a community of wine lovers

Bagna cauda and the new Dolcetto

bagna cauda

Sometimes a food and wine combination is not just a marvellous match, it is intrinsically linked to the rhythm of the seasons or to a particular and precise moment of the year. Such is the enjoyment of bagna cauda and the new Dolcetto, especially if you happen to be visiting a winemaker in Piedmont’s Le Langhe not long after the grape harvest.

For Mario and Luisa Fontana, wine producers at Cascina Fontana in the wine hills of Barolo, near Alba, the enjoyment of this special food is very much linked to the rhythm of the seasons, to the completion of the harvest, to finding time to enjoy this most convivial of all meals, once the harvest is done, around the table in the company of family and friends.

bagna cauda Cascina Fontana

Here the harvest begins in early September, when Mario first brings in the Dolcetto grapes, the earliest ripening and always the first to be picked. The grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and pumped into the stainless fermentation vats where the first, tumultuous fermentation takes place. During this period, the work is almost non-stop: in addition to numerous other tasks, Mario undertakes the rimontaggio three times a day, pumping the grape must from the bottom of each vat back up to the top to keep the vinacce – the mass of skins and other solid matter – drenched with wine. This laborious process is essential to making modern, supple wines that have colour, the requisite amount tannin, and the complex flavours and aromas that come from extraction from the grape skins.

Soon after the Dolcetto, the Barbera grapes are ready to be harvested, and the process begins all over again, sometimes overlapping with the former. And finally, last but most certainly not least, the aristocratic Nebbiolo grapes are brought in to the wine cantina, usually towards the end of October, sometimes as late as early November. Once again, the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed, the process of fermentation starts, and the arduous steps involved in winemaking begin yet again, in this case to result, eventually some years later, in Barolo, one of the great wines of the world.

By the end of this period of intense work, the winemakers are exhausted but satisfied. For Mario, the completion of the harvest and the winemaking marks the end of a year’s labour. There is always a great sense of relief that the grapes have all been harvested, and the wines are now safely in the cantina, working slowly away, mainly of their own accord. A year’s toil has been completed: an exhausting annual period of intensive work is over: whether the year has been great or merely good, at this point, there is little more that can be done.

By the time the Nebbiolo grapes are finally in the cantina, the early harvested Dolcetto grapes have completed their first, primary fermentation. Though still raw, rich in acid and slightly frizzante, this new wine is just about ready to be drunk and to be enjoyed, at least if you are in the home of a winegrower.

It is in this context that the eating of bagna cauda takes on special significance. The enjoyment of this pungent anchovy and garlic hot pot, used as a dip for any number of raw and cooked vegetables from the region, represents a meal of conviviality, family and friendship. It celebrates the end of the harvest and winemaking period, and anticipates the new year to come, with a taste of the first, barely finished Dolcetto. Indeed, the enjoyment of bagna cauda and the new Dolcetto is an annual winegrowers’ ritual that is always eagerly looked forward to, not least because afterwards, after the frenzy and labour of the harvest, this most leisurely of meals marks a pause in the annual rhythms of the seasons, a rare moment in the winegrowers’ year to relax.

This October, we are fortunate to be in Barolo and to visit Mario and Luisa at precisely this significant moment of the year.

Bagna cauda is a traditional dish of Piedmont, and everyone seems to have their own precise way to make it. According to Luisa, the preparation of bagna cauda is “semplice”. Yet sublime simplicity, we all know too well, is not always easy to achieve. Witness the care with which Luisa makes this special dish. The bagna cauda itself is made from salted anchovies that Luisa purchases from Alba’s market, “neither too big nor too small but carnosa – full of flesh”. The anchovies are then carefully soaked in a mixture of water and wine to remove some of the salt, and then they are carefully picked over by hand to remove any bones or insides.

bagna cauda

For each 50g of anchovies, an incredible whole head of new garlic is used. Luisa first peels the garlic, then cuts each clove in half to remove the green core, then cooks the garlic gently in water and vinegar until soft (but not too soft). This process takes the fire out of the garlic and means that you can speak to people the next day without knocking them over with bagna cauda garlic breath. For the quantities of garlic used are by no means inconsiderable! For this year’s communal family feast, for example, Luisa makes the bagna cauda with a whole kilogram of anchovies. Thus she requires 20 whole heads of garlic!

