It is said that the art of growing old gracefully is difficult to learn and mastered by few. As in life, this common and universal saying also holds true when it comes to food: there are some gourmet foods and drinks which choose the most bizarre locations in which to grow or age. Besides, the places in question are often particularly remote and difficult to reach. So, whether prompted by a phenomenon of recent years or deriving from an ancient tradition, we have cheese varieties that mature in hidden underground pits, mushrooms that grow in caves, bottles that age perfectly on the seabed or even in space.
From the absence of gravity or air to a special sort of light or humidity, farming methods and produce manage to adapt to a different climate and surrounding environment and thrive magnificently in their new location. To such an extent that they become delicacies sought after and acclaimed by gourmets the world over.
Underwater pesto: Nemo's Garden
Our first story is that of a very special kitchen garden, Nemo's Garden, a small plot of land located at approximately 10 metres below the sea (picture at the top of the page) in front of the coasts of the Italian Riviera, in the waters of the International Sanctuary for Marine Mammals. After the first experimental cultivation and harvesting of undersea basil, the universally known herb used in the preparation of pesto sauce, in 2015 the project draw the line for feasibility, industrialization and large scale production. Two small greenhouses containing the plants and protecting them from the saline environment were anchored to the sandy seabed. The plants were grown from seeds and exploited the heat of the sun filtering through the water. And after 52 days from being sown, the perfect, sweet-tasting basil was ready to be picked. Now the project is waiting for the necessary permits to start cultivating more crops in spring 2016, with plans to grow strawberries and lettuce, as well.
Bubbly and red wines aged under the sea
For some years now, some of the best bottles of Bacchus’s nectar have been maturing under the sea. In Italy and France, but also off the California coast, there are sparkling and still wines ageing in the sea depths. There are Italian sparkling wines in the Portofino marine reserve, Champagne deposited in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas, spiced reds and whites off the Island of Santorini, Californian Cabernets in the waters of a former American leisure boat harbour. In this case, the bottles are well protected when placed in the water but there are some discordant voices and recent researches which point to a possible risk of contamination caused by marine flora. The rocketing demand and sky-high prices of these rare bottles continue, at least for the time being, to indicate an enthusiastic market for underwater grape nectar.
Cosmic whisky at the International Space Station
From the sea depths to outer space, the International Space Station has also been entrusted with a load of ageing bottles: this is the “cosmic whisky" which was sent into space four years ago as a scientific experiment and has now come back to earth with a mature flavour – according to those who have opened and tasted it – that has no match anywhere in the world and cannot be compared to any other liqueur ageing process.
120 kilometres of underground mushrooms
Then there are stories that come from afar which recount how the absence of light and a high degree of humidity may be exploited to grow or age speciality foods. The story unfolds in Europe, in France to be precise where, ever since 1893, in the Loire Valley location of Bourré there has been a "mushroom cave”. It is called Cave de Roches and is the only place in the world where mushrooms are grown 50 metres below ground. It is a proper underground town consisting of seven different levels and tunnels 120 kilometres long. Every year, 100 tons of perfectly tasty, vitamin-rich mushrooms are grown in these special farms, comprising 40 per cent of the overall world production of the “pied blue” variety, a mushroom that is particularly sought-after by high-profile restaurants.
Italian pit cheese, secretly stored
From mushrooms to cheese, here is another product of the peasant tradition which ages underground: Italian formaggio di fossa (pit cheese), typically produced in an area lying between the regions of Emilia Romagna and Le Marche, has been aged in special underground rooms (known as pits) since the late 1400s when the local people had to hide their delicious wheels of cheese on arrival of the troops. The pits have a very narrow opening and can be as long as three metres. Before being filled with cheese, reeds, straw and pieces of wood are spread around inside and the wheels of cheese are stored in special white bags, placed one on top of the other. After about 100 days, the cheese is sufficiently mature: in the past, the operation of opening the pit and verifying the maturity of the cheese was an occasion to celebrate and it coincided with 25 November, the Christian feast of Saint Catherine.