Meeting Chef Francesco Costagli is a revelation because of the refreshing perspective he brings to his kitchen. He was born not far from the village of Castellina in the Chianti region, and Castellina is where his Michelin-starred restaurant is. Costagli’s zero kilometre cuisine is a concept that he has worked on, virtually since the start of his 25 year long career. Zero kilometre of course refers to the complete absence of a carbon footprint in devising dishes that make up his repertoire.
Tuscany is as famous for its olive groves that clamber up tortured hillsides as for its wines, so there are no prizes for guessing Costagli’s favourite medium of cooking: olive oil, that too, pressed only from moraiolo olives that grow in parts of Tuscany. “Other olive varieties also grow in my region, but the fruitiness of the moraiolo counterpoints my dishes well,” is his justification.
The Tuscan landscape has plenty of game in its forests and boar, quail and hare make their appearance regularly in all villages of this region, and certainly on the menu at Ristorante Albergaccio, whether as part of a sauce in the first course or in the main course. “Of course, it helps that I am from a region whose ingredients and wines are as rich and varied as they are. I can play around with them, though I tend, as a principle, to stick to traditional cooking, but interpreted with my own modern touch.” Costagli says that he wants his diner to be able to identify the origin of each dish and appreciate the spin that it has been given. “I don’t want to invent anything out of the blue, when I have the opportunity of building on tradition”.
Tuscany may have metamorphosed into Italy’s most rich region, with its culinary traditions, picturesque villages and most iconic wines, not to speak of the sheer aspirational value it has acquired, but there’s no glossing over the fact that its cuisine is cucina povera or poor food! It is precisely this element that Chef Costagli wants to celebrate. The soup he likes to cook is Acqua Cotta or cooked water that has a base of good old H2O rather than tomatoes or meat stock. Containing celery, onion, stale bread and a dash of tomato paste, to Costagli, it embodies the soul of the food of his beloved Chianti region. Stale bread is the leit motif of the region: bread was baked in the home and was too precious – not to mention symbolic – to be thrown away.
Costagli’s signature, though, has to be ravioli, of which the pasta is two-tone: either orange and white stripes or green and white stripes. It is a jaw-dropping sight and one that no diner at Ristorante Albergaccio misses out. Naturally, everybody wants to know the secret of how the striated colour effect is arrived at, but all Costagli says tongue in cheek, is “I paint the stripes on” before deftly changing the subject. The filling of the ravioli is, more often than not, duck which is available locally (this is zero kilometre cuisine after all). Spring onions and potatoes make the bed of the dish, and the duck is perfumed with the zest of orange to enliven the inherent heaviness of the meat.
Another all-vegetable ravioli dish that Costagli served in ITC Maurya for the Fratelli dinner was made from wild asparagus, béchamel and ricotta, tinged with saffron. There’s a story to this dish and Costagli is eager to tell it. “In Castellina, wild asparagus is on our menu frequently. We have a couple of foragers working for us in the season, and they bring us wild herbs, nettles and vegetables from the forests. These ingredients define our cuisine, and at one point of time, our forefathers would do the job that foragers do today, for a price.” The other thing is saffron. It was grown in the San Gimignano belt, which is why even today that town has an air of prosperity from the old days. Though it is not grown in Tuscany any more (Abruzzo is the new region to grow this most expensive spice) it was used in the Fratelli dinner to pay homage to Indian ingredients.
Said Alessio Secci of Fratelli Wines about the concept of the entire evening, “The word <I>Fratelli<I> means brothers in Italian, and the company is about the synergy between the Sekhri brothers, the Secci brothers and our viticulturist, so we’re already talking about a cross-continental fraternity. With our dinner in India, we are cementing and highlighting this fraternity, so Italian dishes and Indian ingredients meld together.”