Le langhe (in Italian the words mean abandoned lands) consists of a small area which more or less begins about 60 kilometers outside of Turin. It is a region of hilltops dotted with unexpected medieval castles and hillsides covered with oak forests and luxuriant vineyards. Along with the white truffle (truffle-hunting dogs are trained in nearby Roddi), the langhe hills are also an important winemaking center, the home of important nebbiolo wines like barolo, barbaresco and dolcetto (one of Italy's five enology schools is located in Alba, the region's capital). Winding roads labeled "the way of barolo" or the "road of barbaresco" beckon the thirsty traveler, for the area's towns are dotted with wine cellars where both sampling and more serious purchasing can be done.
Halfway between Alba and nearby Bra (where cognoscenti make sure to stop at the Pasticceria Arpino for rum and chocolate braidesi pastries) is the tiny, ancient village of Verduno, the name of which derives from the Celtic, "verdun" and which translates, not inappropriately, into "fertile hill." Here, the large manor house or castle first built in the 15th-century and later a summer residence of Savoy monarch Carlo Alberto, has been transformed into, not surprisingly, "Castello di Verduno."
The hotel, owned today by cavalier Giovanni Battista Burlotto and managed with his three daughters, is for the most part furnished in authentic 19th-century. Besides the hotel and its well reputed restaurant, Castello di Verduno includes a vineyard that produces some 3,500 bottles a year of barolo, dolcetto and a lesser known but exquisite ruby-red pelaverga. One recent snowy winter evening, the Burlottos welcomed two unexpected visitors, gave them a grand tour of the hotel's 11 large and museum-like rooms and invited them to stay on for a spontaneous family dinner at a long wooden kitchen table in a room otherwise furnished only with a pot-bellied stove, a television and an old Piedmontese credenza. The wine (and later, locally-made grappa) was warming and, above all, plentiful. But the big treat was the long-heard-of-but-never-tasted Piedmontese specialty, "la bagna cauda" (roughly translated Piedmontese specialty, "la bagna cauda" (roughly translated as "hot bath,") that Lisetta, the family's cook, whipped up in less than half an hour.
The "bagna cauda," well known to all "piemontese," is a prime example of what Italians like to call "la cucina povera," or the cuisine of the poor. Its ingredients are those that any Italian family would be likely to have on hand: lots of fresh garlic, smoked anchovies, bread and fresh and cooked garden vegetables particularly that Piedmontese favorite, almost impossible to find elsewhere in Italy, il cardo or cordoon, which is an edible variety of the thistle family somewhat related to the artichoke.
What Lisetta did to feed both the family and its unexpected guests was first to cook about 15 cloves of garlic in milk (this is a variant of the classical receipe in which oil is used, and it somewhat softens the garlic's impact). While the garlic was cooking she carefully cleaned the anchovies, leaving only the fillets, and sauteed them gently in butter until they disintegrated.
Later she added the mashed garlic and a bit of milk to the anchovy mixture and allowed it to heat a bit further. She then poured it into two special ceramic plates under which she placed hot coals from the stove, and brought to the table a huge plate of raw cardoons, leeks, peppers, carrots, fennel and lettuce, and another with cooked cauliflower, potatoes and peppers. (Onions, roast leeks and hard-cooked eggs can also be used.) Large slices of local Piedmontese bread were on hand to serve as a sort of edible plate to hold under the dripping vegetables as they moved from sauce dip to mouth. When too sodden to serve that purpose the garlic-anchovy soaked bread would naturally be consumed. And washed down with the wine that Gabriella Burlotto, one of the area's best-known sommeliers, brought up from the castle's vast wine cellars.
In Washington, cardoons are not available and no shopkeeper is likely to have heard of smoked anchovies. But bagna cauda is just as easy to make to welcome unexpected guests on a cold winter evening. BAGNA CAUDA 15 cloves of garlic, unpeeled 1 cup milk 12 anchovy fillets, approximately 1 can 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter
Simmer garlic in milk until softened, about 20 minutes. In the meantime, cook anchovies in butter over low heat, stirring, until they have disintegrated. Be careful not to brown the butter. Mash garlic cloves through a seive into the anchovy butter and stir in the milk, which will have boiled down to about half. Heat almost to boiling and serve, accompanied by a platter of raw and cooked vegetables for dipping and chunks of bread for catching drippings. The sauce is best served over a small flame to keep it hot while eating.
NOTES: If anchovies are bought in bulk, they will be much larger and one or two will suffice. This "cuisine of the poor" can be turned into "cuisine of the rich" by adding a chopped white truffle, ground roasted walnuts or a glass of red wine to the sauce, or by substituting cream for the milk.