If there’s one dish that’s typical of Italy’s Piedmont region, it’s bagna cauda, sometimes spelled “caôda.” Although bagna means “bath” in the Italian language, in the Piemontese dialect, it means sauce; hence bagna caudo translates to “warm sauce.” Along with a glass or two of wine, it’s the perfect way to warm up during the cold winter months. The origins of the dish are a mystery, but it was traditionally served by winemakers in the late Middle ages after they poured their wine into barrels. It remained as “cucina povera” or “peasant food” for a long time, but nowadays, restaurants all over Piedmont include this on their menus, including Antica Bruschetteria Pautasso in Torino, where I recently ate this lusty dish. It arrives at the table with two earthenware bowls — one with a candle below that helps keep it at just the right temperature, as you ladle more in from the crock in which it’s cooked.
The basic ingredients are olive oil, anchovies, garlic and butter, while some versions add milk or cream as well. If you’re feeling really decadent and your pocketbook allows, you can shave some truffles on top. In that case, you’ve surely elevated it above cucina povera. Gather your friends around the table since it’s a dish to enjoy with others before the main course, or just as an excuse to sit together and talk. Serve with crisp, raw vegetables, such as fennel, carrots, celery, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and wedges of cabbage.
If you do find yourself at Antica Bruschetteria Pautasso in Torino, order the bagna cauda, and a dish of tajarin (Piemontese dialect for taglierini pasta) made with sausage and leeks. Just looking at the photo makes me long to be back in Torino.
3/4 cup olive oil
3 T. butter
2 tsp. finely chopped garlic
8 to 10 flat anchovy fillets, chopped
1 tsp. salt
1. Heat oil and butter in a pot over medium-high heat until butter is thoroughly liquified and barely begins to foam. (Don’t wait for the foam to subside or the butter will be too hot.) Add the garlic and sauté very briefly. It must not take on any color. Add the anchovies and cook over very low heat, stirring frequently, until the anchovies dissolve into a paste. Add the salt, stir, and bring to the table along with raw vegetables.
Have you ever eaten stuffed onions baked in their skin? Me either. I would never have thought to bake it this way – covered in a salt crust, then emptied out and filled with a mixture of ground beef, chopped onion and oozing raschera, a local cheese from Italy’s Piedmont region. I ate this, along with other truly memorable dishes, at a restaurant called Osteria Battaglino, a small family owned place in Le Langhe, an area in Piedmont south of Torino. Le Langhe is noted for its big Barolo wines, wonderful cheeses and renowned truffles, all of which I consumed whenever I could on my trip this fall.
The rolling hills and vine-covered landscape of Le Langhe makes driving a real stop and go experience. It was hard to resist the temptation to halt and take photos at every bend in the road. On the way to Dogliani, the town where the restaurant is located, this is the kind of scenery I drove by.
Dogliani itself is not on the typical tourist itinerary, but its streets do hold some charm.
I’m drawn to colorfully painted houses.
Back here in New Jersey, salmon or mustard-colored exterior walls would look decidedly out of place, but in Italy, they’re ubiquitous and they’re beautiful.
I had one purpose in stopping in Dogliani — and that was to have lunch at Osteria Battaglino, owned by Marco Battaglino and Flavia Bergamo. I had read about the restaurant in National Geographic Traveler, and the writer mentioned that the food was so good, that if this restaurant were in a city like New York, people would be waiting for weeks to get a reservation. She wasn’t kidding. Everything was exquisite and the service was friendly and fabulous.
At one point when I was tasting the wine, Flavia said “If you don’t like it, you can complain to the owner of the vineyard,” who was sitting at a nearby table. No complaints were necessary.
There were no complaints about any of the food either, including the baked onion in the first photo and the little amuse bouche of roasted yellow peppers and anchovies presented in a tiny jar.
Here’s one of the primi piatti I tried: tajarin – a specialty of Le Langhe – a rich dough made with flour and egg yolks and similar to tagliatelle, only thinner. Since it was the season for fresh porcini mushrooms, they were ubiquitous on the menu and plentiful in this plate.
I don’t know what I loved more – the tajarin or this delicate and ethereal dish of porcini mushrooms and squash gnocchi that practically melted in your mouth:
I ordered roast veal as a main course. It was so well braised and tender, I didn’t even need a knife.
I shouldn’t have, but I did. Order dessert, that is. Hey, it was fruit, so calories don’t count, right? This perfectly poached pear teamed well with the warm zabaglione puddled beneath it and the drizzle of sauce made from a wine reduction.
Maybe you can’t get to Osteria Battaglino in Le Langhe, but you can certainly make the onion dish I ate. Chef Marco generously sent me the recipe, printed below in both English and Italian.
If you still needed some encouragement to travel to Le Langhe, here are a few more photos of the beautiful countryside and the fabulous food I ate there:
gnocchi with raschera cheese in the town of Bra, where the Slow Food movement began:
meat-filled plin, another specialty of the region, (similar to ravioli) at Leon D’Oro in Canale:
Risotto with white truffles:
The terra cotta roofs of La Morra:
And the hand colored etching I bought from the artist Pierflavio Gallina, with the beautiful words of Piedmont writer Cesare Pavese written in Italian at the bottom of the artwork.
The words are from “La Luna E I Falo,” a book I read decades ago, and they have stayed with me since:
“Un paese vuol dire non essere soli, sapere che nella gente, nelle piante, nella terra c’è qualcosa di tuo e che anche quando non ci sei, resta ad aspettarti.”
“A home town means never having to feel alone, knowing that in the people, in the plants, in the earth, there is always something of you, and that even when you’re not there, it’s there waiting for you.”
Stuffed onions is a simple dish, although it takes a bit of work.
Use a white or yellow onion and place it in a oven-safe pan. Cover it completely with large grain salt (like Kosher salt, but it’s also very good with a pinkish salt). Let it cook at about 400 degrees fahrenheit for about an hour and a half. Break the salt crust and extract the onions, then slide off a quarter of the onion at the top, horizontally. Use a spoon to partially scoop out the interior.
At this point, mince the onion that you have extracted from the interior, a small amount of ground beef (or sausage) that has been sautéed in a pan with garlic, rosemary and thyme. If you like, you can also add a touch of curry powder.
Fill the onion at least half way with this mixture and add some cubes of a good melting cheese. If you can find raschera cheese, that’s what was used at the restaurant. If not, something like Muenster cheese would be a good substitute. Put it back in the oven for about 10 to 12 minutes at 400 degrees until the cheese is melted and slightly browned on top.
Serve, with some of the salt used in cooking sprinkled around the plate. Marco used a black salt.
La cipolla ripiena è un piatto semplice anche se
richiede un po di lavoro…
Prendi alcune cipolle bionde e le metti in una
teglia da forno completamente coperte di sale grosso, qualsiasi tipo di sale,
molto buona con il sale rosa, e le fai cuocere a 200 gradi centigradi per un ora
e mezza circa.
Rompi la crosta di sale e tiri fuori le cipolle, le tagli come
nella foto a tre quarti della loro altezza e le svuoti con un cucchiaino
A questo punto fai un trito con la cipolla che hai
estratto, un pò di carne macinata che hai precedentemente rosolato in padella
con aglio e rosmarino, e del timo di montagna…a piacere può anche andar bene
una punta di curry.
Riempi la cipolla per meno di metà con questo trito
e fino all’orlo con dei cubetti di formaggio dolce e fresco…raschera, bra
tenero o altri simili…a questo punto non ti resta che farle gratinare in forno
a 200 gradi per una decina di minuti e mangiarle…
È importante che nel piatto
assieme alle cipolle ci sia anche un po del sale di cottura.