Last Saturday, on a visit to Portland, we stepped out of the frigid 3 pm cold and darkness into the warm, breathy atmosphere of House Spirits Distillery. Hidden in Portland’s riverside warehouse district, the distillery was hosting a tasting of grappa, aquavite, vodka, and spirits makers from all over Oregon. Local chocolate and fruitcake were offered to temper the alcohol’s effects.
An event bringing together these food and drink artisans in a warm, cavernous environment with its informal and festive atmosphere brought to mind a Christmas event we experienced some years back in Piemonte.
We had arrived in Dogliani in the Piemonte region a few frigid days before Christmas, or Natale, partly to visit our friend and dolcetto maker, Mario Boschis and also to taste of the winter foods,–brasato al Barolo, Castelmagno cheese risotto, fonduta with shaved truffles-that warm the short, snowy winter days of northern Italy.
We were to make a new food discovery that winter, unbeknownst to us: bagna cauda. Bagna cauda is an enigma of a condiment: intense flavor, simple ingredients, complex history. Ask any Italian and they either love it or loathe it.
Made from salted anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and sometimes milk or butter, it is a creamy, salty northern Italian “gravy” that is served over roasted bell peppers, astride winter vegetables, or draped over boiled Jerusalem artichokes or topanimabour.
That memorable Christmas taste of bagna cauda took place at one of Italy’s serendipitous and frequent festivals. In Dogliani that night we happened to stumble upon one of the greats-a living presepe or Christmas scene-set amongst every nook and cranny of Dogliani’s old town. As darkness fell over the hilltop old town, flame torches were lit, and iron kettles and terracotta bowls were filled with wood for large late-night bonfires.
The narrow streets of Dogliani were filled with locals, including Mario’s wife and sons, dressed in peasant costumes and carrying the tools of various trades of the medieval era. Re-enactments of local medieval crafts were set on the narrow vie of Dogliani while others, to escape the cold, were hosted in cave-like botteghe, some with small, fire lit hearths.
In one of the cavernous botteghe several women were peeling heads of cabbage, removing the large outer leaves, then slicing them into neat wedges. Red radish halves enlivened the scene, as did a pungent aroma of garlic and anchovy, riding on a warm wave of heat from a terracotta brazier. We stepped inside, instantly warmed by the energy of cutting and chopping, co-mingled with this unusual but appetizing aroma -penetrating and spicy, so contrasting to the frigid, dark night air outside.
Following the warm aromas to the brazier, we looked inside to find a creamy mixture of a gray-beige color. Laughing, the Doglianese handed us some scoop-shaped bits of thick cabbage leaf and had us taste a dip from the steaming brazier. Salty anchovy mellowed with olive oil and a touch of garlic set off perfectly the sweet, crunch of the raw, fresh cabbage leaf. It was something like a peasant version of an artichoke leaf dipped in hollandaise or mayonnaise sauce, perhaps its precursor. Just as our palates were gathering all the flavors of this simple dish we were handed a glass of the local, earthy dolcetto red wine. At that moment, the bagna cauda became a perfect expression of that cold night, the cavernous bottega, the hill town and its vineyards, the fire lit winter night.
Later we learned that there were dozens of nearly fokloric recipes for bagna cauda, some in which the garlic is boiled in milk to mellow it, others with butter, some with strictly Ligurian olive oil as a base (like our La Bella Angiolina DOP Dolce Moliture Olive Oil). Anchovies appear to have arrived in landlocked Piemonte-one of the great mysteries of this dish-with expatriates from coastal Spain. Garlic was probably one of the few vegetables that survived-along with cabbages, Jerusalem artichokes, and other stout winter product-through the challenging winter of long-ago Piemonte. Before the wine boom, before the Alba truffle festivals.
Try it one winter night, and don’t forget the Dolcetto, or even a splash of Oregon aquavite.
Bagna Cauda or Hot Bath
A Piedmontese winter fondue to be served with fresh raw vegetables
For six people:
One head garlic or to taste
1+ cups extra virgin olive oil, Casina Rossa or La Bella Angiolina DOP Dolce Moliture
8 whole salted anchovies, briefly rinsed in water
Assorted vegetables for dipping, including carrot strips, cauliflower, jicama, broccoli, celery, Jerusalem artichokes.
Blend in a food processor anchovies, first head of garlic, and about half a cup of olive oil. Process until it is the consistency of a paste. Pour into a heavy saucepan and cook over very low heat for about ½-one hour, until lightly brown in color. To serve, pour into bagna cauda warmer and add olive oil to thin slightly. Use this mixture also to dip vegetables or bread, or over grilled polenta or roasted vegetables.