English Asparagus and Wild Garlic Bagna Càuda
This is my Anglo take on an Italian dish, which celebrates the arrival of the first of the English asparagus, which can now be found in some Waitrose stores and good farmer’s markets and the bounty of wild garlic that’s also now in season.
Bagna càuda is an Italian dish from the NW region of Piedmont traditionally made with olive oil, chopped anchovies and garlic and served as a hot sauce or dip (the name translates as ‘hot bath’) – into which various vegetables are dipped – not unlike a French fondue.
It’s thought the dish dates from the 16th Century and was most likely developed by farmers to both mark the end of the autumn harvest and to make the best use of the ripening local vegetables, in particular the cardoon (edible thistles) which are typically at their best at this time of the year, just as the cooler weather starts to set. The non-local ingredients in the actual bagna càuda – the preserved salted anchovies and olive oil – would probably have been sourced from nearby Liguria and traded in exchange for Piedmontese produce such as grains, butter and cheese.
Besides the cardoon, in Piedmont Bagna càuda is typically eaten with vegetables such as cabbage, celery, carrots, artichoke, peppers, fennel and breads – but it works equally as well with seasonal British produce such as asparagus, radishes or purple sprouting broccoli.
As it was created as a celebratory dish, it was originally meant to be shared by many and in fact, in the past, it was normal to for bagna càuda to be prepared in very large copper pots and served at large community gatherings. My recipe, which re-imagines it as a dressing, only serves 2, but if you’re catering for a banquet, then simply increase quantities as required!
125ml/4fl oz. extra virgin olive oil
4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed whole till flat – I use the Natoora purple garlic
I tin anchovies, preserved in olive oil, drained and chopped – Ortiz are a good brand
120g/4oz unsalted butter, cut into cubes
A handful of wild garlic leaves, well washed and dried
A dash of good quality balsamic vinegar
I bunch English asparagus, washed and trimmed, steamed for 4/5 minutes until soft and tender
Heat the olive oil in a small pan, add the garlic cloves and let them poach slowly over a very low heat for about 20 mins until soft and golden. Then add the anchovies and butter, melt and cook for a further 2 minutes until well amalgamated, don’t worry if it separates. Finally add the wild garlic leaves, let wilt and then blitz with a hand-held blender, taste for seasoning, adding a tiny dash of balsamic to lift flavours with acidity.
Pour over the steamed asparagus and serve with plenty of good bread.