Food and wine writer Marc Millon recounts a memorable celebration of the new vintage last week with his Piemontese winemaker friends
Sometimes a food and wine match is not just the perfect abbinamento – that wonderful Italian word that can signify a match made in heaven – it is also linked to a fleeting and particular moment or time of year. Such is the enjoyment of bagna cauda and the new Dolcetto, especially if you happen to be visiting a winemaker in 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.
Here the harvest begins in early to mid-September, when Mario first brings in the Dolcetto grapes, the earliest ripening and always the first to be picked. The grapes are destemmed, 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, tannin and 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
By the end of this process, the winemakers are exhausted but satisfied. For Mario, the completion of this period marks the end of a year’s labours. There is always great relief that the grapes have all been harvested, and the wines are now safely in the cantina, working away. 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.
It is in this context that the eating of bagna cauda takes on special significance. Above all, this pungent anchovy and garlic sauce, used as a dip for any number of raw and cooked vegetables from the region, represents a meal of conviviality, family and friendship. It should always be enjoyed around a large table with lots of people!
This year, we were fortunate, having visited the great Slow Food Salone del Gusto and taken part as delegates in Terra Madre workshops, to be able to visit Mario and Luisa at this important moment of the year.
The preparation of bagna cauda seems incredibly simple. Yet sublime simplicity is not always easy to achieve. 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 soaked in a mixture of water and wine to remove some of the salt, then carefully picked over by hand to remove any bones or insides. For each 50g of anchovies, an incredible whole head of new garlic is used! This is peeled, cut in half to remove the green core, then cooked gently in water and vinegar until the garlic is 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 considerable. For example, this time Luisa made the bagna cauda with a whole kilogram of anchovies to make an immense communal pot: for this amount she thus required 20 whole heads of garlic!
The prepared garlic and the anchovies are added to a large pot, and then she covers the mix with 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 to amalgamate the anchovies and garlic, which break up and form a deliciously pungent, oily paste. If the anchovies are very salty, some might add a little tomato pure or even perhaps a dollop or so of cream. But Luisa prefers to keep this dish very simple, very pure: the classic and faithful preparation of bagna cauda in Le Langhe.
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 land 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 cardoon that is a protected Presidium product, again prepared to eat raw (it can also be boiled); meaty tomatoes; slices of raw cabbage; sticks of celery; 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 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. He goes downstairs to the cellar and draws directly from the stainless steel fermentation vat a huge jug of the new Dolcetto, vividly purple in colour, with an intense fruity aroma mixed with the heady aromas of fermentation: our first taste of this year’s new wine!
After some antipasti of salami, lardo, and a magnificent dish of carne crudo all’albese, raw chopped Fassone vitellone mixed with lemon juice and olive oil, and covered with shavings of tartufo bianco, 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 pungent, darkly concentrated mixture.
We pile our plates high with the wonderful array of vegetables. And we dip these into our pots of bagna cauda – a crunchy, sweet, meaty wedge of peperoni di Carmagnola, a bitter piece of cardo gobbo filled with scoops of the 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.
The fruit of the new wine is exceptional, the colour stainingly vivid and deep purple, and, since the tumultuous fermentation has only just completed and the 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 the past weeks of toil.
“Bagna cauda,” says Mario with great satisfaction, taking a long and satisfied 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.”
Fulvio Siccardi, the renowned one-star Michelin chef and proprietor of Ristorante Conti Roero, agrees. “It is a long time since I have eaten bagna cauda, It is a dish of friendship and it is great with Mario’s new Dolcetto.”
But what about the rest of us who live outside of Le Langhe, the rich land that encompasses Alba, its capital city, and the prestigious zones of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero? Can other wines provide such satisfaction, such a harmonious and perfect food and wine match with this pungent anchovy feast?
Fulvio suggests that, if you are lacking a good Dolcetto d’Alba, then a young Barbera d’Asti can also be excellent. “The acidity is higher in Barbera d’Asti than in Barbera d’Alba, and the wines there are often slightly frizzante. This style can be very good with bagna cauda. Alternatively,” he adds, “I also like bagna cauda with good Champagne. Crr-azy, but it works.”
Mario looks aghast at this heretical suggestion!
Cascina Fontana Dolcetto d'Alba currently sells for £9.50 and is available exclusively from Vino Ltd