The recipe sits there, with no preamble, in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, published in 1954. It is a simple and eloquent recipe and the dish is a favourite among many cooks of my generation. It is called “Peperoni alla Piedmontese”, a solecism, as the “d” dropped out of the Italian some centuries before. The “d” had a perfectly sound reason for being there: the area was the “pedemonte”, the foot of the mountains. Anyone who has stood in a Piedmontese vineyard and stared up at the snow-covered peaks of the Alps will happily attest to how well deserved the name is.
Although I have not seen it cooked, I have found an Italian version of Piedmontese peppers in my bible on such matters, Anna Gosetti’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane. Her Antipasti di Peperoni is recipe number two in that book and is much the same as David’s: the enticing mix of butter and olive oil is there but, crucially, the tomatoes are not. This is hardly surprising since tomatoes feature so little in northern Italian cooking. I did suspect David just thought they would be rather nice and I think she is right.
I have found an interesting variation on the theme in that other vade mecum of Italian cooking, Ada Boni’s Italian Regional Cooking. There, the peppers are seared and blistered over a hot flame and peeled (always put them in a sealed bag for 20 minutes before peeling), then cut into thick strips and laid in a serving dish. The peppers are then covered with peeled and sliced tomatoes, anchovy fillets and sliced garlic then coated with bagna cauda sauce, another example of the naughty butter and oil combination. I append the recipe for the sauce. It may lack the elegance of the first recipe but it is even more indulgent.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
I generally prefer red peppers for this (and most other) recipes but the sweet yellow variety also work well. The green tend not to be fleshy enough – or flavoursome enough – to merit the treatment. Serves six.
6 red peppers
4 cloves garlic
12 anchovy fillets
100g unsalted butter
24 leaves of basil
8 large plum tomatoes
● Cut the peppers along the slight indentations and around the core to produce four natural segments or little barquettes (boats). Remove the small traces of pith and shake out any remaining seeds. Place the peppers skin side down and fairly well packed together in a shallow oven dish. Slice the garlic into very fine slivers and place in the bottom of the peppers and cover with half an anchovy fillet per pepper. Cut the butter into little cubes and distribute evenly in the boats. Add a leaf of basil to each pepper.
● Peel the tomatoes by plunging into boiling water for 15 seconds and refreshing in cold. Slice into rounds or semi-circles, depending on the size of the peppers. Place these slices in the boats on top of the anchovies, garlic and butter. Season them with milled pepper and a touch of sea salt and drizzle a little olive oil over each pepper. Bake in a moderate oven (200C) for about half an hour, or until the peppers have softened. Serve lukewarm with plenty of bread to mop up the juices.
Traditionally, bagna cauda (hot bath) was a dip for raw vegetables, very popular in Piedmont, and giving the lie to the idea that Italians never eat vegetables. Ada Boni recommends adding some finely sliced white truffle when the sauce is finished. If you are lucky enough to have a little white truffle, it’s a very good idea. Truffles and garlic work beautifully together. In Umbria, summer truffles are frequently stewed with garlic and anchovies as a sauce for meat.
125g unsalted butter
60ml olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
6 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
● Gently heat the butter and olive oil together in a small but heavy pan and then add the chopped garlic. Stew gently for a few minutes without letting the garlic brown at all.
● Allow to cool a little before adding the chopped anchovies. Return to a gentle heat and stir until the anchovies have dissolved into a paste. Remove from the heat and serve.
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