Chefs, writers, farmers and thinkers travelled via canals to arrive in the Chinanpas of Xochimilco (the historic centre of Mexico City and world heritage site) to talk about diversity in the food scene at Biodiversidad, a symposium realised by Mexican chef Enrique Olvera and the Basque Culinary Center.
There couldn’t have been a better place for it: the natural landscape of the chinanpas – a type of Mesoamerican cultivation in floating lake beds built for agricultural purposes, in which vegetables and mostly flowers are still harvested to this day – matched the main theme perfectly. Biodiversidad featured an array of speakers on topics ranging from food thinkers and chinamperos – the local producers from Xochimilco – to some of the world’s best chefs.
Here are 10 highlights from the symposium that you should know about.
Chefs can change the world
In his opening speech, chef Joan Roca, from El Celler de Can Roca and the President of the Basque Culinary World Prize international committee, said that chefs “have to be idealists and convinced that they really can change things in the world.” Roca also told Fine Dining Lovers about The Food Africa Project, in which he and his brothers are involved in order to empower African people and fight poverty through food security. Josep Roca, one of the three Roca Brothers, is leading this collaborative initiative (that also counts on Sahara Group, United Nations - Sustainable Development Goal Fund and the Kaduna State Government) and he has been in Nigeria twice to meet local farmers.
“It has a huge impact with hundreds of local families, mostly of them tomato producers,” said Joan Roca. He continued: “When Josep was there for the first time, he noticed that there were many cans of tomatoes from Asia for sale in grocery stores, while there are many local tomato producers in Nigeria.” The project will gather cooking classes and agricultural professional formation. The pilot is expected to be launched in October and then taken to other African regions. And why Africa? “Because the main immigration flows that arrive in Europe today come from there. And we believe that empowerment is much more transformative for these immigrants' lives than creating barriers and borders,” he concluded.
Food as Identity
“Many refugees are forced to leave their homes and end up finding a way to maintain their own identity through food. Food is one of the most important links to for us to remember who we are,” said humanist and member of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Cristina Franchini. She talked about the importance of biodiversity as a way to value people – and their culture and food habits.
Let's eat all
Chef Ricardo Muñoz Zurita urged everyone to fight against what he called “culinary racism.” As a specialist on Mexican cuisine and author of the Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana he said we need to “eat fish beyond tuna, and taste also the leaves of the vegetables we usually buy.” He continued: “We are only looking at the final product, and we forget to look at the whole ingredient. The stalks, the leaves, and even the seeds of many vegetables are as edible as their fruits. This is also biodiversity,” Zurita said.
The future of farming
Argentinian journalist, author and food researcher Soledad Barruti argued that the greater the biodiversity, the greater the cultural diversification in the world. She presented studies showing the loss of about 83% of Latin America's biodiversity in the last 40 years. “Less biodiversity means less chances of finding remedies and cures for diseases, less chances of discovering new flavours,” she said. “Our future is, more than ever, in the farming,” she concluded.
Seeding the future
US organic farmer and rural sociologist Matthew Goldfarb agreed with her. Founder of Fruition Seeds, an organic seed company, he argued that in modern times we have seen seeds become a commodity, since only five corporations control 60% of global seeds, which has lead us to lose more than 70% of domesticated crops. He went so far as to say that “every time you save a seed, you are saving the future.”
Diversity is Equality
Famous Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio argued that diversity is more tied to equality than ever. He said that a few decades ago, when he used to go Paris, he was always asked why there was not a Peruvian restaurant in the city, while Mexicans were already there. “Today we have Peruvian restaurants in Paris, London and many other cities, for example, as we might have Argentinians, Uruguayans, etc.” he said. “We have to forget about this idea of which country’s culinary is the best, it’s not about competition. The more cultural and culinary diversity, the better.”
Chefs in the kitchen
Legendary chef Michel Bras told the public that he and his cooks go daily to the garden of his restaurant in Laguiole to harvest the vegetables they will use in the kitchen. “We have food from all over the world that sprouted from the seeds my wife and I bring from our travels,” he said. For him, biodiversity has to do with a life-filled food, or a “biofood,” as he called, in allusion that “bio” means life. “As chefs, we need to be closer to nature to know how to respond to the variety that it shows us, as our grandmothers and mothers did,” Bras said. “TV shows bring chefs closer to fame and push them away from the kitchen. And we need just the opposite.”
Save the Chinampas
The Xochimilco zone produces many crops, among them lettuce, nopales (Mexican cactus), corn, and sunflowers, although it is threatened by the "untamed growing in the Mexican capital” said researcher at the National Polytechnic Institute, Refugio Rodríguez. Enrique Olvera, from the acclaimed restaurant Pujol, in Mexico City, is one of the chefs that has begun to work directly with the communities of chinampas to obtain fresh and organic products, as a way to preserve them. The agricultural area is home to more than 6000 acres of protected wet land. In the last 50 years, the exploitation of the area’s aquifers has depleted springs. “Today, the production of food is threatened because of the high levels of salt in the water,” explained Rodríguez.
Oaxaca is your next food destiny
During the symposium, traditional women from Mexico’s southern state of Oaxaca prepared tortillas to all guests, from different corn. The region is known as the capital of Mexican cuisine because of its abundance of fresh ingredients and unique dishes, such as hampurrado (Mexican version of hot chocolate), chapulines (grasshoppers as crunchy snacks), tamales, Oaxacan string cheese and the famous mole, the thick, slow-cooked rich sauce that is worth the trip alone.
Besides the Oaxacan tortillas and the suadero prepared by Enrique Olvera’s Pujol team, the guests could also enjoy Mexican sweets, from pan dulces to guava rolls, made exclusivelly by the famous Panadería Rosetta, which has become a mandatory destination spot for all food lovers that visit Mexico City. There are hundreds of types of Mexican sweets all over the country, and it’s time for conchas, orejas and bizcochos to become world famous.
Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.