“In the beginning, there was bagna càuda …”
So began “Piemonte, La Via dei Sapori,” a book about Piedmontese cuisine that I found myself thumbing through near the tiny town of Alfiano Natta. In fact, the gray-brown sauce that is bagna càuda does seem akin to primordial soup.
This classic dipping sauce (literally, “hot bath”) for vegetables is a traditional part of the Christmas Eve buffet in homes throughout Italy, with its origins in the Piedmont region. There, along with winter dishes such as brasato al Barolo, Castelmagno cheese risotto, and fonduta with shaved truffles, the hearty flavors of bagna càuda warm the body and the soul.
I fell in love with this deceptively simple combination of garlic, anchovies and olive oil (butter and/or cream are sometimes added) during a recent trip to Piedmont for Slow Food’s biennial Terra Madre conference of farmers. But the beloved’s origins proved elusive. In the beginning, some say, was the supreme condiment of ancient Rome, garum, a sauce derived from fermented fish. Others say that in the beginning there were simply hard-working Piedmontese farmers with families to feed through the winter when only root crops and hardy stored greens such as cabbage were available. Plus there was garlic, plenty of garlic, which every farmer was obligated to grow according to medieval statutes.
The more I heard Italians talk about the origins, recipes and rituals surrounding bagna càuda, the more unclear things became. For starters, how did sea-dwelling anchovies and the oil of sun-loving olives find their way up into the foothills of the Alps?
‘Salt road’ brought key ingredients to Piedmont
As it turns out, this humble sauce has a complex history of farming culture, regional commerce and tax evasion. While rich in garlic, grains, butter and cheese, Piedmont did not have anchovies or olive oil. These they obtained through barter with their neighbors in Liguria to the southwest, where olive oil and fish were cheap and abundant. As was salt.
Salt was probably the first ingredient to make the mountainous trek from the Ligurian coast to Piedmont. It is essential for human and animal health, not to mention food preservation in pre-refrigeration days, and so the Romans built salt routes throughout their empire. One of these “salt roads” was traveled by the industrious and hardy people of the Val Maira (a valley in the province of Cuneo in southern Piedmont). They made regular trading trips through the Maritime Alps to Liguria, their mules loaded down with wheat, butter and cheese on the way to the sea; and salt and fish on the way back.
The precious salt, however, was tightly controlled and heavily taxed. So the farmers, the story goes, would fill their barrels with contraband salt and then top them off with anchovies. If they were stopped and their cargo inspected, the officials saw only tax-free anchovies. This story has a number of variants, but, smuggled or not, anchovies and salt made their way up to Piedmont, and into bagna càuda, for hundreds of years.
The first versions of bagna càuda were most likely made with the region’s rich walnut oil, from the mature walnut groves that used to be found throughout Piedmont and the Val d’Aosta. After vast areas were largely deforested, olive oil too had to be imported from Liguria. Although olive oil and butter now serve as the base of bagna càuda, some families crush a few roasted walnuts into the sauce to remember the ancient flavor of the dish.
Today, bagna càuda is one of the best examples of “cucina povera,” the humble healthy dishes born of necessity and few ingredients. But bagna cauda is more than a meal; it is a ritual, one that, according to the book on Piedmontese cuisine, “abhors solitude and wants a tavern atmosphere — or better, an ancient cantina lit by fire or candle.” It also requires “a triumph of colors of many vegetables” to eat, and the new season’s wine to drink. Most of all, it requires a convivial atmosphere with friends and family gathered around the pot of simmering sauce as if the setting were a rustic cocktail party.
For all of its ritual, bagna càuda is not strictly codified. Recipes seem infinitely variable — both in the vegetables used and in the proportions of oil, butter, anchovies and garlic. Although cardoons (the thick stem of a plant related to the artichoke but resembling celery) are traditional, bagna càuda is also commonly served over roasted bell peppers (including the sweet peppers of Carmagnola), or with a variety of winter roots and greens such as boiled Jerusalem artichokes, beets, turnips, endive and cabbage.
As far as I’m concerned, any vegetable is enhanced by a dip in bagna càuda. So this season, instead of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” try “guests gathering ’round a bowl of garlicky oil.” I can’t think of a better way to welcome the holiday season.
Bagna Càuda (Hot Garlic Anchovy Sauce for Vegetables)
The general procedure for making bagna càuda is to gently warm the olive oil with minced garlic and anchovies until the garlic melts and the anchovies dissolve. Some recipes emphasize the olive oil, while others add butter and even cream. As a guide, you can’t do much better than this recipe from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”
- Choose a pot over which you will subsequently be able to rest, double-boiler fashion, the saucepan in which you are making the bagna càuda. Put water in it and bring it to a lively simmer.
- Put the oil and butter in the pot for bagna càuda, turn on the heat to medium low, and heat the butter until it is thoroughly liquefied and just barely begins to foam. If you let it get past this stage, it will become too hot.
- Add the garlic and sauté very briefly. It must not take on any color.
- Place the bagna càuda pot over the pan with simmering water. Add the chopped anchovies and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon while using the back of it to mash the anchovies, until they dissolve into a paste. Add salt, stir and bring to the table over a warming apparatus. Serve with raw or cooked vegetables.
Photo: Garlic, a key ingredient in bagna càuda, at the market. Some old recipes call for an entire head per person.
Credit: Terra Brockman