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.
Fontina cheese, barolo wine, grissini — all products from Piedmont, Italy that are as ubiquitous here in the U.S. as pierogi in Poland or chopsticks in China. But this drink – bicerin (pronounced bee-cheh-REEN – and roll that “r”) – synonymous with the city of Torino – is rarely found here in the states or even in other places in Italy. I’m not sure why because it’s an unforgettable concoction that combines two items that most people crave – coffee and chocolate. On my trip to Torino this fall, I reacquainted myself with this frothy delight.
It’s served all over the city, but originated (there’s some debate about this) at Al Bicerin, a cafe whose origins date back to 1763. Many notables throughout history have crossed the threshold of this cafe, including Alexandra Dumas, Friedrich Nietzsche and Giacomo Puccini, (who for a while lived in an artist’s garret a short distance away, the inspiration for his opera ‘La Boheme’). There are other historic cafes in Torino to enjoy a bicerin, but to skip a pilgrimage to where it arguably all began would be like missing out on a piece of history.
It’s cozy inside, with wood-paneled walls and fewer than ten small tables, so don’t be surprised if you have to wait outside for a short while.
You won’t regret the wait, when this warm, luscious, layered delight arrives at your table in a clear goblet. The name “bicerin” comes from the Piemontese dialect meaning “small glass.” Each one is made to order, hand whipped the old-fashioned way with whipped cream on top.
If you do find yourself in Torino, don’t miss this wonderful drink at Al Bicerin, located in the Piazza della Consolata. While you’re at it, make sure to visit the Sanctuary of the Consolata, directly across from the cafe. It’s a masterpiece of Baroque art and architecture and the spiritual heart of the city.
But even if you can’t get to Torino, you can still enjoy a Bicerin in your own home with this recipe.
excerpt from the book “Romancing The Vine: Life, Love and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo” by Alan Tardi
“The recipe, according to the padrona, is ridiculously simple:
‘Take one cup of the very best hot chocolate you can find, mix it with one demitasse of the very best espresso (our private blend is 100 percent arabica and ground for us especially) and scoop a healthy dollop of fresh whipped cream on top. Serve it in a glass. Et voilà.’ ”
Enough with the macarons, the tarte tatin and the tapenade. It’s time for me to get back to Italy, and I did just that in late October and early November. Immediately following my trip to France, I took a train to Torino (Turin) to revisit one of my favorite Italian cities and spend some time in the exquisitely beautiful countryside of Piedmont, where this picture was taken. I have plenty of posts and enticing recipes for you from the region, but I’ll start with a very brief intro to Piedmont’s largest city, Torino – and finish with some photos from the Salone Del Gusto, a humongous food event held every two years.
The photo below is the Mole Antonelliana, an iconic symbol of this city in Northwest Italy that’s often overlooked by tourists. Too bad, because Torino, the capital of Italy for the first four years of its unification in 1861, holds many delights for the tourist, including elegant palaces, a myriad of museums, and some of the best food and wine in all of Italy. The mole Antonelliana was originally conceived as a synagogue, but today it houses an engaging museum of cinema.
The royal palace, below, was used as a residence for Italy’s rulers from the 1500s until the 19th century, including King Victor Emanuele II, leader of the House of Savoy.
The huge piazza was the site of nightly concerts and awards ceremonies for the 2006 winter olympics. During the games, I worked for the city’s daily newspaper La Stampa, and would occasionally leave my job early enough to hear performers like Ennio Morricone here in Piazza Castello. For those of you who aren’t Italian, you would certainly recognize Morricone from the many film scores he composed, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, and Cinema Paradiso. He’s considered a national treasure in Italy.
The building in the next photo is called the Palazzo Madama, and is so named because in the 17th century, it was chosen as the favorite residence by Maria Cristina of France, the widow of Victor Amedeus I. It was closed to the public for many years, but it’s now a museum where you can see beautiful works of art, from mosaics to ceramics to exquisite paintings.
Just in case those two palaces didn’t suit them, the Savoy family had Stupinigi built in the 18th century, a “hunting lodge” about 15 minutes by car from the city.
Back in Torino, you can feel like a royal at one of the many elegant cafes in town, including this one — Baratti & Milano, where the waiters are spiffily dressed.
But even if you’re not a king or even a duke, the warmth exuded by people in the city can make you feel like royalty, including this couple — Maurizio Tassinari and Iva Battistello, who own a wonderful food shop called Sapori. They invited me into their kitchen to watch fresh pasta being made, then served me plateful after plateful, even opening a bottle of wine for me to wash it down with.
Aside from the memorable meals I ate in restaurants in the city, I had my fill of wonderful food and wines at the biennial Salone del Gusto. This year, the Salone was held in conjunction with Terra Madre, another food extravaganza that brings in food producers from other parts of the world. The combined event, with more than 1,000 exhibitors from 100 countries, was held for five days in the Lingotto, the former Fiat factory, and you could easily take that long to see it all. Imagine the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City multiplied by four.
Here’s a little slide show to give you a taste of what I saw, ate and drank during the 11 hours I spent there:
And since we were walking distance of this place –
the food emporium that started in Torino, my friend Lilli and I had to stroll over, peruse the aisles and finish the day with a pizza or two.
In the days ahead, I’ll be posting more entries from Torino and Le Langhe, including recipes of some of the delicious meals I ate. But the next post will be a detour to Sicily – for the newest menu addition to my traditional “feast of the seven fishes” Christmas eve dinner. Go out buy some Italian pine nuts now – just sayin’.