Anyone at all would be content to be able to recognize good Genoese basil. Not Stefano Baiocco. The chef who hails from Marche region can distinguish at least five varieties: Greek, lemon-scented, cinnamon-scented, liquorice-scented and dark opal. That's because he, the two-star Michelin chef of the luxurious Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda (Italy), spends as much time in the restaurant's greenhouse and garden as he does in the kitchen.
It is no coincidence that his signature dish is a salad, but with a capital S. One serving contains 140 different plants, used in the quantity of one leaf or "unit" per type – herbs, sprouts, greens, flowers and their petals. "It's 100% green, without tricks or frills, to give nature the chance to express itself on its own," explains Baiocco. "I have always been very keen on herbs and flowers, way before it became a fad. At Villa Feltrinelli, thanks to the perfect lake climate and the immense garden, I have been able to give free rein to my great love".
In this interview with Fine Dining Lovers, the Italian chef Stefano Baiocco speaks in detail about the salad that is a symbol of his passion for flowers and herbs.
How do you harvest the herbs and flowers?
It's a two-phase process – first the leaves, then the flowers. We use containers full of water and ice, one per serving portion. We walk through the greenhouse and flowerbeds to gather the ingredients, and then wash and dry them in the kitchen. It is important for the leaves to remain moist but not wet, because excess water makes them lose their crunch; they wilt easier. On the second round, we gather the flowers. In the end, the two are united.
How do you arrange and serve this dish?
A salad is often considered an appetizer, or worse, a side dish. But we serve it between the meat course and the dessert as a kind of pre-dessert, for its palate-cleansing quality. The composition is vertical, almost like a pyramid. On the bottom we arrange strips of champignons sandwiched by two very thin and crispy sheets of brick dough. This base has an earthy flavor. On it, we layer all the leaves with a grassy flavor, and finish with the edible flowers. We serve it with surgeon's tweezers, out of respect for the leaves themselves and the person who picked them. In the beginning we used to serve it with a few crystals of Maldon sea salt, olive oil from Lake Garda and a sprinkling of potato gratings. Then I understood that this dish really does not need a thing. All we do now is drizzle a bit of almond oil from Noto, Sicily, on it.
How has this dish evolved over the years?
It changes continuously. I might add some new sprouts or eliminate others, but the season guides me. From mid-April to mid-October it is always different. In spring, there is the light garlicky flavor of chive flowers. In summer, we add flowers from the Allium tuberosum, Allium ramosum and Tulbaghia violacea. We are always able to find rosemary flowers. Right about now at the end of the summer we can use the very sweet red blooms of the pineapple sage and the wonderful leaves of the Rumex sanguineus, which reach the height of their goodness in autumn.
Speaking of autumn, it's almost time for the restaurant to close now.
Despite the winter break, I continue my quest for the perfect flowerbed, with perfect quantities. I put the varieties in order, taste them, take care of sowing them four or five times per year and do the harvesting. Our gardeners do the weeding, trimming and watering. They are true friends of the kitchen. I'll be going abroad to visit specialized greenhouses in order to discover new varieties. In addition, I'll be planning the design of new flowerbeds and thinking where to position them.