A while ago, at university, I had a discussion with a tutor and another student about what constitutes as a Bolognese sauce. 'Does it have to have meat in it?' seemed to be to most pressing question. Countless times I have just thrown a spaghetti Bolognese or lasagna al forno together without even thinking about what the traditional way of making it was.
Well, as it turns out, I was doing it all wrong. The tins of chopped tomatoes, the various herbs, the red wine - apparently all wrong. The only thing I had been getting right was the chopped onion (and even then I reckon I was doing that wrong). According to Elizabeth David's Italian Food, the key ingredient in a Bolognese sauce is nutmeg. Let me start from the beginning.
My earliest memories of spag bol were of a sloppy tomato sauce. Sometimes we would have sliced mushrooms or even peppers in there, but guaranteed it was Dolmio's suace we used as a base. But alas, this is not it's true origins (thank god). It may be stating the obvious, but Bolognese sauce, or ragu as it is correctly known, comes from Bologna, Italy. Ragu is Italian for 'meat-based pasta sauce' (Heston Blumenthal, In Search of Perfection).
The traditional recipe excludes the use of tomatoes, which is something that came with the discovery of America. It calls for beef, pancetta, onions, stock, tomato puree, white wine and cream or milk. Though nowadays, you'll see recipes calling for a range of additions from the basic celery, carrots and herbs to the perhaps more unusual chicken livers.
Though I do believe that Italian cuisine is at its best when it's kept simple, I am also guilty of not sticking to traditional recipes and elaborating on them. Yet, I can't decide if that's a good or bad thing. Granted, you shouldn't call a dish Traditional Spaghetti Bolognese if you've used tomatoes or red wine, but that doesn't make the dish itself 'wrong', does it? Surely it's just an adaption of a recipe, and isn't that how new dishes are born?
So, back to my original question that had myself, my tutor and my friend had been asking. Does Bolognese sauce have to have meat in it? Yes.