I mentioned already how much I love the countryside in November, especially in those regions where olive oil is made. Few things are harvested in November, and olives are one of those, being possibly the most exciting harvest of the year together with the wine grapes harvest.
No other theme seemed more immediate and appropriate than olives (and olive oil) for this month’s Italian Table Talk. The cultivation of olive trees, and therefore the production of olive oil, has an extreme relevance in the understanding of the foundations of Italian cuisine, and their presence or absence in a regional dish says a lot not just about the territory, but about a whole culinary system, so much so that Italy can be divided into “oil regions” and “butter (or even lard) regions”.
Olive oil has been the main cooking fat and source of energies for the Italian regions of the centre/south and of those along the coast, where the climate was mitigated by the influence of the sea. This is, for instance, the case of Liguria, a region of the North-West consisting in a thin strip of land along the Tirreno Sea. Introduced first by Greek and Phoenicians, the cultivation of olive trees has seen a major expansion in the Middle Ages with Benedictine monks, who cultivated olive trees in the form of a local varietal, Taggiasca. Taggiasca olives are small in size and have a delicate flavor, and are still now the main varietal in the Ligurian PDO olive oil.
Exchanges of goods between bordering regions have always been crucial for local populations, especially for those who didn’t have direct access to the sea. Salt, in particular, was a most precious good, utilized for many purposes, but mainly as a preservative. “Salt ways” started from the coast and developed along the inner lands. Little by little, more and more goods started to be transported and exchanged alongside salt, and one of them is olive oil. As a matter of fact, the oil produced in Liguria started to be sold, together with salt and other goods such as preserved fish, to the people of Piedmont, who utilized it in various preparations as an alternative to butter. This is especially true for the Southern part of Piedmont, Langhe, a hilly area which wasn’t high enough to justify big dairy farming, but that could count on the oil coming from the South for cooking, seasoning and preserving.
Many traditional Piedmontese recipes reflect the crucial role played by olive oil in the local cuisine. They can be sauces, called Bagnet in local dialect, which are served alongside the main (meat) dish; or they can be intingoli, oil-based sauces used as a dip for raw vegetables. These sauces or dips are made all year, but they definitely get their peak quality and flavor in November, when the new oil arrives from Liguria. One great example of dip is bagna cauda (or caoda): it is a hot sauce made with oil, garlic and anchovies (also from Piedmont) where people dip local raw bell peppers (peperoni from Carmagnola or from Asti), and cardoons (cardi gobbi), a fall vegetable very specific of that area –nothing else, say the purists! Bagna cauda was traditionally served in a terracotta pot with some sort of heat source ( a candle, embers, etc.) underneath. The pot was then placed at the centre of the table in order for everybody to be able to dip their vegetables and to share a meal in a very convivial and sharing atmosphere. Bagna cauda is eaten before the main dish with new wine, which is also ready in November.
Another typical oil-based sauce is bagnet verd. Bagnet verd is made with parsley, new oil, anchovies, garlic and some bread crumb soaked in vinegar, and it was traditionally used to go with bollito misto (mixed boil meat, usually beef from the local Fassone breed), which is another classic, fall-winter Piedmontese dish. Bagnet verd can be also used to season some oven-roasted bell peppers or other types of meat. Its decisive flavor is definitely not for the faint of heart, and the strong parsley presence doesn’t make it the most versatile thing, but it would definitely give a kick to a sad chicken breast or even a fish fillet, and I can imagine it going well even with legumes (or just on toast!). The original recipe comes from the Bible of Piedmontese cuisine (via Emiko), Nonna Genia.
Simply smash all the ingredients together (either using a mortar and pestle or in a food processor), adding oil little by little until you obtain the right, creamy and smooth texture. make sure you prepare this a while ahead of serving.