Winter has officially arrived and for many Italians this means leaving their hectic lives in the city and flocking to their mountain homes during the weekends. Seeing as I’ve acquired many “Italian habits” I too left Milan and headed to the mountain village of Sauze d’Oulx in Piedmont for the official opening of the ski slopes. Weekends in the mountains aren’t only great for getting some fresh air and snowboarding, but it is also a time when you get to enjoy the local winter cuisine in the picturesque mountain chalets and bars. As the seasons change in Italy, so do their menus hence there are only a few months out of the year when one can savor some of the exceptional winter dishes Italy has to offer. One of my new favorite classical Piedmont dishes is bagna cauda (Piedmont dialect meaning hot bath). I had never been keen on this dish before, but I guess my tastes buds are changing with the seasons because this past weekend I couldn’t get enough of this warm dipping sauce at the aperitivo buffet. So what is bagna cauda? The original recipe is quite simple consisting of three ingredients: olive oil, garlic and anchovies, but the history of bagna cauda is a bit more complex than its recipe. Piedmont has a long farming tradition of vegetable crops, raising animals and growing wine and in the past bagna cauda was seen as “poor cuisine”. Anchovies and olive oil are not produced in the Piedmont region and according to Italian folklore, Piedmont farmers used to travel the “salt road” Via del Sale, many by foot, down to the region of Liguria (where the Cinque Terre are) to barter for things such as salt, olive oil, and anchovies. This was the only fish that people from Piedmont ate at that time because it could be preserved in salt. The farmers then created bagna cauda as a way to feed their families during winter when there weren’t as many crops available. The traditional way of eating this dish was by putting it in a large terra-cotta pot in the middle of the table with a candle under the sauce to keep it warm. It was a meal that brought friends and families together where they would share an array of raw vegetables (artichoke thistle, peppers, fennel, cabbage, beets, tubers) that they would then dip into the sauce. The dish was commonly followed by drinking a hot meat broth to help digest and wash down the garlicky sauce. Today there are many variations of this recipe adding other ingredients such as butter, heavy cream, milk or sometimes even wine to the sauce, but there are still many strict “traditionalists” that say you can only eat bagna cauda using the original “traditional” recipe. So here you go:
Servings: 6 people
12 salt-packed anchovies
12 cloves of garlic
½ liter extra virgin olive oil
- Slowly heat oil on the low flame.
- Remove the core from the garlic then thinly slice.
- Add garlic to the oil and cook on low heat for 30 minutes stirring occasionally.
- Clean the anchovies (if not already done) by removing the head and backbone.
- Add anchovies to the garlic/oil mixture and cook until the anchovies dissolve into the sauce (about another 30 minutes).
- Pour sauce into a terra-cotta pot putting a candle underneath it to keep the sauce warm.
- Serve accompanied with the vegetables listed above or experiment you’re your favorite raw vegetables.
Remember this dish is very potent. You probably don’t want to eat this the day before you have a business meeting and you definitely want to eat this with your partner or they might not be too excited about your garlicky flavored kisses.
As people from Piedmont say: Bon Apti!