There is a love/hate relationship between garlic and Italian cooking. Many foreigners are surprised when I claim that the equation Italian food = garlic is just plain wrong; not that there is anything wrong with garlic, but abroad I have seen (and eaten, unfortunately) dishes called ‘Italian’, where the Italian touch was simply adding an inordinate amount of garlic. It is true that the most part of typical Italian recipes contains some garlic, but there are huge differences in quantity and preparation methods, and in most recipes garlic is a soft whisper.
To give you an example, I was brought up by being a garlic hater. One of the worst comment my father can do about food is: ‘e’ impestato d’aglio’, loosely translated as ‘it is plagued with garlic’. However garlic was not banned from our home cooking, far from it: it was one of the staple ingredients. Garlic cloves, peeled, were gently heated in oil until they released their fragrance, and then removed. With the years my attitude has changed. I love garlic and I eat much more of it, but I have become much more picky towards it. Most international ‘Italian’ food will contain loads of garlic, and taste of barely anything else. Horrible. My rule of thumb when it comes to eating garlic is this one: it is ok to smell of garlic afterwards, with moderation; but it should not overwhelm the food you are tasting and above all, it should not be in any way bitter, sour or rancid. Most dishes where garlic gets fried are too heavy for my taste, including the ones my parents prepare. I prefer to add it raw in very small quantities, or make it cook in the sauce, after adding some liquid ingredients, not just fat. I don’t mind mashing and eating it. Actually what converted me to call myself a proud garlic eater is hummus, where the addition of some garlic really brings the dish to another dimension. What would happen to pappa al pomodoro if you removed garlic from it? Or could you ever consider eating escargots without garlic? (yes you can: I had wonderful ones in a tomato, bacon and hot chilli sauce in Bilbao, but this is a different story).
So, in my new role of garlic eater, I had to try it all. The quintessential, ultimate treat for garlic lovers in Italy is bagna cauda. The name translates into hot dip, typical of a region lying at the borders with France, Piemonte. Every time we have discussions about what is the best regional food in Italy, Piemonte always ends up in the finals (I know, I have weird discussions quite regularly). Piemonte cooking is traditional, showing heavy french influences, and definitely less mediterranean than other parts of Italy: cheeses are to die for, food is often cooked in butter or contains cream, and the desserts have a high degree of refinement which is unusual for most regional Italian food. There are Italian touches of course. The art of fresh pasta reaches some of the highest highs there, in the form of ravioli filled with meat (braised or roasted, usually containing beef, while in other regions it is more often pork) and whisper thin tagliolini. The typical meal starts with an astounding selection of ‘antipasti’, starters, in a quite mediterranean fashion (mezze, anyone?), showing off the best of the best of what the vegetable plot offers in season: vegetables filled with other vegetables or meat, frittate prepared with eggs, herbs and vegetables, all kind of sformati (a clear adaptation of souffle’), and some of the best pickles and cold vegetables ever (I still remember a dish of cold fried zucchini, still crunchy, marinated with fresh sage, garlic and a little vinegar: heavenly). The most classical way to move forward is with a fritto misto, a monumental dish offering everything coated in breadcrumbs and fried, from all kind and types of meat, to apples, amaretti, semolina cream, vegetables… A huge tray covered with hot morsels, with the surprise of biting into one and finding all different degrees of sweetness and savoury. And in case you still had room, bonet, a pudding with amaretti and cocoa, is one of the best puddings ever; the selection of petite patisserie is usually amazing, with little bites of choux, petit fours, amaretti, brutti e buoni (hazelnut rustic macarons)…
The quintessential contribution from this inventive, refined and elegant cooking to the garlic lovers world is bagna cauda. A dip, a condiment with such a strong personality that to enjoy it, you should pair it only with the lightest vegetables. The ingredients are carried from neighbouring Liguria: olive oil, anchovies and garlic. The hot sauce is carried above a small flame on the table, for everybody to dip in it. Seasonal vegetables are served alongside: the most refined delicacy is cardoon, a particular variety called ‘cardo gobbo‘, which is grown underground, white and sweet and crunchy when eaten raw. It is one of the most delicious vegetables ever, but it is quite difficult to find outside Piemonte, or outside November – December period. Other vegetables are a good match; some people dress fresh pasta with it as well.
