Cucina conversations: too many recipes for bagna cauda

I came close to throwing in the towel with this one. I was going to contact my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers and say, I’m sorry but I won’t be joining you with an olive oil-related post in November. My resolve to make what many would describe as the definitive Piedmontese dish, bagna cauda, which contains the rather un-Piedmontese ingredient that is olive oil, was waning rapidly. Every home cook and food writer I consulted seemed to be convinced they had the ‘perfect’ recipe. And the more I researched it and talked to people about it, the more I was afraid to get it ‘wrong’.

There were recipes that said that the considerable amount of garlic used to make this dish was under no condition to be pre-boiled or soaked in milk, water or wine. My mother-in-law and many others, in contrast, insisted on subduing the pungent allium’s non-digestible properties by pre-boiling or soaking. Some recipes called for extra virgin olive oil, preferably from Liguria. Others maintained the milder flavour of a non-extra virgin olive oil was better. Then, there was the ‘official’ recipe laid down by the Accademia della Cucina Italiana and two of my favourite Piedmontese cookbooks, Nonna Genia and La cucina del Piemonte collinare e vignaiolo. Large, salt-packed Spanish anchovies had to be used. Others did not seem to care so much about the provenance of the umami-packed preserved fish. According to some sources, these did not require a rigorous cleaning, just a mere brushing off of the salt preserving them. Others, however, were adamant on ensuring not a single minute bone remained. Giovanni Goria, author of La cucina del Piemonte collinare e vignaiolo, called for the shortest cooking time possible. The author of Nonna Genia, Beppe Lodi, wrote of two hours of constant stirring on low heat. For some, a generous knob of butter was essential to getting the garlic to melt. For others, the base ingredients of olive oil, garlic and anchovies were enough to getting a creamy and smooth consistency going. There was also the contentious point of which raw vegetables to plunge into the fujots (small terracotta bowls kept warm by a candle flame) the sauce is served in. Some purists felt raw cardoons were to be dipped in only. Others, however had no qualms about smothering a less-restricted variety of raw seasonal vegetables – such as fennel and celery sticks, capsicums and cabbage leaves – in the hot, aromatic sauce. Many people appreciated having a few cooked vegetables for dipping purposes too. I learned this the hard way the first time I prepared it for my family. After asking my usual ‘Com’é?’ (‘How is it?’) one Friday evening last month, TP made it clear something very important to him was missing. There was no bowl of boiled potatoes for him to dip in his fujot. Ooops!

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I persevered in the face of impossibly contradictory advice thanks, in great part, to my instructor at cooking school. In addition, to years of experience as a professional chef, Chef Spada is remarkably well-versed in the science of cooking and Italian food history. His words on Day One of our cooking course  reminded me of why I started this blog and the main lesson I hope readers can learn from it. Here’s what he said: ‘The recipes I’ll be giving you during this course are just a guide, not the gospel. In your future lives as professional chefs you will come up with your own interpretations of making dishes and you’ll adjust quantities of this ingredient and omit that particular ingredient to meet the needs/wallets/whims of your clientele. The “perfect” or “definitive” recipe does not exist. Anyone who tells you otherwise has not understood the nature of Italian cooking’.

To prove his point, he recently sent me a PDF of some research undertaken by Guido Vanetti into bagna cauda after I told him about the post and recipe I intended to write. Entitled 35 ricette per preparare la bagna cauda e agliata (’35 recipes for preparing bagna cauda and agliata‘), it included an even wider variety of recipes for making this hot sauce (bagna cauda literally means that) than I had already come across. Would you believe that there are old recorded recipes made for the garlic-adverse which replace the allium with Jerusalem artichokes and truffles? And, instead of olive oil, that the garlic and anchovies were sometimes cooked in oil extracted from walnuts?

