Rachel Roddy’s recipe for tomato and sausage ragu

While a pan burps and occasionally spits from the back of the stove, a story. The first description of tomato sauce arrived in Italy in 1628. It was from Mexico, of course, by way of Spain and the pen of naturalist and physician to Philip II, Francisco Hernández, whose detailed documentation of plants and Mexican food customs filled 16 volumes. Translated first into Latin, then Italian, one of the volumes includes a description of an intinctus (dip or sauce) “prepared from sliced tomatoes and chilli pepper, which enriches the flavour of almost all dishes, and reawakens the appetite”.

Not that anyone was eating tomatoes in Italy yet. They’d arrived several decades earlier, in the form of a few plants and seeds, again from Mexico, where they grew wild and were revered. In his recent and detailed investigation into spaghetti with tomato sauce, the Italian food historian Massimo Montanari notes that tomatoes were treated with curiosity and deep suspicion; they could be eaten, but physicians of the time warned they might cause “torment to your eyes and head”.

Montanari sees sauce as a reason for the shift. Since antiquity, the use of sauces – often called flavours” – was a systematic way of tempering food to achieve a balance of hot, cold, dry and wet, and for colour. Cold, wet, reducible and red, tomato was ripe for embracing. The other part of the shift was the almost complete governance of Italy (and colonisation of Mexico) by Madrid, and a new proliferation of recipes. Seventy years after the first mention of tomato sauce in Italy came the first recipe, by Antonio Latini, an Italian steward for a Spanish grandee in Naples, in his book Lo Scalco alla Moderna (The Modern Steward). Clearly from the Mexican tradition, but called alla Spagnola (Spanish-style), the recipe is translated by Montanari: “Take some ripe tomatoes, roasted over a wood fire and skinned. Dice them fine with a knife, add some diced onion, chilli pepper, if you wish, also diced, a pinch of thyme. Mix everything together and dress with salt, oil and vinegar; a tasty sauce for boiled meat, or for other things.” I have made this, my gas burner trying to be a wood fire, and it was extremely nice.

A few decades later, Vincenzo Corrado, great interpreter of Neapolitan culture and the author of the 1773 book Il Cuoco Galante (The Gallant Cook), has only good things to say about the tomato, and gives a recipe for a sauce for mutton. No mention of meeting with pasta or macaroni, and certainly not spaghetti, a word not yet even invented. That would come a few years later, in 1781, when Corrado refers to tomato as a ‘‘universal” sauce that lends itself to meat, fish, eggs, pasta and greens. Even more clearly in 1807, a recipe for maccheroni alla napoletana, or pasta mixed with cheese and a rich ragu made from meat simmered in tomatoes, or concentrate (evidence of preserving), onion, pork, herbs, maybe a glass of wine, salt and pepper.

Which brings me to this week’s recipe, inspired by all of the above, and also by what I want to reawaken me from my January slumber lately – with pasta, gnocchi, rice or as part of lasagne with bechamel and grated parmesan. After a little prep and frying, this ragu is brought to an almost-boil, then reduced to a simmer for 50 minutes, or until the sauce is dense, rich, smelling glorious – and “tormenting” no one, except, perhaps, the person who has to wipe the cooker or wash the white T-shirt.

Tomato and sausage ragu

Prep 20 min
Cook 1 hr
Serves 8

6 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and finely diced
1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
2 celery sticks, trimmed and finely diced
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh rosemary

2 garlic cloves
, peeled, left whole and impaled on a toothpick
Salt and black pepper
6 pork sausages
, removed from their casings, meat crumbled
1 small glass red wine (125ml)
3 x 400g tins
peeled plum tomatoes (1.2kg), crushed
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
1 pinch red chilli flakes (optional)

Warm the oil in a large, heavy-based pan on a medium-low heat, then fry the onion, carrot, celery, bay, rosemary and garlic with a pinch of salt for about eight minutes, until they start to soften.

Add the sausagemeat and cook, stirring, until all the pink has gone. Add the wine, leave to bubble for a few minutes, then stir in the tomatoes, tomato concentrate and chilli flakes, if you wish, and bring to an almost-boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 50 minutes, until the ragu is dense and rich, then check for seasoning.

Serve with pasta, gnocchi, rice or in a lasagne (I like it with alternate layers with bechamel or ricotta loosened with milk.)