Enrico Costanza, the culinary gardener who works alongside chefs, divides his days between the vegetable garden and Michelin-starred kitchens
by Francesca Portoghese – photo by Martina Caruso and Marina Spironetti
The missing link between the vegetable garden and the kitchen is how he likes to describe himself. Enrico Costanza is the award-winning young culinary gardener who, with a meticulously enquiring approach, has mastered the world of plants and brings an incredible green repertoire into the kitchens of top chefs, enriching their dishes with colour, aroma and flavour. Having grown up with a penchant for gardening, albeit benevolently hindered by a family of Barbagia shepherds, Enrico did not immediately become a culinary gardener. After a degree in literature and a period in publishing, writing for RCS and working on exhibition catalogues, he decided he wanted and needed to cultivate his passion for plants. Following a course at the Boboli Gardens in Florence and a posting in the UK with the National Trust, while also spending time at Claude Monet’s gardens in Normandy, Enrico completed his training and returned to Italy.
However, his change of perspective was brought about by an encounter with Simone Salvini, who really knows his stuff when it comes to vegetable cooking. The vegan chef convinced him that it was time for a career change: he needed to move on to something other than his dream of becoming an ornamental gardener. It was a beautiful dream. Spurred on by this encouragement, he opted for an old-fashioned approach and, pen and paper in hand, he had the audacity to write to none other than the young but legendary chef Enrico Crippa. And so it all started.
Crithmum maritimum, finocchio marino
The quintessential sea herb, you will easily spot it everywhere along all our rocky coasts and beyond, all the way north to Great Britain (Shakespeare mentions this plant in his King Lear). It is also called “St Peter’s herb” because it was once used by fishermen, of whom the saint is the patron, as an effective treatment against scurvy. Look out for its light green umbels and lanceolate leaves. It tastes like fresh fennel, further enhanced by a very intense terpenic profile. Its sprigs are excellent in salad, as well as forming a perfect side for all fish dishes, either raw or blanched. It goes well with mayonnaise and makes a superlative bruschetta topping combined with anchovies. If you want to take a memory of your journey home with you, you can preserve the flowers and leaves in oil, or the more daring of you can even make a delicious liquor.
Enrico, what work do you do? I invented a job for myself. Starting from seed, I grow crops for restaurants. I divide my time between the vegetable garden and kitchens, where I listen to what chefs want. Faced with vegetables, cut herbs, aromatic herbs, edible flowers and spices, I begin to draw up my sartorial planning, which I combine with the chef’s idea of cooking. Michelin-starred catering has a great strength: in fine dining the chef uses up everything received from the vegetable garden, without waste or expectations. There is also a lot of research behind this work. I go around looking through seed catalogues and I certainly couldn’t do without foraging: I seek out what I don’t grow myself in nature. This is the most romantic part of my work, but also the most demanding and costly. For example, if you want violets to make a syrup, I have to employ four people who crawl through the woods and perhaps manage to gather 500 grams at most, as well as having to separate the sepals from the petals. But you know, this is the added value of Michelin-starred cuisine: the effort and hard work of numerous people behind the construction of a single dish.
How do your plants enrich the dishes? The enrichment lies in the luxury of using a quality product, which is always fresh and has not been stored or travelled too far. When working with my raw ingredients, a good chef enhances the flavour of the dishes, while respecting the taste or aroma of the herbs.
SALICORNIA EUROPAEA, ASPARAGO DI MARE
Often available from the fishmonger, but it’s so satisfying to gather it yourself. Discover an even fresher and saltier taste, especially if picked between spring and early summer. It seems to be a recent discovery among chefs, and yet the “salt of the poor”, as the plant was known in the past, has a flavour that evokes traditional cuisine (for example, preserved in oil it is a traditional agri-food product from Puglia). A few leaves are all that are needed to bring the sea to your plate. Its fleshiness makes it very substantial, rather like an actual vegetable. It goes well with fish dishes and is tasty with green beans. It grows in abundance in saltwater pools and it is very easy to identify its thin, elongated, vertical stems. If you find yourself in the Gargano coast, don’t miss the Bread Festival in Salicornia.
Do you compromise on plants? We should always remember that everything we eat in the plant world is the result of an invention. Today, more than ever before, we need to distinguish between nature and agriculture. Starting from a wild base that has always proved particularly ungenerous, century after century humans have been forced to study most natural species in order to turn them into fruit or vegetables. That’s why I think the adjective “natural” should be replaced with “respectful”, because agriculture is a technical matter, in every way. We often find ourselves having to force plants’ growth mechanisms, carrying out work that results in cutting, pruning and real plundering.
How important is it to experiment? There’s always something new to try, exploring ancient and modern varieties. Fortunately the Italian climate helps us a lot. I’m thinking of Liguria, but also Puglia, a region with a real vocation for agriculture where the winter season is very short.
What kind of relationship do you have with the chefs? When choosing a chef to work with, I rely on an initial psychological interview, I try to understand their awareness of the complicated growing mechanism and their signature dishes.