The authentic recipe is quite rustic. The recipe I give here is a modern, more gentle version that cooks the garlic in milk to softness. You will smell a little the day after, but you won’t kill anyone with your breath, I promise. It was actually much more gentle than what I feared before preparing it, under the supervision of an authentic piemontese friend. I served it with all the vegetables I could find, raw, boiled and roasted: my favourites were roasted beetroot and peppers, and raw cauliflower. We had lots of fun: it was an informal evening, everybody passing around huge, feisty trays bursting with vegetables, and fighting to get a spoonful of bagna cauda. I was quite wary that people would not like the strongly flavoured dip, so I prepared two different ones as well. They were left untouched. We even ventured in the last, truly hard core step: mix an egg in the last few remainings of bagna cauda, let it cook slightly over the thin flame, and eat it. Surprisingly everybody seemed to love bagna cauda, even if they are not Italians and no adventurous eaters. This dip has potential for export.
A note on the equipment: you should keep bagna cauda hot while you eat it. To this end the professionals have little terracotta pots with some space for a candle underneath, that can go on the table and keep the sauce warm while eating. Any equipment for fondue/bourguignon can act as substitute. I had none so I had to use my brains🙂 I took a metal basket to steam vegetables, raised its feet using some metal pastry forms, and stuck a few small candles underneath. I put the sauce in a pot that will resist the direct flame, placed it on the steaming basket, and there you go. Perfect!
A note on ingredients: there is a lot of garlic. The amount will make your eyes bulge. We are talking one head garlic per person. Yes. Believe me, you don’t want to cut it. Actually, the recipe is not difficult, but peeling and removing the central part of the garlic cloves is a real chore, and also the most stinky part. If you have very sensitive skin, use latex gloves when peeling the garlic, as it irritates the skin a bit and definitely leaves a lot of smell on the fingers. Then there is a lot of olive oil, and a lot of anchovies. How much really depends on you and the ingredients you have at hand. The sauce should be salty but not overly so, and greasy but not overly so. For the anchovies, the tradition calls for the ones preserved in salt. Unfortunately I could not find them, and anyway, they might be too salty. My advice is to start with a moderate amount, taste, and add more in case.
For the vegetables, you can pretty much choose what you like, have at hand and is in season. I am reporting what I used to give you an idea of the amount of vegetables six persons can eat when there is nothing else to be eaten..
Bagna cauda (serves 6 as a main course dip)
1 liter milk
5-6 garlic heads, depending on size (don’t be shy on this one)
100 ml olive oil, possibly more
160 gr anchovies (see note above)
Selection of vegetables: I used
3 bell peppers, roasted in oven and peeled
2 zucchini, sliced and roasted in oven
3 beetroots, wrapped in aluminium foil, roasted in oven, peeled and quartered
6 boiled potatoes, skin on
1 steamed leek
1/2 head steamed broccoli florets
1/2 head steamed cauliflower floret
1/2 head raw cauliflower floret
1 raw bell pepper
1 heart savoy cabbage, raw, finely chopped
2 carrots, raw, peeled and cut into matchstick
Peel the garlic cloves, halve them and take out the inner part. Bring the milk and garlic to the boil in a small pan, then lower the heat and let it simmer for at least 40 minutes. The garlic will turn soft and you should be able to mash it with a fork, with a little effort. Meanwhile you can organize the vegetables as you like.
Heat the oil on a large pan, add the anchovies to them and allow them to melt by stirring constantly. Don’t allow them to burn. Remove the garlic from the milk (keep the milk!) and mash it all roughly with a fork.
Add the garlic to the oil and anchovies mix; mix well then add a little milk. Allow the mixture to cook for about five minutes, stirring, then taste it. Add more milk if you want a softer and sweeter flavour and cook until it thickens again. I ended up adding all the milk. If the sauce seems not greasy enough and too salty add some more olive oil, if you like a more pronounced anchovy taste add more anchovies and allow them to dissolve completely. The bagna cauda is ready when you are happy with the flavour, which should at any rate be a strong one, and the saltness of it. It should have a runny creamy consistency and a light grey colour. Serve it piping hot above a small flame to keep it boiling, or bring in small quantities to the table while keeping the bulk hot.
Eat with bread and vegetables. When about one tablespoonful is left on the pot, if you are brave you can cook an egg in it and eat it.