The mountain of prepared garlic and the anchovies are added to a large pot, and then Luisa covers the mix with good extra virgin olive oil. She then cooks this mixture very gently over a low flame – the oil must never boil or the mix would fry – stirring all the while to amalgamate the anchovies and garlic, which break up and form a deliciously pungent, oily paste. Some in the regions, if the anchovies are very salty, might add a little tomato purée or even perhaps a dollop or so of cream. But Luisa prefers to keep this dish as simple and as pure as possible: the classic and faithful preparation of bagna cauda in Le Langhe, “come una volta, come sempre”.

Meanwhile the vegetables are prepared. Autumn is the best time of year for bagna cauda not only because of the new wine, but also because it is a great time of year for vegetables. Once again, the rich territory of Le Langhe yields a bounteous harvest: meaty, sweet red and yellow peperoni di Carmagnola, the peppers both cut up in wedges to eat raw as well as roasted in the oven; cardo gobbo di Nizza Monferrato, the remarkable white ‘hunchback’ cardoon that is a protected product, prepared to eat raw and also boiled; there are meaty tomatoes; slices of raw cabbage; sticks of celery and wedges of fennel; Jerusalem artichokes; roasted beetroot; new potatoes, boiled and cut into chunks; tiny onions; bitter chicory, and more, an overflowing cornucopia of whatever is best at Alba’s sprawling outdoor market.

The day of our happy communal feast is in late October. It is warm and we eat outside on the terrazza that Mario has built above the wine cantina. First he takes me downstairs to the cellar and I watch as he draws the new Dolcetto directly from the stainless steel fermentation vat into jugs. While in the cellar, we of course have to sample: wonderful, yeasty, frothing, our first taste of this year’s new wine!

After some antipasti of salami and lardo, we enjoy a magnificent dish of carne crudo all’albese, raw chopped Fassone vitellone mixed with lemon juice and olive oil. Mario goes around the table, giving generous shavings of tartufo bianco, to each of us. The fresh, raw beef is amazing in combination with the heady and pungent aroma of the white truffle.
At last, we move on to the main course, the eagerly awaited bagna cauda. Individual pots with little burners are lit and Luisa fills them with the darkly concentrated mixture. We pile our plates high with the wonderful array of vegetables. And we dip these into our individual pots of bagna cauda – a crunchy, sweet, meaty wedge of peperoni di Carmagnola, a bitter piece of cardo gobbo filled with scoops of the pungent sauce, a juicy bite of tomato. It is delicious, and we feast with hunger and pleasure (the anchovy-garlic-and-oil mixture dribbling down our chins) and wash this delicious repast down with Mario’s new Dolcetto wine.

carne cruda

And what wine! The colour is stainingly vivid and deep purple, and the nose displays intense fruit combined with the heady aromas of fermentation. Because the tumultuous or alcoholic fermentation has only just completed and the secondary malolactic fermentation has not yet taken place, the acidity of the wine is high and very pronounced. This is essential, for the razor sharp wine cuts through the oil and the richness of the bagna cauda, and so makes this pungent feast digestible, washing down not only this ample repast but also the cares and worries of all the past weeks of toil.

“Bagna cauda,” says Mario with great satisfaction, taking a long sip of his own new wine,  “is good to eat all through the winter. But for us winegrowers, it is really very best at this moment of the year, after the harvest, and with the first of the new Dolcetto.”

Replete, satisfied and feeling very pleased and privileged to have joined in this annual communal feast, we heartily agree.


Copyright Marc Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved
Images copyright Kim Millon 2005-2009 All rights reserved

Quay Press