Chef Sara Jenkins, Under the Umbrian Sun

Eating in the garden of the finest cook that the chef knows in Italy.

umbria

Storied chef Sara Jenkins met Salvatore Denaro in 2001 when her boss at il Buco brought her to Umbria. The eccentric, passionate Denaro taught her much about growing, cooking and living.

The first time I met Salvatore Denaro was in the summer of 2001, when my boss at il Buco, where I was then chef, brought me to Umbria to better understand the restaurant’s roots. 

An acquaintance and I were eating lunch in town and he came bustling in, pulled up a chair and started talking, eager to meet this so-called chef for his friend’s restaurant in far-off New York. He soon insisted we come out to see his garden and, lunch being over and having nothing better to do on a hot late summer afternoon in Italy, we went along.

Salvatore’s garden was just beneath a rustic old farmhouse, split into two apartments, one of which he appeared to camp in. We walked through the garden in the late-afternoon heat, swatting flies and admiring the unruly profusion. Tomatoes and fat purple eggplant, golden zucchini blossoms and glossy dark-green zucchini, the gleaming vegetables lurking beneath dark-green leaves protecting them from the intense heat of the relentless sun. Melon and cucumber vines shot off in spontaneous directions. Weeds fought for space with the chard plants, and fruit trees humming with bees punctuated the sun with pools of shade.

We wandered through the garden nibbling on leaves and shoots and fruit, tasting, touching and connecting with the abundance of late summer. Eventually we retreated to the farmhouse apartment, covered with bookshelves and not much else. As the day cooled we sat on the stone steps leading upstairs, listening to the drone of the cicadas and swilling fresh-chilled, barely alcoholic white wine as Salvatore puffed on Tuscan cigarillos and expounded on the state of the garden, Italy and the world, in that order.

He was the chef, owner, sommelier and everything else of an eclectic wine bar/trattoria in the town of Foligno nearby, a restaurant that, as I visited over the following years every time I found myself in the area, I became more and more enchanted with, both for its quirky character and capricious owner.

Salvatore would sometimes refuse to take any money for a meal and other times double the price if he felt you deserved it or could afford it. He was liable to not let you eat there if he didn’t think you were going to appreciate its simplicity — a simplicity which was in some ways an illusion, for everything you ate at Il Bacco Felice would be obsessively thought out and sourced, no matter how easily it landed on your plate.

Salvatore would know the name of the cow whose flesh he was serving in a deep braise enriched with the local dark wine, Sagrantino. He was one of the only people serving heirloom tomatoes in the summer because even though tomatoes taste amazing in Italy, they don’t grow the same dazzling polychrome variety one finds these days in the United States. Salvatore somehow had got his hands on American seeds and grew them in his garden, a crazy hodgepodge of weeds and meandering rows with hundreds of antique rose bushes — one of his passions — snaking through it all.

umbria

There have always been chickens, of course, who escape from their tumble-down coop and wreak havoc in the garden, eating tender seedlings. For many years there was an honest-to-goodness pigsty with two of the largest black pigs I have ever seen wallowing around in ecstatic contentment, as though they knew that even though they had been purchased for meat, in the end Salvatore loved them too much to ever kill them. Indeed they must have lived a good 10 years or so before dying happy of old age.

The garden was tended the way all Italian gardens were when I was growing up there: vegetables planted and gathered according to the phases of the moon, a strict understanding of crop rotation and symbiotic plantings, manure used for fertilizer and, other than copper sulfate, not much else sprayed. Nothing too exotic was grown, although over the years Salvatore has brought back vegetables that interest him or he develops a taste for on his travels — okra from Turkey one year and recently he has been very interested in Red Russian kale. When he visits my family’s farm Tuscany, where I go to harvest olives each October, he brings heaping cases of arugula that, cleaned in a sink of cold water, purge hundreds of tiny snails, gross to some people I suppose, but to me proof of how untreated his garden is.

I knew Salvatore first as a passionate cook but as I spent time in his garden with him, it became clear how really he was a gardener first and then a cook, a seeker of ingredients. From the obsessing over his deeply perfumed roses to the special fava beans, peas, greens, tomatoes and fruits, he grows the food first, then shows it off to its maximum capability. Everything is cooked and eaten fresh, a few hours or maybe a day past picked, and everything tastes intensely delicious, the absolute apex of whatever you might be eating: a peach, wild arugula, frost-sweetened black kale.

umbria

Salvatore knows his garden inside and out over the years he has been sowing and reaping, knows which earth is right for bitter sharp arugula this season and which row is better for winter cardoons. There are a few fig trees and a couple of almond trees, some in an awkward corner, some in the middle of a row of vegetables.

