Ragu – One Special Recipe – Sixty Years On – Thanks to Elizabeth David

In an article in the Guardian in 2013, chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Prue Leith were asked to choose their favourite Elizabeth David recipe and explain why they thought it was so special. Leith chose David’s instructions on poaching eggs. She said that ‘there are a lot of myths about poaching eggs but this tip I had never heard. She recommends you to submerge the whole egg in its shell in boiling water for 30 seconds before fetching fresh boiling water and continuing with the usual drop of vinegar and swirl technique when poaching the egg’. Apparently this helps the egg, once out of its shell, to keep its shape. I am definitely going to try it!

Jamie Oliver chose a recipe for a ragu from “Italian Food” by Elizabeth David. This is a very special recipe that was cooked in the 1950’s by Zia Nerina (owner of Trattoria Nerina in Bologna), in the 1960’s by Elizabeth David, in 2013 by Jamie Oliver and now in 2015 by me. Today I listed down the small list of ingredients and headed to the butcher for some livers!


What interested me about this recipe for ragu is that instead of finding the traditional ingredients such as olive oil, garlic and red wine they are replaced with chicken livers, butter and white wine. I was sceptical at first, as was my Dad who kept asking me to decrease the amount of livers (haunted by calves liver at school) if he was going to try it.


Anyway, I stuck exactly to the recipe and all I can say is that I’m never going to go back. It was buttery, meaty and marvellous. I couldn’t get hold of any uncooked ham so I used un-smoked back bacon. I did find I had to reduce it for a good hour without the lid on to get the thick ragu I desired instead of grey meat in a watery sauce.


The end result really was fantastic and has further increased my adoration of Elizabeth David. If it’s a surprise to me to taste such a delicious ragu sauce in 2015, I can only imagine what it must have been like for her in 1960.


The Recipe

From ‘Italian Food’ by Elizabeth David
This is the true name of the Bolognese sauce which, in one form or another, has travelled round the world. In Bologna it is served mainly with lasagne verdi, but it can go with many other kinds of pasta. The ingredients to make enough sauce for six generous helpings are 225g lean minced beef, 115g of chicken livers, 85g of uncooked ham, both fat and lean, 1 carrot, 1 onion, 1 small piece of celery, 3 tablespoonfuls of concentrated tomato purée, 1 wineglassful of white wine, 2 wine-glassfuls of stock or water, butter, salt and pepper, nutmeg.

Cut the bacon or ham into very small pieces and brown them gently in a small saucepan in about 15g of butter. Add the onion, the carrot, and the celery, all finely chopped. When they have browned, put in the raw minced beef, and then turn it over and over so that it all browns evenly. Now add the chopped chicken livers, and after 2 or 3 minutes the tomato purée, and then the white wine. Season with salt (having regard to the saltiness of the ham or bacon), pepper, and a scraping of nutmeg, and add the meat stock or water. Cover the pan and simmer the sauce very gently for 30-40 minutes. (However i actually then removed the lid and simmered for an hour at least to reduce the sauce). Some Bolognese cooks add at the last moment 1 cupful of cream or milk to the sauce, which makes it smoother. (I didn’t think it was necessary.)

When the ragu is to be served with spaghetti or tagliatelle, mix it with the hot pasta in a heated dish so that the pasta is thoroughly impregnated with the sauce, and add a good piece of butter before serving. Hand around the grated cheese separately.




An Ode to Elizabeth David

I have recently acquired a 1964 edition of Elizabeth David’s “French Provincial Cooking”. It welcomingly smells of an old library and has a charming inscription which reads,  “To Marion, Not so much a cookery book, more a tradition in eating, un manuel de bons plats de ma chere France. Bien amicalement, Rolande, 1964.” This translated is “A Handbook of Good Food of my Dear France”. And this is exactly what I found while leafing through the pages.

Elizabeth David is a heroine of mine as, in my mind, she began the adoration of mediterranean ingredients in England. I am doubltful that she single handedly achieved this, however publishing her book ‘A Book Of Meditarranean Food’ in 1950, just as rationing was finally coming to a close, successfully filled food enthusiasts with great delight. Butter, cheese, margarine, cooking fats and meat did not come off the ration until 1954 and so recipes with ingredients from abroad were exciting and full of hope for the future at this time. Post WWII everyone was craving something a little more exotic. At last, food enthusiasts could experiment with flavours and recipes after suffering on beige diets of bread, lard and potatoes.

From reading obituaries and articles about Elizabeth David’s life, she sounds like she enjoyed a few bottles of Chablis regularly and got what she wanted. She spent the war on a sailing boat with a lover ending up in Egypt before eventually marrying Anthony David, a relationship which was apparently ‘doomed from the start’.

The contrast of her dining experiences in Egypt, compared to when she returned to England to live with her sister Diana, really explains why David took it upon herself to bring foreign flavours to England. A story that really explains the lack of ingredients that were available in the 1940s and 50s is when David had returned to her sisters house from shopping. She says “one day, I took back to her, among the broken biscuits and the tins of snoek … one pound of fresh tomatoes. As I took them out of my basket to show her, I saw that tears were tumbling down my sister’s beautiful and normally serene face.” Elizabeth asked Diana what on earth was wrong. “Sorry,” came the reply. “It’s just that I’ve been trying to buy fresh tomatoes for five years. And now it’s you who’ve found them first.”

David comforted herself during these times by writing lists of ingredients that she missed.  “Apricots, olives, butter, rice, lemons, almonds…. This, then, was how she first began to write. Her notes and recipes were an expression of her yearning, a way of assuaging something that was not homesickness exactly, but which must have felt a lot like it.”


This may explain why she was someone who chose to cook, as being born into a wealthy household she had a full team of staff in the house that would have provided all of the family meals. But, perhaps the British palate now bored her after trying ingredients from overseas. She cooked the food she missed from her times abroad during the war and then started writing fondly and descriptively, educating England on the flavours of the Mediterranean and France.