One phrase that you may have heard used to describe fish-centred cooking is 'bringing the sea to the plate'. But for chef Ángel León, he means it literally. It's a mission that has led him to go beyond manipulating and masterfully evaluating ingredients, to making the sea the protagonist of his research work. This has recently crystallised in the discovery and cultivation of a new ingredient: marine rice.
The origin of all this process is Aponiente, chef León's three-Michelin-star restaurant in Cádiz. Here the word 'sustainability' is a mantra, which has been a day-to-day reality for years, when this topic (which is now a priority for the whole world of gastronomy) was something that few spoke about.
It has been a journey that has paved the way for a study that culminated in the discovery of marine rice, an ingredient that could open the door to a new and unexplored universe of food in the future.
But what is this marine cereal that chef León and his research group have recently discovered? Marine rice is the seed that produces an underwater plant called seagrass: it grows underwater and feeds on the seawater itself, where it also develops biological and ecological functions that are fundamental for the ecosystem.
Therefore, this plant already existed, although the truth is that it was on its way to extinction. Chef León's innovation lies in the fact that (together with different collaborators such as the University of Cádiz), the Aponiente research and development team has managed, after three years of research, to cultivate seagrass under controlled conditions (in an area of almost 3,000 square meters in the Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park), thus obtaining safe seeds for human consumption.
It's an important achievement for several reasons: above all for the discovery of a new superfood with extraordinary nutritional properties, but also for developing a crop that can be reproduced in areas little adapted to agriculture, such as those that only have access to saltwater.
Furthermore, the 'zostera' is a perennial plant and no pesticides are needed for its cultivation, as the plant does not suffer from any known diseases. Fertilisers are not needed either, since it feeds exclusively on sea water. As if that were not enough, eelgrass crops generate great biodiversity due to the production of underwater oxygen, thus regenerating life in the surrounding waters, strengthening the seabed by preventing erosion and mitigating the effects of tides. In addition, they are a refuge for certain species (such as seahorses and crustaceans) because they reduce the acidification of the oceans thanks to the decrease in pH.
In short, it's a crop that meets all the requirements to be considered one of the most sustainable in the world.
But let's talk about the product, the cereal or 'marine rice' - the superfood itself. It's been confirmed by product analysis carried out by the Aponiente research team to be comparative with common rice and other 'land' cereals such as barley, wheat, oats and corn.
Marine rice has more high-quality proteins (13%), more carbohydrates (82%, of which almost 50% are starch) and less than 2% fat (vegetable). It also contains vitamins A and E, which are not present in any other type of cereal, in addition to high concentrations of various B vitamins.
The seed has a hard and compact appearance and an aromatic, vegetal and iodised flavour. Its characteristics for culinary use allow it to be cooked, like rice or pasta, to transform it into flour to be made into bread or dry pasta.
"Our dream is for the ocean to be part of everyone's diet and we want to achieve this goal step-by-step," chef León explained to Fine Dining Lovers.
León carried out this study in collaboration with the University of Cádiz, where for 10 years in conjunction with Aponiente there has been a Marine Laboratory for Culinary Research, which he leads together with the resident biologist Juan Martín. The chef spoke to us about his project:
When and how did you discover you were destined to go far beyond the kitchen?
My curiosity about the sea in all its dimensions has been a fascination since my childhood. When I went sailing with my father, who instilled in me my love of the sea and fishing, we took everything home that we caught. My mother didn't like to handle or clean the fish so I was in charge of that job and as such I began to appreciate the textures of the fish, I liked to slice their bellies open to know what they were eating and hence which bait to use... This is how my dream brewed, while the kitchen came as a profession. I was never a good student, if I had been I would have loved to be a marine biologist.
How did you come up with the idea of dedicating yourself to this particular research?
Staring at the sea with hunger and illusion. In one of those seabed searches and in the marshes, the natural environment that is closest to us, we came across a plant that aroused our curiosity after seeing that it had a seed that reminded us of a grain. I have always believed that things or ingredients we can find in the land have their counterpart in the sea, and this new discovery seemed to be entirely a cereal. Thus began the study of this phanerogam in detail.
Do you already have a dish or recipe in mind for the marine rice?
Nowadays, all our efforts are focused on its cultivation and how we can grow sufficient amounts in order to obtain a greater harvest, and have a seed bank that would allow us to carry out more tests and advance our investigations into the plant.
We have already tried some recipes and we have also tried the marine grain in different kinds and styles of dishes. We know the grain is similar to a grain of rice, similar to quinoa, saltier, with Omega 3 (no cereal known on the planet has that) and with a higher concentration of nutrients than rice itself, so we could go as far to say that the marine grain is a superfood without a doubt.
Do you think that the discovery of these new ingredients and continuous research in this area will encourage other types of food to disappear from our diets?
Honestly, I think the contrary will happen. I believe that they will complement our diets and will change some paradigms of food and the gastronomy sector, I don't think that they will make others disappear.
How do you define 'sustainability'?
The management and intelligent use of the products of nature, of your environment with truth and respect. Today it seems that everything is sustainable, it is one of the words most prostituted by marketing.
What mark do you think this historical moment will leave on the world of gastronomy?
The ability to continually re-invent ourselves and look at nature in more detail.
And finally, how would you define yourself in three words?
Passionate, sailor, restless.