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Ah yes, olive oil. That is the topic of this month’s edition of Cucina Conversations. I’ve already alluded to the fact that landlocked Piedmont is one of the few regions in Italy where olive oil is not produced. Yet, many Piedmontese recipes (see my post on bagnet verd) call for its use, along with the not-very-local preserved anchovy. Why? The simple answer is trade. To meet the demand from the local inland population for precious preserving salt, the Vie del Sale or Salt Roads began to develop from the ports of Nice, Ventimiglia and Savona, across the Val Maira and into the Langhe and Monferrato areas of Piedmont many centuries ago. Eventually, more and more goods, such as olive oil and preserved fish, came to be exchanged along these trading routes. Bagna cauda and many other Piedmontese recipes including olive oil and anchovies are therefore testimony to that historical exchange of goods along the Salt Roads.

A few notes on the following recipe. I prefer salt-packed anchovies simply because they are tastier and the oils the anchovies are often preserved in are rarely ever of good quality (See my fellow Cucina Conversations bloggers’ posts below about recognising a good quality olive oil). However, if you are unable to find the former (or are pressed for time – salt-packed anchovies require more work), make sure to drain the anchovy fillets thoroughly on paper towels. I’ve also opted against pre-boiling the garlic as I found that garlic, being garlic, repeats on you (and possibly your interlocutors!) regardless the next day anyway. I’ve gone along with another common household solution – removing and discarding the green germ at the centre of the cloves.

As for serving, ideally you would have a decent gathering of people, lots of raw autumnal and winter vegetables and those wonderful, individual terracotta pots kept warm by a lit candle on hand for your guests. You may also want to try it as a condiment on top of roasted strips of capsicum or even served cold as a salad dressing (I’m a big fan of doing this with leftovers). At any rate, if you go for the convivial rite I first described, be sure not to make anything else for dinner. If there ever was a one-dish meal or piatto unico, filling bagna cauda is definitely it.

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Ingredients (serves 2 as main dish or piatto unico)

  • 200 g salt-packed anchovies
  • 2 heads of garlic
  • 100 mL extra virgin olive oil
  • water brought to boil

Soak anchovies in cold water for 3 hours with a water change every hour. Drain anchovies on paper towels, split them in half and remove their spines, tails, guts and bones. Peel heads and internal cloves of garlic. Remove the green germs inside the cloves. Using a chef’s knife or a mezzaluna, mince the cloves as finely as possible.

Place the gutted and deboned anchovies, minced garlic and olive oil in a terracotta or non-stick pot. Cook on very low heat for an 1 hour or until the anchovies and garlic have softened noticeably. To ensure the garlic does not brown or fry, stir constantly and add the occasional spoonful of hot water. For a smoother finish (or if you haven’t done a thorough job of deboning the anchovies!), puree in a food processor.

Serve in individual terracotta bowls kept warm with lit candles underneath. Accompany these with a platter of seasonal raw vegetables cut into sticks. Don’t forget the boiled potatoes!

In the meantime, don’t forget to visit my fellow bloggers’ olive oil-related posts:

  • Carmen, from The Heirloom Chronicles, interviews an Australian olive oil producer and has a recipe for a childhood favourite of mine, melanzane sott’olio.
  • Daniela, from La Dani Gourmet, writes from the heart of olive grove territory in Tuscany and is preparing farinata al cavolo nero e olio nuovo for us.
  • Flavia, from Flavias Flavors, describes the November olive harvest and has a delicious recipe for cannellini all’olio.
  • Francesca, from Pancakes and Biscotti, describes the joys of boiling, draining and sauteeing bitter greens in olive oil with her recipe for cicoria ripassata alla romana.
  • Lisa, from Italian Kiwi, describes the olive tree-whacking currently occurring along the Cote d’Azur and has a recipe for another personal favourite of mine, olive tapenade.
  • Marialuisa, from Marmellata di Cipolle, is cooking up some bruschetta all’olio d’oliva e peperoni arrostiti to test the flavour of some newly-pressed oil from the Calabrese countryside.

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