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I may be one of the more retrogressive sort of chefs around but even I have little interest in reviving the fondue. I like the idea of interactive cooking but have never found the result, whether it is chunks of bread in molten cheese or cubes of beef dipped in not-quite-hot-enough oil, especially appetising. Despite this, I have acquired the equipment: since the world’s biggest retailer could not oblige me with a bagna càuda set, a little fondue kit seemed the closest equivalent.
I was put in mind of bagna càuda – “hot bath” in Piedmontese – while in Marseille for the FT a couple of years ago. The photographer Andy Sewell and I were on the terrace of a rather unprepossessing restaurant overlooking a calanque (Mediterranean fiord) – and we were told pretty much what we were going to eat. A bowl of crudités arrived. Beside it was a bowl of anchoïade, a pungent mixture of pounded anchovies, lemon juice, breadcrumbs and olive oil. Hungry after a swim and refreshed with the dry aromatics of the local white wine from Cassis, I felt vegetables had never tasted better.
Bagna càuda is a dish of crudités by any other name. The idea of crudités inspires fear and loathing in the hearts of the greedy and sybaritic but bagna càuda’s merit is that it combines virtue and wickedness in equal measure. I first encountered the beguiling combination of olive oil and butter in Elizabeth David’s recipe for Piedmontese peppers. There, a dot of butter is placed in each section of pepper alongside an anchovy fillet, a leaf of basil and a slice of tomato, then baked with a good dousing of olive oil. Dunking a piece of bread in the juices thus created is a serious pleasure. There is a similar recipe in Ada Boni’s Talisman Italian Cook Book.
This is a better-at-home dish. Many restaurants serve a bagna càuda sauce, usually with cooked rather than raw vegetables. It can be very good but it lacks the transformative excitement of a pot of sauce simmering – well, murmuring, perhaps – in the middle of the table and the communality of the occasion thus engendered. Not retro exactly, but a little old-fashioned.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
A fondue set is helpful in keeping the sauce hot but is not essential. If you have fresh truffles, a few slices can be added to the mixture. Some people also put in cream in addition to the oil and butter. I am indebted to that wise old bird, Antonio Carluccio, for the trick of softening the garlic in milk beforehand. Bagna càuda can serve a large crowd, sitting or standing.
A selection from: six baby artichokes, one large cardoon, six carrots, one cauliflower, one stick celery, three chicory leaves, two heads of fennel, four red peppers, one bunch of radishes and one head of romanesco
For the sauce
8 cloves garlic
8 anchovy fillets
150ml olive oil
● Wash and peel all the vegetables, trimming them neatly, removing any stringy fibres and cutting them into long strips for easy dipping. Peel the bases of the artichokes (if using), rub them copiously with lemon and split them lengthwise. Scoop out the little chokes, rinse them and coat them generously with lemon juice after splitting them again lengthwise. Arrange the vegetables attractively on a platter.
● Peel the garlic and cut the cloves in half, removing any green shoots if present. Cover these in milk and stew on a very low temperature for at least half an hour until the garlic is soft and can be mashed into the milk. Add the anchovies and stew these in turn until they too begin to dissolve. Add the butter and continue to cook, whisking occasionally to amalgamate the mixture. Finally, whisk in the olive oil. Transfer the pot to a table burner and serve with the vegetables and some bread.
Rowley’s drinking choice
Aromatic whites from Piedmont have a complementary viscosity that copes well with the high-octane mixture of oil and butter. Arneis is particular to the region and can be very fine.
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