Bagna Cauda ("Hot Bath") – A Garlic and Anchovy Sauce
Bagna Cauda, which literally translates as "hot bath", is a unique specialty of the Piedmont region often eaten with white truffles.
According to Matt Kramer in A Passion for Piedmont, bagna cauda is a sauce originally used as a snack by peasants pruning the vines in midwinter. They would make a fire and heat the bagna to warm up. They dipped whatever was on hand: grissini (breadsticks) and fresh, late, seasonal vegetables, mostly root crops like carrots and onions or hardy crops like celery and fennel.
Kramer explains how food historians were puzzled by the use of olive oil and anchovies in such a ‘poor people’s dish,’ as neither is produced locally. The answer for olive oil lies in the frequent and ancient trade exchanging wines from Piedmont with oil from nearby Liguria. The taste for anchovies, however, derives from the culinary preference of the several Jews that settled in Piedmont after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Furthermore, anchovies traveled well, packed as they were in salt, so together with the abundant local garlic and Ligurian olive oil, bagna cauda was born.
Traditionally, bagna cauda was served in a large, common ceramic bowl placed in the middle of the table over a candle warmer. I remember lots of meals like this, eating from a common bowl or pan with my relatives at the farm in the 1950’s. If you eat bagna cauda in a restaurant you’ll more likely have individual bowls and a serving platter of vegetables from which to choose.
Our recipe this month is the home grown method for bagna cauda that my sister-in-law (Massimo’s mother) inherited from her Piedmontese family. Massimo, or Max as many of you know him, is our nephew and Director of Italian Operations for ExperiencePlus! His mother’s family was in the restaurant business for years so this recipe comes from the "heart of the Piedmont."
The recipe will provide about a cup and a half of sauce, enough for a small appetizer for four. You will be surprised to discover how mild and subtle the taste of this apparently "explosive" dish is!
Thoroughly peel a large head of garlic (with 10-12 cloves) and cook with enough milk to cover all the cloves for 20 to 30 minutes or until you can mash the garlic with a fork and make a consistent paste. Add a tablespoon of heavy cream or butter. Rinse five salty anchovy fillets and add them to the mix, cooking them slowly for 4-5 minutes. Stir the mixture gently and don’t let it burn. The sauce should be of an off-white color, but not brown (says my sister-in-law!) Add a ½ cup or so of olive oil to the mix to make the sauce more liquid.
There are many versions and secrets to this recipe. Watch out for garlic that has begun to sprout and remove any green hearts or buds inside your cloves as they may create a bitter taste. Also, be sure that you cook the mixture over slow heat throughout the process. Increase quantity by merely doubling or tripling the ingredients. Increase the strength and saltiness of the dish by adding a few more filets of anchovy in proportion to the other ingredients.
You can serve bagna cauda in two ways: 1) warm the sauce and keep it warm in a fondue pot, as you dip into it any vegetables you like: celery, carrots, cabbage, endive, cooked red beets; 2) Spread it cold on roasted peppers or cooked fennel or eat it with meat (although the purists would be horrified by this!)