A Northern Italian Ritual to Warm Up Your Bay Area Winter
By Cheryl Angelina Koehler | Photos by Scott Peterson
Chef Peter Chastain remembers being nine years old and standing on the back porch of his family’s Hollywood home when he had an epiphany that would follow him through his long career.
“Everyone was gone except for me and Freddie,” he says, speaking of his mother’s stepfather, Fredrico Francchi, who had immigrated from Tuscany to the United States in the late nineteenth century.
“He cut two figs from the tree in the back, pulled two glasses of water from the cooler, and sliced a little bread. Then he set the table with the best plates, napkins, forks, knives, and a piece of cheese, and he put an opera on the phonograph. I asked, ‘Is this lunch?’ He told me that a meal was not about what you eat, but how you eat what you have.”
Now chef-owner of Berkeley’s Via del Corso (and formerly of Prima in Walnut Creek), Chastain still thinks about how that simple lunch defines for him the core of Northern Italian cuisine and sensibility. “I think bagna cauda really embodies this idea,” he adds.
Pronounced something like bhan-ya ca-ow-da, this sauce is a deeply rooted winter tradition in the Langhe, a hilly part of Northern Italy’s Piemonte region best known as the home of Nebbiolo wines like Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Dolcetto. Translated literally as “hot bath,” the iconic sauce (at its simplest) is an amalgam of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies.
Chastain explains that bagna cauda grew out of the historic trade between landlocked Piemonte (an olive oil production region) and the ports of Liguria to the south, where prized Spanish anchovies arrived by ship.
“Way back in the day, this tradition of melting anchovies and garlic together in olive oil would start in late October–early November and go through the new year and to mid-February. It’s an event in itself. People gather at their homes around a terra-cotta pot that’s heated from underneath by a candle and dip vegetables and other things into it.”
When bagna cauda is served at a restaurant, it might be used as a sauce over a simple contorno (vegetable side dish) of roasted peppers or over roasted peppers stuffed with tuna or anchovy, Chastain says.
As with any dish that enjoys widespread regional practice, each cook makes bagna cauda a little differently and maybe differently each time they make it. Karen Bond, producer of Bondolio Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Winters, says she uses 12 bulbs of garlic (to three cups of olive oil and six ounces of anchovies). She peels and halves the garlic cloves and makes sure to remove the green germ inside. Chastain uses maybe two bulbs to an equivalent amount of olive oil, and he’s inclined to slice the garlic cloves, whereas his chef de cuisine, Massimo Orlando, a native Piemontese, likes to leave the garlic cloves whole. Both Chastain and Orlando are inclined to add sprigs of rosemary to the pot, and Chastain says he might even “rock someone’s world” and shave in some white truffle when he happens to have it. Some cooks will add butter, but everyone agrees with Chastain that butter or no butter, the mixture should be cooked “deathly slow” until the garlic and anchovies dissolve.
Vegetables at the Altar
Cooking the sauce is the first part of the magic. The second is the ritual presentation, for which this writer turns to a book* carried home from a long-ago visit to the Langhe. The multiple authors of Rhythms of the Langhe devote a whole chapter to anchovies and bagna cauda, in which they surmise that sixteenth-century Piemontese peasants invented bagna cauda for their post-harvest celebrations nearly “out of spite” for the nobles, who were feasting on “roast flesh glazed with sugar and scented with violet and rose essence.” Thumbing their noses, the peasants made a hot dipping sauce using their own most precious (yet basic) treasures from the garden and from trade: garlic, olive oil, and anchovies.
The peasants might hold their bagna cauda ritual in an ancient wine cellar “hewn in the tufa and lit by dim light of candles stuck in the collars of old bottles,” where they would bedeck a large table “tantamount to a sacrificial altar” with even more treasures of their fields:
Tender raw cardoons, glistening celery, finely veined cabbage leaves, munchy fleshy peppers, firm Jerusalem artichokes with their round nipples, slithery baked onion, tumid violet beetroot, cauliflower, boiled but not soggy, and a few simple boiled potatoes.
Holding a loaf of their peasant bread up as if “for sacrifice between hand and chest,” they would bless the feast. Then, as the bagna cauda bubbled away, giving off its alluring aromas, everyone would be lured to hit the Barbera and Dolcetto. The dipping of vegetables into the bagna cauda would proceed at a relaxed pace as the wine bottles were passed around and polite small talk turned to ribald storytelling.
Olive grower and miller Karen Bond would not think to pass the olive harvest season without making bagna cauda. Her recipe is much like Peter Chastain’s on page 35, but she adds a telltale comment: “I like to use the leftover bagna cauda to dress scrambled eggs.” In fact, this is like the “final rite within the rite” of bagna cauda, which is to fry a farm-fresh egg in the hot leftover sauce.
Oh, and we are not done. There are yet two more final rites: One is to quaff a bowl of hot beef broth, and the last is to enjoy a simple and rustic dessert of pears stewed in wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves. As Fredrico Francchi once said, “A meal is not about what you eat, but how you eat what you have.” ´
Via del Corso | 1788 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley | 510.704.8004 | viadelcorso.net
Bondolio | bondolio.com
*The Rhythms of the Langhe: The pictures, wines, produce, and recipes of a noble, generous area of Italy, published by Araba Fenice, 2002