I must admit that I’m encountering more and more sensitivity to the world of plants and great interest in seasonality. The requests that come in help me to identify what to grow and how best to structure the menu.
Carpobrotus edulis, fico di mare
Who hasn’t heard of this succulent plant, originally from South Africa, which now grows along our coasts, covering dunes and beaches? The petals of its flowers, which are a deep shade of purple, can add colour to a dish, while the young apical buds, which are very rich in water, become the “crunchy” element of a salad when treated with lemon juice.
How do you like to describe yourself? I love the expression culinary gardener, which evokes a poor yet very noble dimension in the mind.
Is there anything about your work that surprises you? I want to anthropomorphise my answer: what amazes me is the vitality of the plants, their vigour expressed in a desperate desire to affirm life.
When we’re near the sea and the coasts, what plants can we bring to the table? The sea and the coasts offer so much and foraging is a key activity for chefs who want to link their cuisine to the land. If you want to hunt for these gifts of nature, it’s best to pick wild edible plants at the beginning of the season, as young shoots generally have a better flavour. The quintessential sea herb is a plant that is easy to find and identify, and fun to look for during a great boating holiday. I’m talking about Crithmum maritimum, or rock samphire, a plant with a very interesting taste that Shakespeare mentions in his King Lear. Found all along our rocky coasts, all the way up to Great Britain and Normandy, it’s a plant rich in vitamin C. It is also called “St Peter’s herb” because it was once used by fishermen, of whom the saint is the patron, as an effective treatment against scurvy. Look out for its light green umbels and lanceolate leaves. It tastes like fresh fennel, enhanced by a very intense terpenic profile. Its sprigs are excellent in salad, a very good side dish for fish dishes, either raw or blanched and mixed with mayonnaise, and it makes a superlative bruschetta topping with anchovies. If you want to take a memory of your journey home with you, you can preserve the flowers and leaves in oil or, if you’re an expert distiller, you can even make a delicious liquor.
ATRIPLEX HALIMUS, ERBA SALE
It’s difficult to miss this bushy plant, whose small leaves form greyish-blue cushions along almost all the coastal areas of the Mediterranean. It belongs to the common spinach family and the relationship is most obvious in spring or early summer when the new shoots, which are particularly tender and tasty, can be picked for cooking like classic spinach. They can be blanched to make a luxurious side dish or left raw in a mixed salad. It goes without saying that whatever dish you make with it, don’t add salt!
Another plant that speaks of the sea is Atriplex halimus or tree purslane, which loves to be splashed by the sea and features a natural salty flavour. It’s difficult to miss this bushy plant, whose small leaves form greyish-blue cushions along many coastal areas of the Mediterranean. It belongs to the common spinach family and the relationship is most obvious in spring or early summer when the new shoots, which are particularly tender and tasty, can be picked and blanched to become a side dish or eaten raw in a mixed salad. It goes without saying that whatever dish you make with it, don’t add salt! Another plant that is very popular with chefs is Limbarda crithmoides, also known as golden samphire. It has particularly fleshy leaves and is part of the Apiaceae family. Rich in essential oils and with a very unusual, almost resinous flavour, it can be eaten raw and is perfect served with good quality, freshly caught fish or an exotic couscous-based dish. If you sail to Le Punte on Filicudi, you can’t help but notice real colonies of golden samphire along the cliffs. And who hasn’t heard of the hottentot fig? The Carpobrotus edulis is a succulent plant, originally from South Africa, which now grows along our coasts, covering dunes and beaches. The petals of its flowers, which are a deep shade of purple, can add colour to a dish, while the young apical buds, which are very rich in water, become the “crunchy” element of a salad when treated with lemon juice. Head for the Sardinian Sinis peninsula to discover another plant from the spinach family, namely Atriplex portulacoides or sea purslane. Its foliage is always glaucous, its taste always savoury, so why not make a pesto from it for a good dish of malloreddus pasta, perhaps with a sprinkling of mullet roe? And if you really want to bring the sea to your plate, you have to go in search of Salicornia europaea, or common glasswort. With its fresh, salty flavour, it needs to be harvested between spring and early summer. It seems to be a recent discovery among chefs, and yet the “salt of the poor”, as the plant was known in the past, has a flavour that evokes traditional cuisine. Its fleshiness resembles that of an actual vegetable. It goes well with fish dishes and is tasty with green beans. It grows in abundance in saltwater pools and it is very easy to identify its thin, elongated, vertical stems. If you find yourself sailing off the Gargano coast, don’t miss the Bread Festival in Salicornia. Gathering wild herbs is a healthy activity, but you should never forget that it can be dangerous if you’re unable to identify the plants correctly. To avoid the risk of being poisoned, my advice is to rely on an expert, at least for the first few times. And we must always remember to respect nature, only picking what we actually need!
(Enrico Costanza, the award-winning culinary gardener – Barchemagazine.com – July 2022)