The Green Revolution

An Overview of the Most Sustainable Initiatives from Spain's Producers and Chefs.

By Real Academia de Gastronomía

Real Academia de Gastronomía

"Paso Doble" TomatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Tired of longing for the real flavor of a juicy tomato, chefs have placed themselves at the forefront of the fruit and vegetable revolution that is taking place in Spain, looking to the past to secure the future.

In a country that is awash with plastic greenhouses, and is the world's largest exporter of fruits and vegetables, more and more people are putting quality before quantity and attempting to bring back some of the native species that once featured in Spanish meals.

"Azurmendi" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Most Sustainable Restaurant

Azurmendi, a restaurant boasting 3 Michelin stars in Larrabetzu (Biscay province), was named the world's most sustainable restaurant in 2014 and 2018. Located on the side of a hill, nestled among native vineyards, the roof of the building has been used as a space to plant vegetable gardens and aromatic plants, and to install a greenhouse.

Eneko AtxaOriginal Source: Restaurante Azurmendi

Heading up the project is Eneko Atxa, who embarked on a quest to recover plant species that are native to the Basque Country, such as the Zalla red onion and Derio dwarf chard. He has worked closely with neighboring producers and Neiker-Tecnalia, a state-owned company that shares his objectives.

"Azurmendi" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

His main investment for the future is a seed bank in which he has collected 400 varieties of local vegetables in order to research their use in cooking. He is demonstrating the importance of preserving this diversity, which can transform a kitchen into a place with its own identity, and something worthy of a visit in a globalized world.

"Azurmendi" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

Azurmendi's vegetable gardens present its guests with the work of the small-scale producers who are also its suppliers. They provide a platform for acknowledging the work of those who are committed both to the environment and to a local history that accompanies the restaurant's meat, fish, seafood, and dairy dishes in the form of fruit and vegetables.

Diego GallegosReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Gastro-Aquaponic Model

Aquaponics—a combination of sustainable aquaculture and agriculture—is the model explored by chef Diego Gallegos at Sollo, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Fuengirola (Málaga). It is an innovative project that supplies vegetables and fish to the restaurant in a way that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable: "Cooking what we produce, producing what we cook."

Aquaponics Greenhouse in "Sollo" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

In the garden of the Hilton hotel, where Sollo is located, an aquaponic greenhouse has been installed for cultivating freshwater fish and plants that feature on the restaurant's menu. This ensures seasonal offerings of select vegetables, guaranteeing their origin, quality, and traceability.

The plants are watered using water from the tanks of the only restaurant in Spain that specializes in freshwater fish. The plants act as a biological filter, purifying the water and then returning it to the fish and crustacean hatcheries.

Dish from "Sollo" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

As a result of this foray into gastro-aquaponics, which began in 2016, they now cultivate tilapia, catfish, pacu, tench, and Australian red claw crayfish, as well as 31 varieties of vegetable that they supply to the restaurant.

The chef—a Brazilian by birth who now lives in Málaga—argues that the seas are becoming depleted and it is time to explore the rivers. He is an advocate for gastro-aquaponics as a means of counteracting the exhaustion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity.

Roberto CabreraReal Academia de Gastronomía

The Restaurant That Grew Out of the Garden

Descended from a family of farmers who supplied large parts of Madrid, Spain, and the rest of the world with fruits and vegetables, Roberto Cabrera and his team have embarked on a mission to revive local ingredients at his restaurant, Huerta de Carabaña.

Huerta de CarabañaReal Academia de Gastronomía

They did some research with tomato seeds and cultivated the most appetizing varieties, with the emphasis on rustic seeds that would give customers back original local flavors that have since been masked by genetic modifications. However, they found that the market did not respond well to produce that had a short shelf life as a result of not being used to cold storage.

Dish from "Huerta de Carabaña" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

But they persisted, taking their boxes of tomatoes to haute-cuisine establishments like Santceloni, a restaurant in Madrid with 2 Michelin stars. This proved to be a springboard to supplying others and even to opening their own place, championing the "farm to table" concept. The vegetable garden takes center stage with the support of a growing number of guests who are demanding healthy food, and embracing traditional vegetables as being synonymous with a diet that reflects their way of life.

