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In Piedmont, in Italy's northwest, there's a wonderful fall ritual that is signaled by the vendemmia, the wine harvest, and that only gets better as the season goes on. It involves friends getting together around a warm, bubbling pot of bagna cauda, aromatic and heady with mountains of garlic, slowly cooked with plenty of olive oil and anchovies. Autumn vegetables, raw and cooked, are dipped, one after the other, into the warm sauce, while glasses of young red wine are clinked.
It's an ancient preparation from southern Piedmont, and a simple one that traditionally only calls for three ingredients: garlic, salted anchovies, and olive oil (often a bit of butter gets thrown in at the end too). While the first known written recipes for it date to the nineteenth century, some say the recipe goes back as far as the Middle Ages, when it was prepared for grape pickers after the harvest to celebrate vino nuovo, the "new," freshly pressed wine. It is still tradition to pair bagna cauda with local wines (barbera, nebbiolo, barbaresco, dolcetto) at this time of year.
As this recipe is a celebratory fall dish, it usually features typical seasonal vegetables. Purists will say to only serve this with peppers (raw or grilled, then cut into strips) or raw sticks of cardoons (artichoke thistles, which are a specialty of the area of Nizza Monferrato in the province of Asti). But you'll often see boiled potatoes (if there's anything that's meant to be paired together forever, it's anchovies, garlic, and potatoes), onions (roasted whole, in their skins, then cut into wedges), raw cabbage leaves, cauliflower, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, or celery sticks, to give a few more ideas. (And bread, too—I mean really, what is better than bread with all those ingredients?) To keep it warm during the meal, bagna cauda (which literally means "hot sauce") is usually served in a terra cotta bowl built over a candle flame or hot coals (known as a fujot in dialect).
With such a simple recipe, variations abound—but so does an "official" recipe, which is conserved in the Accademia Italiana della Cucina and calls for one head of garlic, half a "glass" of olive oil, 50 grams of anchovies, and a piece of butter, per person. That's right, one head of garlic per person. Admittedly, if you're not much of a garlic lover, this sauce may not be for you, but nineteenth century nobles (who, due to their disdain for the overpowering flavor of garlic, took centuries to come around to the idea of preparing bagna cauda) got around this by replacing the garlic with truffles from Alba.
Some traditional recipes use walnut oil in place of the olive oil or a mixture of both. And there is a version from Monferrato where the garlic is first cooked slowly in milk while the anchovies melt into the olive oil, and then they are combined into a creamy, mellow sauce. Some recipes even call for a splash of cream. (Try Amanda's buttermilk bagna cauda for something similar.)
It's not just a hot dip, though. Like salsa verde (Piedmont's other favourite sauce), it's a very versatile condiment. Serve it as a flavorful sauce with roast meat or dolloped onto squares of fried polenta (a traditional peasant's meal). Use it as a salad dressing. My personal favorite use for it is stirred through some softly scrambled eggs; in the old days, peasants would reserve the tasty oil leftover in the fujot to fry eggs in. It even makes a delicious pasta sauce.
This recipe, which uses a little less garlic than the "official" recipe, is inspired by two wonderful old cookbooks of traditional Piemontesi recipes: Piemonte in Bocca (which has a drawing of a man holding a sign saying "Long live bagna cauda and barbera") and Nonna Genia, a classic collection of cuisine of the Langhe area of Piedmont. That particular recipe suggests cooking the garlic for 2 hours, but 20 minutes works too, especially if you have a table full of eager friends, salivating at the perfume of gently cooked garlic. Now don't forget the wine.
Describe your favorite all-purpose sauce in the comments below.