(Read in Italian) How does one spend a perfect evening with friends? Taking a hot bath with them, of course! But, I’m not talking about spending the evening in a hot tub. While that might have its merits on some occasions…I am talking about making “bagno cauda”. The name “bagno caude” literally “hot bath” in the Piemontese dialect means “hot sauce” / ”salsa calda“, is a dish which consists of garlic, olive oil and sardines that is served with vegetables cooked or crude. But it isn’t just a simple sauce to be served with veggies and as such its rich qualities shouldn’t be diminished, because fare un bagno cauda is a real and proper ritual, a symbol of happiness, friendship and conviviality.
Bagna cauda was first “born” in medieval times as a poor man’s dish, that the peasants used to prepare to protect themselves from the cold and which the nobles abhorred because of the intense amounts of garlic that made one’s breath stink, which one has to admit in a time when dental floss didn’t exist was kind of a downer. In accordance to historical testimony it is said that the “birth” of bagno cauda was first developed in southern Piemonte, in the areas of dell’Astigiano, del Monferrato, delle Langhe e del Roero, where the vintners celebrated the first tipping of the new wines in November. At this time they joined together with their friends and families and ate vegetables with a nice hot bagna cauda. Since then the ritual of sitting down together around a table, that has placed in its center ““il fojot”, the terracotta container that holds the hot sauce, survives to this day and is not a stranger to taverns and trattorie in Piemonte as they have made sure that this “pietanza” is included in the menu. First delegated as traditional poor man’s food, now today elevated and celebrated in all it’s many variations.
But, why in the world would one of the main ingredients of bagna caude be sardines, a fish!, as Piemonte is not bordered by the sea and has never been a land of fisherman? But actually Piemonte has been long considered a land of fish, especially in the middle ages when the price of sale was astronomical and many mountain people as well as farmers travelled what we know of today as the “le vie del sale” the “salt road” from Ligura to the mouth of the Rhone river where that acquired salt at more reasonable prices and transported it in barrels hidden under layers of sardines so as to deceive potential robbers. Once they arrived home they raised the price of the salt at higher prices and the anchovies at more reasonable prices, which having been saturated in the salt during transit had become extremely delicatable and well preserved.
There is an Italian idiom that goes like this: The anchovies want to swim three times: in water, in oil, in wine – which means the sardines swim in sea water, in the oil that goes into the pan for cooking and in the wine that also fills the stomach. I can’t disagree with this, especially after our wonderful bagno caudo, that I share with friends the other night!
There are numerous variations on the traditional bagna cauda recipe, but the most simple consists of only three ingredients: olive oil, garlic and anchovies.
1/2 cup serves 4 as appetizer or a nice party dip.
1/2 cup butter 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 can anchovy fillets
3 garlic cloves chili flakes (optional)
Puree the anchovies and garlic cloves: or, just chop both really finely to make a paste.
Heat on low: In saucepan on low heat, add all ingredients. Keep the flame on low so that the butter/oil gets totally infused with the anchovy and garlic. Once the butter melts, just let it continue to sit on the low flame for another 5 minutes. Serve warm. If you use a fondue pot – double or triple the recipe. The little candle fondue bowl pictured above was purchased for $5 at Marshalls.
Vegetables & Stuff to Dip Assortment of raw, steamed or roasted vegetables. I used broccoli, french green beans, radishes (all raw). I also had fresh bread and a few sauteed shrimp. Other ideas include: baby carrots, steamed artichoke hearts, red bell pepper slices, asparagus, celery, zucchini, cauliflower, endive.