Mex­ico’s ‘chi­nam­pas’ try to stay afloat

Restau­rants buy veg­eta­bles grown on canal gar­dens

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - LISA MAR­TINE JENK­INS THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

MEX­ICO CITY — At dawn in Xochim­ilco, home to Mex­ico City’s famed float­ing gar­dens, farm­ers in mud­died rain boots squat among rows of beets as a group of chefs ar­rive to sam­ple sweet fen­nel and the pun­gent herb known as epa­zote.

By din­ner­time some of those greens will be on plates at an el­e­gant bistro 12 miles to the north, stewed with black beans in a $60 prix-fixe menu for well-heeled din­ers.

Call it float­ing-farm-totable: A grow­ing num­ber of the capital’s most in-de­mand restau­rants are in­cor­po­rat­ing pro­duce grown at the gar­dens, or chi­nam­pas, us­ing an­cient cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques pi­o­neered hun­dreds of years ago in the pre-Columbian era.

While sourc­ing lo­cal in­gre­di­ents has be­come fash­ion­able for many top chefs around the globe, it takes on ad­di­tional sig­nif­i­cance in Xochim­ilco (so-chee-MILco), where a project link­ing chi­nampa farm­ers with high­end eater­ies aims to breathe life and a bit of moder­nity into a fad­ing and threat­ened tra­di­tion.

“Peo­ple some­times think (farm-to-ta­ble) is a trend,” said Ed­uardo Gar­cia, owner and head chef of Max­imo Bistrot in the stylish Roma Norte district. “It’s not a trend. It’s some­thing that we hu­mans have al­ways done and we need to keep do­ing it, we need to re­turn to it.”

Xochim­ilco, on the far south­ern edge of Mex­ico City, is best-known as the

“Mex­i­can Venice” for its canals and brightly col­ored boats where lo­cals and tourists can while away a week­end lis­ten­ing to mari­achi mu­sic and sip­ping cold beers.

It has also been a breadbasket for the Val­ley of Mex­ico since be­fore the Aztec Em­pire, when farm­ers first cre­ated the “float­ing” is­lands bound to the shal­low canal beds through lay­ers of sed­i­ment and wil­low roots.

There’s noth­ing quite like it any­where else in the world, and Xochim­ilco is des­ig­nated as a UNESCO World Her­itage site.

But that World Her­itage sta­tus and Xochim­ilco it­self are threat­ened by the pol­lu­tion and en­croach­ing ur­ban­iza­tion that plague the rest of the sprawl­ing me­trop­o­lis.

En­ter Yol­can, a busi­ness that spe­cial­izes in plac­ing tra­di­tion­ally farmed Xochim­ilco pro­duce in Mex­ico City’s most ac­claimed restau­rants. Those in­clude places like Gabriela Ca­mara’s seafood joint Con­tra­mar and En­rique Olvera’s Pu­jol, which is per­haps the coun­try’s most fa­mous restau­rant and reg­u­larly makes lists of the world’s best.

Yol­can has been around since 2001, but it’s only in the last year that busi­ness has re­ally taken off with the num­ber of restau­rant part­ners in­creas­ing by a third dur­ing that pe­riod to 22. Last month five of them teamed up with Yol­can for din­ner to ben­e­fit chi­nampa preser­va­tion.

The com­pany di­rectly man­ages its own farm­land and also part­ners with lo­cal fam­i­lies to help dis­trib­ute their goods, lend­ing a much-needed hand as an in­ter­me­di­ary.

“The thing about the chi­nampa farmer is that he does not have the time to track down a mar­ket or a per­son to pro­mote his prod­uct,” said David Jimenez, who works a plot in the San Gre­go­rio area of Xochim­ilco. “Work­ing the chi­nam­pas is very de­mand­ing.”

All told, Yol­can’s op­er­a­tion cov­ers about 15 acres and churns out some 2.5 tons of pro­duce per month. Due to the high salin­ity of the soil drawn from canal beds, the straw-cov­ered chi­nampa plots are par­tic­u­larly fer­tile ground for root veg­eta­bles and hearty greens like kale and chard.

Din­ers re­serve weeks in ad­vance for a cov­eted ta­ble at Max­imo Bistrot, one of three restau­rants Gar­cia runs. Metic­u­lously pre­pared plates of chi­nampa-grown roasted yel­low car­rots with as­para­gus puree ar­rive at the ta­ble, ac­com­pa­nied by sea bass with green mole sauce and wine pair­ings in tall glasses.

Gar­cia es­ti­mated he gets about two-thirds of his in­gre­di­ents from Yol­can or other or­ganic farms nearby. He was born in a ru­ral part of Gua­na­ju­ato state where his fam­ily raised corn and largely ate what they grew, so lo­cal sourc­ing is sec­ond-na­ture.

“I think all of the world’s restau­rants should make it a goal to use these al­ter­nate in­gre­di­ents,” Gar­cia said, stir­ring a pot of beans fla­vored with the aro­matic epa­zote herb. “Even though it’s a lit­tle more ex­pen­sive, a lit­tle more dif­fi­cult to find.”

Chi­nampa pro­duce gen­er­ally sells for 15 per­cent to 100 per­cent more than com­pa­ra­ble goods at the enor­mous Cen­tral de Abasto, the go-to whole­sale mar­ket for nearly all of Mex­ico City’s chefs that is so mono­lithic its com­pe­ti­tion sets prices across the coun­try.

But chefs who buy from Yol­can are happy to pay a pre­mium know­ing they’re get­ting veg­eta­bles free of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers or pes­ti­cides and also sup­port­ing a cen­turies-old tra­di­tion.

Din­ers at Max­imo Bistrot also said they en­joyed their meal, es­pe­cially the bur­rata with chi­nampa-grown heir­loom toma­toes. One cou­ple said they are will­ing to pay the prices of these high-end eater­ies in or­der to have the best pro­duce.

“We’ve eaten in 26 coun­tries around the world, and for the price and qual­ity, this was awe­some,” said Kristin Kearin, a 35-year-old masseuse from United States. “I hon­estly think that us­ing small pro­duc­ers is go­ing to come back.”


Ger­ardo Cris­to­bal nav­i­gates his boat as he fer­ries farm­ers and la­bor­ers to their float­ing farms called “chi­nam­pas” in Xochim­ilco, Mex­ico City.


Chefs and restau­rant em­ploy­ees walk through a veg­etable gar­den on a float­ing farm know as “chi­nampa” in Xochim­ilco, Mex­ico City.


Chef Ed­uardo Gar­cia, founder of Max­imo Bistrot and for­mer mi­grant worker in the United States, cuts mush­rooms at his restau­rant in Mex­ico City.

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