Float­ing farm to ta­ble

Star chefs gather in Mex­ico City to de­fend bio­di­ver­sity.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Taste -

CHEFS from around the world gath­ered in Mex­ico City's an­cient float­ing gar­dens for a sym­po­sium on sav­ing the world's threat­ened bio­di­ver­sity, a bleak sub­ject they pep­pered with breaks to savour the lo­cal cui­sine.

Joan Roca of Spain, Michel Bras of France and Gas­ton Acu­rio of Peru were among the big-name chefs who took part in the event at Xochim­ilco, a Unesco World Her­itage Site criss-crossed with nat­u­ral canals and ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands first cre­ated by the Aztecs.

Munch­ing on hand-made tor­tillas stuffed with or­ganic beans and que­sadil­las made from lo­cal corn, par­tic­i­pants used the idyl­lic set­ting to tackle a grim prob­lem – the threats that cli­mate change, in­dus­trial agri­cul­ture and over­ex­ploita­tion pose to the world's plant and an­i­mal life.

“I be­lieve that sol­i­dar­ity is in a chef's DNA, along with the de­sire to cre­ate a com­mit­ment to pre­serve the en­vi­ron­ment and bio­di­ver­sity,” said Roca, whose restau­rant El Celler de Can Roca has twice taken top place on the World's 50 Best Res­tau­rants list.

The chefs were in town to pick the win­ner of the Basque Culi­nary


World Prize, a (RM500,000) award for food-re­lated projects that have made a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence be­yond the kitchen.

Roca presided over the jury that named this year's win­ner, Colom­bian chef Leonor Espinosa of the restau­rant LEO in Bo­gota.

Espinosa is known for her highly artis­tic take on culi­nary tra­di­tions from across Colom­bia, from the “con­chadores” who gather shell­fish on the Pa­cific coast to the recipes in­her­ited from African slaves on the Caribbean coast to the flavours of the An­des high­lands.

“The award shines a light on those com­mu­ni­ties that for years have strug­gled to be recog­nised for their an­ces­tral value and con­tri­bu­tion to na­tional cul­tural iden­tity,” said Espinosa, 54.

That was also a key theme at the sym­po­sium. To il­lus­trate the point, par­tic­i­pants toured the let­tuce and cac­tus fields of Xochim­ilco's fa­mous “chi­nam­pas”, ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands cre­ated with age-old agri­cul­tural tech­niques used by the Aztecs and other Me­soamer­i­can peo­ples.

The chi­nam­pas are one of the last re­minders of how the Aztecs lived 500 years ago at the time the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dors ar­rived in the Amer­i­cas, when Mex­ico City was mostly cov­ered in wa­ter.

Ur­ban stain

To­day, the city has be­come a sprawl­ing ur­ban area of more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple.

Xochim­ilco is one of the area's last ves­tiges of small-scale agri­cul­ture amid what the Mex­i­can aca­demic Refu­gio Ro­driguez called “the grow­ing ur­ban stain of the Mex­i­can cap­i­tal”.

Seek­ing to help re­vive a more sus­tain­able kind of agri­cul­ture to sup­ply the city's food, some Mex­i­can chefs have started sourc­ing fresh, or­ganic in­gre­di­ents straight from the chi­nam­pas.

They in­clude the likes of En­rique Olvera, owner of the feted restau­rant Pu­jol, and Ri­cardo Munoz Zu­rita, of Azul y Oro.

Munoz Zu­rita, whom Time mag­a­zine has called a “prophet” of pre­serv­ing culi­nary tra­di­tion, called for a re­turn to niche lo­cal in­gre­di­ents such as na­tive Mex­i­can corn, in­stead of the mass-pro­duced bas­ket of pro­duce that dom­i­nates the world's su­per­mar­ket aisles.

“We're go­ing to be the am­bas­sadors of crit­i­cally en­dan­gered prod­ucts. We have to start cook­ing with them so peo­ple don't for­get they ex­ist,” he said.

To get to the event, which was held un­der a large thatch han­gar, par­tic­i­pants ven­tured to an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land by boat, a trip of about 30 min­utes.

The sym­po­sium was spon­sored by the Basque Culi­nary Cen­ter, a gas­tro­nomic univer­sity born off the back of a revo­lu­tion in Span­ish cui­sine epit­o­mised by the Basque coun­try's plethora of Miche­lin­starred res­tau­rants and by Fer­ran Adria, the fa­ther of molec­u­lar cui­sine.

Farm­ers in ca­noes nav­i­gate the wa­ter chan­nel amid the float­ing gar­dens of Xochim­ilco, a Unesco World Her­itage Site, dur­ing a sym­po­sium on bio­di­ver­sity and gas­tron­omy in Mex­ico City on July 18.

— Pho­tos: AFP

(From left) 2017 Basque Culi­nary Prize win­ner Colom­bian chef Espinosa is known for sourc­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents and giv­ing back to the com­mu­ni­ties that sup­ply them; ‘Sol­i­dar­ity is in a chef’s DNA, along with the de­sire to cre­ate a com­mit­ment to pre­serve the en­vi­ron­ment and bio­di­ver­sity,’ said Roca; A va­ri­ety of let­tuce grow­ing on a float­ing farm known as a ‘chi­nampa’ in Xochim­ilco; Bras in the cac­tus and let­tuce fields in the float­ing gar­dens of Xochim­ilco.

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