Olive oil connisseur, Michelin star Chef & father
Where does your passion from cooking come from?
Ultimately out of necessity. I was 14 and I found myself, perhaps for the first time, in the right place at the right time – I believe that luck is very important. I needed to earn some money so that I could go and have a pizza and take a spin on the tagadà. Silene’s son needed someone who could give him a hand. A literal hand as my first job here was to addrusciare, as we say in Tuscany, the wine labels under a tap of running water, for all the month of August.
With time I realized that I was beginning to love this world, so I studied and worked hard to create my space within the restaurant. In 2000 we opened a second restaurant in Pienza, il Prato, when unfortunately the owner of the restaurant – Silene’s son Maurizio – had a heart attack and passed away. I was 27 at the time and what followed was a very cathartic period. I sold the restaurant in Pienza and bought the other 50% of Silene and decided to focus all my energies on it, for which I had a very clear objective in mind: absolute quality without any compromises.
All this was created in times when the Michelin guide existed but was only applied to large hotel chains. Everyone used to have a vegetable garden in those days, now it’s seen as a plus, when in reality we’ve always had one here otherwise tons of ingredients would be missing… to keep it short my passion began because I made virtue out of necessity.
Olivastra di Seggiano
Roberto walks through his olive groves
100ml Olio Extravergine denocciolato da Olivastra di Seggiano
There seems to be a paradox surrounding olive oil and wine: two similar products in how and where they are grown, but with completely different cultures that surround them… what’s your opinion on the matter, as an olive oil producer?
Up until 15 to 20 years ago, in very few Italian restaurants was wine such a big part of the dining culture. There wasn’t all this knowledge – now many people are sommeliers even if they aren’t – and everyone gives their opinion, rightfully so. “I like it or I don’t like it”.Just because one person likes something does not mean that it is good, on a technical level. “I like it” means that it pleases me – but someone can say this about a faulty wine. Many of my clients adore old wines and sometimes appreciate them even more if they’re oxidised, because the aroma pleases them.
If we speak about olive oil, we might as well stop here because there isn’t a vocabulary.
There was just one person, Luigi Venonelli, who spoke a lot about it and created a dialogue on olive oil. I began by following his advice, back in 2003, making olive oil with pitted olives, a method I still adopt, and couldn’t have chosen a better path in life to follow.
In the world of olive oil a vocabulary is still missing. There are many lovely words that last 60 days, from september to “octember”.
The largest, industrialized Italian olive oil producers are now owned by Spanish people, who buy the oil in other countries and label it here, placing the “made in Italy” stamp on it.
Then there are a few excellencies but they’re not for everyone, and this isn’t a good thing, excellent things should be if not for everyone at least for a lot of people. Instead, bad olive oil is for everyone and delicious olive oil is for a few people.
The two greatest Italian liquids are olive oil and wine. Two parallels that travel close to each other without touching, yet both are indispensable. What differentiates them is the income they generate. I’ve never seen anyone around here invest in an olive grove. I’ve never witnessed a conversation that lasted more than 15 minutes on olive oil around a dinner table, even between people who have the competence to do so. The conversation ends because the terminology ends.
This is partly our responsibility and significant cultural issue, as every single place the Mediterranean sea touches, an olive tree grows – so the culture is extremely widespread.
The last 15 years have seen a significant growth in the quality of olive oil – nothing compared to what wine underwent – which makes me sad as our cuisine is completely centred around olive oil. Maybe in 50 years time, olive oil will produce its own income, have its own light… let’s see.
Roberto and Lella
Lella making her tortelli
Fresh pasta parcels filled with hare and aromatic herbs, topped with chocolate shavings
Both up here on Monte Amiata and down below in Val d’Orcia we’re lucky for being in a place so rich in biodiversity, especially with regards to enogastronomic products. However, in restaurants around here you always find the same dishes… as a chef who proposes a more researched and high quality cuisine, do you feel a responsibility in having to demonstrate the rich biodiversity?
It’s a tricky one – on one side we offer tourists who come to Silene the chance of tasting tradition, but they can find traditional food all over Val d’Orcia… Some places make simpler and more affordable dishes of course, and sometimes their traditional recipes are better than mine – because they make them over and over again. I sometimes tell people that if their wish is to taste galletto in Scottiglia they shouldn’t ask me to make it because I only cook it twice per year! On the other hand, if your wish is to eat a plate of pasta that was rolled out five minutes before you arrived in order to have the maximum amount of flavour and freshness – or any other detail I might be able to give you – then come to me, to il Silene.
For the last couple of years I developed an idea, to use concepts of a historical recipe adjusted to present times. People seek the flavor of a traditional dish without the weight of it, they want digestibility, varying chromatic aspects and a beautiful plating. I’m not talking about a super healthy approach because people guests are, afterall, still drinking and eating. Something that makes you think that driving all the way up here wasn’t a waste of time after all.
The cuisine of the past is not applicable anymore in a restaurant like mine, if you want to taste the past you need to go to a trattoria. If you want to eat the concept of the past then you go to a restaurant like mine. It’s important to have a sense of what things were and that if you want the traditional version, like for bagna caoda, you eat the original one, or just don’t eat it at all!
Lella's "tortelli soffici"
If you had to choose a dish out of all the ones on your menu that represents this area the most, what dish would you choose?
I would choose two dishes, a primo and a secondo. One is the tortello soffice, served with white truffle when in season and a drizzle of olive oil and aged Parmigiano the rest of the year.
The second dish is the pigeon – because in all humbleness I think I make it pretty well, and because I’ve made so many that they don’t hold any secrets from me, and because in Tuscany a pigeon comes before chicken. I serve it with two or three Mediterranean aromatic herbs sauteed in a pan with a little puree next to it. A simple but expensive dish, which has taken me years to achieve in the final form, experimenting with fermentations in order to give the dish a twist. I now order my pigeons a week before so that I have time to work them and give them more flavor by bathing them in olive oil. It’s a big sacrifice because no one can assure me that tomorrow I’ll have ten guests who will want to eat ten pigeons, so this is reflected in the dish’s price.
2019 Silene olive harvest
Do you have a favorite product from the area?
Can I say olive oil? It comes even before pigeons. I can place it everywhere, from a soffritto to the final touch on a dish. I never end with a drop of balsamic vinegar, always extra virgin olive oil. I’m at the point where I know what kind of season it is going to be even before harvesting the olives – and not because I looked at their colour or did some tests – because I have an intimate relationship with olive trees.
The view from Pescina, in Seggiano
Which is the place that moves you the most?
The uncultivated fields on hills. When I see all those different shades of green I fantasize about a bench, a bottle of wine, a glass and nothing else. An old bench.
And your favorite season?
I have two, which are periods rather than seasons. Mid May to mid June and mid September to mid October. On one hand everything grows and is born, on the other because everything ends and dies. In the first there is hope, the mind travels and dreams and in the second nature forces you to slow down, still while offering some great products like truffles, mushrooms and more.
Monte Antico, image by FAI
If you had to choose one trattoria where to eat rustic food in Val d’Orcia, where would you go and what would you eat?
I move slightly towards Grosseto, in Monte Antico. There’s a place I’ve been going to for the past 20 years, usually on Sunday evenings or Monday, La Taverna di Campagna. Those people are truly wild. I usually have a pizza and bring my own wine, I love brining a bottle of Champagne or other big wines because I’ve always loved paradoxes. It’s the only pizza I eat around here, with an acceptable crust and good digestibility.
Address: Silene, Strada Provinciale Altore, 9, 58038 Pescina, Grosseto, Italia