If you are a lover of strong culinary tastes, you’ll want to try Bagna cauda.
This ultimate comfort food – a fondue of fleshy, salted anchovies and whole heads of pungent garlic – is a Piemonte classic served in individual fondue dishes (called fojòt’ in Piemonte) with a gently burning candle placed underneath. This keeps the dip warm for the duration of your meal and gave rise to its name – Bagna cauda means “hot bath” in Piemontese.
Conjuring up romantic rural images of the early autumn grape harvest in the Langhe, it is perfect for sharing. In days gone by, this dish was traditionally placed at the centre of a food and wine laden table and the wine harvest workers ate heartily from the terracotta bowl by dipping roughly cut veggies into the smooth sauce. Empty stomachs were soothed and satisfied and the joyful gathering of people around the table guaranteed hours of good food, wine and conversation.
Bagna cauda may also evoke fond memories for many Italo-Americans who recall New Year’s Eve celebrations with their Piemontese grandparents. A favorite festivity treat and a practical staple in homes during the cold winter months, families would dip sweet Carmagnola peppers, chunks of rustic bread, cabbage, fennel, artichokes, roast beetroot, broccoli, chicory and other harvest to table vegetables into the rich garlicky sauce.
Autumn is the best time of year for Bagna Cauda, not only for its warming properties but also because of the range of seasonal vegetables to dip in. And let’s not forget the wines. Local winemakers will tell you that a Dolcetto d’Alba is best with its tannic properties, rich purple colour and fruity aromas. However, if you really can’t find a Dolcetto, a slightly sparkly Barbera d’Asti or a pleasantly simple Barbera d’Alba pair well, too – both young and medium-bodied, they make excellent accompaniments to this dish. The choice is yours.
Bagna Cauda reads as a simple recipe but takes loving patience to make in order to achieve the right consistency and taste. In Piemonte, it is eaten both as a starter or a main dish, but these days, particularly in restaurants, Bagna Cauda drizzled over vegetables is most common. Unless, of course, it’s the month of November, when entire towns dip into bowls of this savoury fall favourite during weekend-long Bagna cauda events. One of the biggest and most popular ones is Bagna Cauda Day during the last weekend in November in Asti.
Bagna cauda. Photo by Josef Grunig, CC. License
Bagna càuda (for around 4-5 people)
400g of medium sized anchovies (salted)
400g of garlic
1 litre of olive oil
White vinegar (just a dash)
Selection of raw, chopped vegetables of your choice
Soak the anchovies in water to remove some of the saltiness. Peel the garlic and cook the bulbs in water and a dash of white vinegar until soft, not mushy. This takes the most pungent notes out of the garlic. Place the anchovies and garlic into a pan and cover with the olive oil. Cook everything together gently over a low flame, taking care not to let the olive oil boil. This process turns the mixture into an oily paste. If, upon tasting the dip, you feel that the dish is too salty, you can stir in a spoonful or two of cream. A local family-run restaurant created another take on the traditional by stirring in sour cream and chopped cabbage. Yummy!
Instead of cooking the garlic in water and vinegar, an alternative is to cook it in milk until the garlic is soft. This gives a creamier texture but the garlic will retain more of its potency. After adding the anchovies to the garlic and allowing the mixture to cook slowly until it is all blended together, you can melt in about 250g of butter at the same time as adding the olive oil.
However to remain faithful to Piemontese tradition, it is recommended to keep the recipe as simple as possible foregoing the cream, butter and cabbage.
Finally, arrange the chopped, raw vegetables on a selection of pretty serving dishes. Pour a glass of Dolcetto or Barbera and let your meal begin.
Lara Statham was born in the UK. She has lived in Greece, Hungary, Jordan and Egypt but has called Turin, Piedmont home for the past 17 years. A fan of Piedmontese cuisine and wines, with a penchant for Langhe’s reds, she writes for www.turinitalyguide.com an online travel guide and lifestyle blog about Turin and Piedmont.