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The best things with food always seem to happen in the morning. The rise of well proofed dough, the warming wiff of stock on the stove, a crunchy landing of the fisherman’s catch. What about the spark of energy as markets around the world suddenly erupt - or bacon, let’s not forget the rousing smell of bacon - all of them, all of these tasty little gems, happen in the morning.
It’s this I’m contemplating as I reach my arm out of bed and slam the snooze button. I don’t know the hour but a rare lull in traffic outside my room tells me it’s early. Most of the time, in fact, nearly all of the time, Mexico City’s streets are crammed with cars - beep, screech, beep, bang. Right now, however, it’s almost silent. I check the clock - 5.30am. Telling myself once again that the best things with food always happen in the morning, I slump out of bed.
Fifteen minutes later I’m standing outside the Quintonil restaurant. Above the restaurant in Mexico City’s Polanco neighbourhood sits the home of chef and owner Jorge Vallejo, a Mexican born national who opened Quintonil back in 2012 after working with Enrique Olvera at Pujol among a host of other places in Mexico City and a short, yet influential, stint with Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen.
The lights eventually spring on as I hear Vallejo running down the steps, I think about how he must have finished service just a few hours earlier before two shiny eyes, both a little distant, confirm it was a late one. He's happy to see me waiting, he might be knackered but this is what he does, the military style rise is regular and heading out to his own mini paradise in Mexico City is a pretty decent way to start the day. By the time we've reached his 4x4 opposite the restaurant he's energised, no coffee, long silence or need for reflective morning me time, he now awake. As if his morning smile somehow woke the last part of his tired brain, all attention now rests on racing to beat the first bout of 7am traffic.
Our destination is Xochimilco, a haven of floating islands tucked away to the South of Mexico City, a place that Jorge says, “even the locals don’t appreciate”. Tourists, on the other hand, flock to visit the chinampas of Xochimilco – small man-made islands originally used by the Aztecs to cultivate ingredients. The little square gardens are created on top of shallow lakes or canals by digging the nutrient rich mud from below the water and slowly piling it up with other ingredients such as fruits, wood and grass, reinforcing where necessary, and creating what are commonly referred to as floating islands. Tourists breeze between the chinampas on trajineras - small, vivid boats that look like they’ve been coloured with what can only be described as massive highlighter pens. But we’re not here for that.
Instead, waiting against a backdrop of the trajineras's neon pinks, yellows, greens and oranges is Antonio Murad - a financial consultant who three years ago decided to focus his talents and passion for organic ingredients and financial consultancy to start Yolcan - an agricultural cooperative that works closely with farmers, chefs and consumers by linking local communities of families who grow on the islands with people who are willing to pay for what they produce.
As we climb onto one of the farmer’s boats, Murad explains how the future of these small farming communities could depend on what they're doing.“Its not all about more money, unfortunately sometimes they see farming as the bottom of the food chain - they think just because they’re not wearing a suit or working at a desk that it’s not something they should be proud of. What we’re trying to do is to help them regain that pride around producing.”
Which is partly where Jorge and other chefs step in. Quintonil is one of the best restaurants in Mexico and sits at number 21 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants List. By building a relationship with local farmers and restaurants, the community, especially younger members, start to see the instant effects their produce can have. As Jorge says: “These guys are some of our most important suppliers…without these kind of products then restaurants like mine, that focus on deliciousness, could not exist.”
This delicious comes from dishes succh chiapas cheese, red tomatoes and huazontles - a Mexican plant that has a similar quality to a tiny spinach. Vibrant scallop ceviche with a wonderfully tart sauce made using cactus. Escolar fish served with a moorish burnt pineapple, and stewed beef tongue served with mole so rich it feels like a red wine glaze. All of it paired with an extensive sprinkling of traditional Mexican herb varieties which grown by farmers at the chinampas.
As Antonio is more than happy to point out: “It’s working…the message to the farmers is that you can do great stuff for these great restaurants and be very proud that they’re buying their produce from us. Now we’re building clubs for people to order ingredients and have them delivered directly to their door. They’re getting their pride back, they know there’s a way to grow stuff that people admire, we’re bringing schools and organisations to see them - they’re happy about it. We’re also on our way to organising a farmer’s market that will sit in the city.”
The place is beautiful, still waters and floating gardens peacefully breeze by, it’s impossible to imagine that just 45 minutes by car sits the smoggy air of Mexico City. Jorge wants to highlight this, connect his kitchen in the heart of the city with the energy of this land. He says wants to tell his customers about their work and have the opportunity directly with the farmers about new ingredients and techniques.
As we begin to explore the rich array of ingredients on the first of many small islands - radishes, beans, leafy greens, carrots and an entire army of herbs - the unlikely duo of chef and financial consultant explain the idea further. “We have the support of the national university and we’re getting better everyday in things like bio-filtering and regenerating the land. These guys can be a little adverse to it, they like to do things in their ways and to them we are foreigners. This is a very close community - just for them to open up and trust us took around a year and a half.”
Murad says that any new technique or ingredients, even new strains of the same ingredient, would first have to be grown successfully on their own island before the locals would adopt it. “They like technology, they like things that help them but it has to be very practical - we can’t afford any theory - only things they can apply and watch work almost immediately.”
One of these ideas has been the introduction of bio-filters on some of the chinampas. Thanks to new techniques the farmers are now “purifying water around each island with special seaweeds and soils,” says Murad. A sustainable way to hopefully help fight off some of the increasing levels of water pollution around the islands - they want to build a bio-filter around each one.
We spend the next hour of sunrise hopping on and off our small boat from chinampa to chinampa, tasting ingredients and enjoying the peacefulness of the water, Jorge is constantly reminding me that this is not all about him and Antonio teaching farmers: “We learn so much more from them than they do from us. We’re just showing them to get better at what they already do, they’ve been growing without us for generations,” and, as he encourages me to taste just how good they are with a fresh handful of dew speckled herbs, I’m reminded once again that the best things with food really do happen in the morning.