Tomato plants take pride of place from May to October, even into November if it’s a long hot fall. Salvatore has grown heirloom tomatoes as long as I’ve known him, but after a few trips to specialty seed stores in America, the profusion is even more. I love to stand in the garden on a hot summer morning, sweat trickling down my back, dust from the gravel road in my nose, and eat warm tomatoes picked from the plants like the fruit they are. Later, if there’s some salt and a drizzle of olive oil, even better.

Sometimes he hooks up a speaker and plays opera while he gardens or reads in a shady corner. It is here he retreated when his beloved 15-year-old dog Rosa died and was left alone in his grief until he was able to leave the garden’s sanctity.

umbria

Long before the glories of Norwegian food and wild plants burst onto our radar, I worried that the skill of foraging, that most Italian cultural knowledge that saved them from starvation in times of poverty over and over again, would soon be lost. But then Salvatore would dig up a wild chicory on the periphery of the garden, clean it and braise it in a little water with salt and drizzle it with olive oil and I would sigh in relief knowing the knowledge was alive.

In time, Salvatore lost the restaurant (as I explain it, as amazing a chef as he is, that’s how bad a businessman he is), and while he moved around — cooking a little in one place, living at his friends’ winery for a while, consulting in Rome — he hung on to the garden and eventually the table and chairs from the restaurant made their way into a shaded area under a large mulberry tree that, when in season, rains purple-staining fruit down on the guests seated below or, if we are lucky, gets turned into sorbet for after lunch. He saved a few dishwashers, which he uses to store plates and glasses in, and he hooked up his ice cream maker so that he can make rose petal gelato from his antique roses while you eat, and it’s ready, the most perfectly textured gelato ever taste, when you are done and the sun starts to hang low in the sky and the wine runs low and you need to pee desperately after all the wine you’ve drunk but that means a five-gallon bucket behind the chicken coop so maybe you’ll just wait a little longer.

There’s a grill, a very clever grill he had made, a welded-iron contraption with a slot for burning logs and then you rake the coals out under the grill and it’s hot where you grill tiny lamb chops seasoned with just salt and pepper crushed together in a marble mortar, but there’s a medium and warm place as well, to gently heat the lasagna that came out of his neighbor’s ovens a few hours earlier.

umbria

Sometimes the table is set with a clean linen cloth and plates and silverware laid out, cut flowers in bouquets running the length of the table, and sometimes we just eat off the bare wood, claiming a plate and a glass and guarding them throughout the meal. In the spring we pick favas, filling a basket and marveling over the freshness and the sweetness —it’s a particular variety, he tells us, an old-fashioned cultivar from his hometown in the center of Sicily. He slices aged pecorino — sometimes from Sicily, sometimes from Umbria, sometimes from the farm up the road— and we guzzle lightly effervescent white wine, barely nine months old and perfect for the raw favas and sharp cheese. We sweep the fava shells off the table and onto the ground as Salvatore cuts a loaf of dark peasant bread, thrust up against his chest as he slices thick slices, toasts them lightly on the grill and tosses them onto the table. If it’s a really fancy meal we have some kind of salumi cured by Salvatore in January but made from an anonymous pig, not one he knew or kept because he can’t really do that, even though most Italians I’ve met have an ease with slaughtering the animals they’ve known. Salvatore, as he proudly admits, is too much of a softy to kill the animals he lives with although I think he manages to kill the chickens — I really hope he manages to kill the chickens.

The wine flows continuously from a five-liter jug from a farm up the road or a refined 20 euro bottle cuvée he’s managed to liberate from a winemaking friend. Lasagna is served warm from the pan in the center of the table, and when it’s eaten and the lamb is served hot and grilled, a salad of fresh-cut bitter greens with nothing more than sea salt and extra-virgin olive oil is placed on the table and we are encouraged, instructed, forced to eat with our fingers and lick them when we are done.

Sometimes at this point when we are dreamy and content, on a warm day under the shade tree, relaxed by wine and too much good food, an errant chicken will come squawking out onto the table, greedy for bread and any uneaten fava beans. The shock of a live hen strutting the table like a Milan fashion model wakes everyone up and it’s at this point that the gelato is ready, dished out and eaten quickly before it melts in the heat of the late afternoon. The dogs will snuffle underfoot in search of scraps, pushing cold noses into your hand if they don’t find anything, hoping to at least lick fat off a finger. There is no leftover espresso maker from the restaurant, alas, and inevitably everyone feels the need to move on to the village, to use proper facilities and drink proper Italian espresso with maybe just a wee shot of grappa on the side, just for digestive purposes of course.

Illustrations by Tae Won Yu

Newsletter

Categories

Tags