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The history of this dish, which originates in Piedmont can be considered an example of how and why - in times long past - regional dishes are born from real life.
It is said that the wine farmers of the late Middle Ages needed a special, exotic, dish to celebrate an important event for them, the draft of the new wine. The event marked the success of the most troubled, most tiring and most insidious harvest of the year - the wine grapes.
It seems also that one tried, with some social polemic, to adopt and promote a festive dish that was rustic and folksy, tasty and strong, in opposition to the plates of the lords and the masters (but most likely this was an emblematic post-comparison).
Here then, the Piedmontese farmers chose to marry two local raw materials: the good vegetables like precious garlic (prescribed by the Medieval Statutes as compulsory cultivation for every farmer), with the salty anchovy in barrels which was beginning to arrive readily to every village and every hill, thanks to the epic work of the Occitans of the Val Maira.
Added to this was olive oil, an almost exotic and expensive product sparsely produced in Piedmont (which also at that time, before the great climatic changes, had olive groves). For the most part, the oil is imported from nearby Liguria in exchange for grain, butter and cheese that abounded in the region.
Thus the bagna cauda came to exist with the combination of the mentioned local and foreign ingredients, and went on to acquire its well-established characteristics. It was a seasonal dish of the cold season, because it was prepared over a month after the harvest, just when the off-season of the peasant begins. The cold and even the frost, was and is a necessary requirement to have perfect tenderness of the vegetables for the dip, in particular the thistles. The bagna cauda was a course to be eaten in large company, because the whole community celebrated together this common satisfaction, in fact there was one large tinned copper pot over coals, containing the mixture of oil, garlic and anchovies, and in this everybody dipped the vegetables and the bread.
The bagna cauda was ultimately a ritual dish, because of the periodicity and the much-expected recurrence of the festival. Along with the meal comes a more or less conscious sense of gratitude to the forces of nature that the farmers intuitively reconnected to the ceremony, which imbued this singular and different dinner with rituality.
These are all elements that today make the bagna cauda for the people of Piedmont not only a robust and tasty dish, and a little barbaric (a lot of the smell of garlic will remain on the breath and clothes), but also a unique opportunity for fraternization and joy, a starting point for young people and friends that don't yet know the bagna cauda.
In effect, even today the bagna cauda should not be made alone, or with few people, eating casually and politely. The ritual of the bagna cauda is composed of a nice long table, some clay pans on a steady flame, each one for perhaps two or four cheerful people to dip in, a nice round filling the glasses perhaps with a good Barbera, and the triumph of all colorful winter vegetables piled on the tables with large pieces of bread and dishes of eggs.
And now let's look at how to cook a correct bagna cauda, so as not to betray the original one of the old wine farmers. At the same time, meeting the tastes of today, trying to contain or eliminate the disadvantages or better the "difficulties" of a dish born in circumstances now long absent from our lives.
For a bagna cauda that serves 4 people, ingredients are approximately: 40g butter, 250g of extra virgin olive oil, 200g of garlic, 200g of salted anchovies.
Here are the rules:
1) The anchovies should be good-looking, matured at least a year, fresh and fragrant, that means right out of the salt; cleaned, washed in water and wine, well dried and boned;
2) The garlic can be limited but never eliminated, because that would no longer be bagna cauda! While the "fundamentalists" will require a "head" per person, that means 10 to 15 cloves, I think that 2 or 3 cloves per person are enough, not boiled in milk or water (to make the flavor of the garlic less aggressive), but just cut off any budding, cut into thin slices to leave, if you will, a few hours in a bowl of cold water, preferably in running water;
3) The oil must be olive oil of good quality. I prefer the extra-virgin one, but also the normal one is fine, but ban all seed oils, and it should be no less than half a glass (of wine) per person;
4) Vegetables should all be from the vegetable gardens of Piedmont, without the too aromatic ones (eg.: celery, fennel, radishes), well cleaned and quartered: cards from Nice Monferrato, cards from Chieri, raw, or roasted and peeled peppers, sweet peppers preserved in vinegar and rasps, artichokes, kale, green, white and red cabbages, white hearts of escarole and endive, leeks, fresh, long green onions (these are usually cut across at the base and put on the table in bunches of 3 or 4 dipped in a glass of Barbera from which they emerge for about two inches; they are also good if you just eat them dripping with wine with a pinch of salt), white turnips, red beets from the oven, boiled cauliflower, boiled cabbage hearts, roasted onions, and finally plates of boiled white potatoes in their skins, apples, roasted or fried zucchini slices, slices of warm roasted or fried polenta, and baskets of fresh eggs to scramble in the leftover bagna cauda;
5) The cooking is the crucial point for a good, healthy and easy to digest bagna cauda. It must be brief and kept on low heat: in a large earthenware pan put all your sliced and dried garlic with only a spoonful of oil and butter, cook slowly for half an hour, always stirring the garlic with a wooden spoon, making sure it does not become dark; the slices of garlic should soften and melt, forming a smooth cream, white and soft. At this point add all the oil and all the anchovies and cook the sauce at low heat just enough that the anchovies dissolve perfectly intermixing with the garlic to result in a fragrant pale brown cream; the bagna caoda now is done, the oil should never have boiled or popped. During the service at the table, add oil if necessary, gradually lengthening the sauce of garlic and anchovy.
Article by Stefania Finiguerra