy cream (and milk) and white wine; the lighter version has just milk and white wine. Neither recipe includes herbs, other than possibly indirectly via the small amount of meat broth used to dilute the tomato paste; Kasper's recipe for the broth includes bay leaves and parsley.

  • Braco777  on  3/10/2017 at 1:54 AM

    One thing is for sure: popular dishes have also more recipe variants. And everyone claims its authenticity which I would leave to professionals. My choice is better taste whatever that would be. By the way, I've seen recipes containing mortadella and marjoram too.

  • Jane  on  3/10/2017 at 9:27 AM

    I was in the UK this week and saw Mary's show. I was quite intrigued by her recipe. So I made a double batch to stock up my parents' freezer before I left. I really liked the end result. The ragù had more depth of flavour and richness than my usual bolognese recipe. I'm using Mary's recipe from now on.

  • Rinshin  on  3/10/2017 at 12:55 PM

    I've been making ragu Bolognese with milk or cream and white wine for decades. Not sure where I picked that up but for a while I used to add red wine in place of white but decided I did not like the color red wine added to the sauce and switched to white wine at some point. Also I started out with all beef but I changed to beef and pork about the time I switched to white wine. I still play around with the herbs and my ragu most likely never tastes the same.

  • Rinshin  on  3/10/2017 at 12:59 PM

    I don't always use papparadelle and actually prefer regular Garofalo spaghetti with ragu Bolognese.

  • TrishaCP  on  3/11/2017 at 8:55 AM

    Clearly, Mary just added the herbs for the controversy and ensuing publicity!!!! Just kidding. I am firmly in the "who cares?" camp on this one. I feel like Bolognese has become one of those universal dishes that every culture seems to have a version of, like pizza, so let folks make it however they like.

  • Sandy.Toes  on  3/29/2017 at 10:56 PM

    Well, that Mary Berry is a wild-eyed rebel. Herbs in Bolognese? What crust! Me, I'm all in favor of a little rebellion. I've made Marcella's recipe on the stovetop, in the oven and even (gasp!) in my pressure cooker. Heresy, I know, but I've got to admit that they're all delicious, and I'd be hard-pressed to taste any difference between them. Is it still Bolognese if it only cooks for 20 minutes? Of course it is, and I'm pretty sure Mary would agree.

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