For a food lover or chef, visiting Enrico Crippa’s garden just a few kilometres outside of the town of Alba is a bit like visiting the magical world of Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory.
To understand the Italian chef of Piazza Duomo in Alba, one of the best restaurants in the world, you need to understand this garden. Ideally, you need to wake up early and visit it with him. Because it is here that you will discover the secret to his success, to his flavours and to his story.
His ‘Insalata’ or salad as it is known is the stuff of legend. A lot has been written about it, photos taken and he describes it as the best dish he has ever made. “But there is no cooking or preparation,” he smiles.
You may have come with preconceived ideas about the dish but nothing prepares you for the experience. A table of eight people including Zaiyu Hasegawa, the Japanese chef of Tokyo restaurant Den, Andrea Petrini, one of the co-curators of The Gelinaz! and host Roberta Ceretto representing the family that owns the Langhe winery Ceretto as well as the restaurant among others.
In the mouth, the flavours change. From salty to bitter, from sweet to fresh, an earthy flavour to a taste of the sea. The experience is baffling and one that leaves you speechless.
Today this dish is called Insalata 21, 31, 41, 51…. because it started with 21 leaves. Soon it became 31, then 41, then 51 and now the chef has lost count.
He picked me up at 7.30am on Thursday and on our way to the garden, I ask him how many components the salad we tried had the previous evening. “There must have been between 80 to 90 different herbs and leaves,” he says. When they counted the number for an Italian magazine last year it had reached 138 components.
“This is a dish which always changes depending on the seasons. It is probably at its best at this moment as spring turns to summer,” Enrico told Food and Wine Gazette.
The Italian chef visits the garden every day at 7.30am. It is an early start to the day but for him there is no better way to start the day than to be in touch with nature. Nature today dictates what he cooks, it is essential to his creative process. Four people tend to the garden and they painstakingly pick the flowers, leaves and vegetables that are later used in the restaurant.
Enrico arrives each morning with a paper to remember the things he needs to take with him to the restaurant.
As we walk around the garden, Enrico gives me herbs to taste. From mushroom herbs (erbe funghi) to oyster leaves (a leave which tastes of oyster), from a herb which smells of Camembert (it is however not edible), there is everything you can dream of. There is every variety of herbs you can dream of and more. He grows the Coca Cola leave as he likes to call it because its aroma is just of Coca Cola. “There are herbs which you cannot use but you learn this in the process. We have kept the herb that smells of cheese because it is surprising even if we have not been able to use it because of its texture.
What if you need to use a herb that grows near the sea? You create the conditions to make it grow. “We are growing Salicorne,” he tells me. “We have had to use sand and salt and have finally found the right combination to make it grow.”
The garden is now biodynamic since 2013 like most of the Ceretto winery. Being biodynamic makes it harder to grow the vegetables and herbs but it also improves the quality of the produce. The taste is more delicate and much better. The restaurant is nearly self sufficient.
The garden was created in 2007. “We found that it became difficult to have all the vegetables and herbs that we wanted so we decided to create it. It has now become fundamental to our way of cooking but even then, it was essential for the kitchen we had in mind,” Enrico said.
Enrico arrives to the restaurant at 8.30am every morning with his collection of herbs and vegetables that have been collected. What is collected is normally used within a day meaning that the freshness cannot be replicated by vegetables that have to travel in refrigerated trucks. It then takes 5 people three hours to clean the leaves bit by bit and to dust the flowers. “We cannot use water to clean the flowers so we have to dust them extremely carefully,” Enrico says. Flowers are not picked when it rains.
I ask him how long it takes to assemble one salad. “It takes around 15 minutes for every individual salad to be assembled.”
What is stunning about this salad is that apart from what nature provides there are no condiments or seasonings. This is the closest you can get to nature and the earth. But you would be surprised to discover what nature has to offer. You want acidity or bitterness, you can find it. You want salt? It’s there. Balsamic hints? Of course. At the very bottom you have a dashi which partially seasons the last leaves and which you drink at the very end to refresh your palate.
Crippa has created a dish of stunning simplicity and of stunning beauty. After trying this salad, you will never look at a salad in the same way again.