Carabaña Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

Out of respect for the environment, only 30 or 40 of the 100 hectares of their vegetable garden are in use at any one time, since they use traditional crop-rotation methods to avoid depletion of the soil.

Their entirely traditional working methods in the field go hand in hand with their R&D attempts to recover the genetic material of Spanish vegetables, and restore them to their former glory.

Roberto RuizReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Mexican Vegetable Garden in the Heart of Segovia

When the chef Roberto Ruiz opened his Punto MX restaurant in Madrid in 2012, he decided to offer Mexican cuisine, made with Spanish raw ingredients. However, he found that some ingredients were lacking in his attempts to recreate the flavor of his native country. He struck up a partnership with gardeners Luis García and Beatriz Alonso, and they planted almost 30 varieties of different Mexican crops, ranging from chilies to herbs and vegetables.

A Mexican Garden in the Heart of SegoviaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Using seeds imported from Mexico, they have created an organic vegetable garden in Navas de Oro (Segovia) that houses varieties never before grown in Europe, such as the "hoja santa" (Mexican pepperleaf) and "huauzontle" herbs, and "chiltepín" chile peppers. "We are planting a little piece of Mexico among the pine trees," says Ruiz, who has succeeded in overcoming the differences in climate between the 2 sides of the Atlantic.

Green TomatillosReal Academia de Gastronomía

Green tomatillos (an essential ingredient in lots of sauces); chilies including habanero, serrano, jalapeño, chipotle, "chile de arbol," and "chilhuacle negro" (almost extinct in Mexico); Mexican white corn; herbs such as "verdolagas" (Mexican parsley)—these ingredients give the dishes served by the first Mexican restaurant in Europe to receive a Michelin star the authentic flavor of their native land.

HuitlacocheReal Academia de Gastronomía

The vegetable garden has meant that not only Punto MX, but the group's other spots in Madrid (Salón Cascabel and Mezcal Lab), are now self-sufficient when it comes to their supply of fruit and vegetables.

They have also created the first chili smoker in Europe, enabling them to make and sell their La Chipotlera sauces using surplus chilies, with varying degrees of spice. They also have 65 varieties of chilies in a gene bank, as well as corn recovered from Tlaxcala.

Rodrigo de la CalleReal Academia de Gastronomía

Gastrobotanics: The Green Revolution

Rodrigo de la Calle grew up surrounded by his father's vegetable gardens. So when he moved to Aranjuez (just south of Madrid) to open his first restaurant, the first thing he did was buy his own land for growing crops.

"El Invernadero" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

This was to be the first seed of "gastrobotanics," a concept he developed with biologist Santiago Orts and coined in 2000, and which he now works on with farmer Héctor Molina. Through it, he has researched new varieties of plants and mushrooms, and recovered neglected produce.

Dish from "El Invernadero" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

The tasting menu at El Invernadero ("The Greenhouse") in Madrid "is decided by the farmers."

This is because they are 50% of what gastrobotanics is all about, according to the concept's creator, who is supported by a network of micro-gardens scattered throughout Spain. They share his concerns about respecting nature and reclaiming produce that makes for interesting cuisine, or that has never been used before, giving it prime position on the plate.

Dish from "El Invernadero" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

What began with an orchard of date palms has grown over the years into an enterprise that has managed to recover varieties of citrus that had almost died out, such as the citron, as well as tomatoes, lettuces, zucchini, and fruits that were no longer grown. They have also studied desert vegetables (such as "hierba del hielo" and land algae), ancestral vegetable gardens and seaweed, the use of lichens and superfoods in cooking, and fermentation—just some of the different branches of gastrobotanics.

Dish from "El Invernadero" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

His struggle to create plant-based haute cuisine has not been easy, and at one point, he was ready to throw in the towel.

But Rodrigo de la Calle is reassured by the growing number of farmers who are looking to the past to determine the future, and by the fact that he manages to excite even his meat-eating guests with dishes that do not contain meat or fish.

"It was a journey through the wilderness, but you reap what you sow, as my father used to say."

Credits: Story

Text: Pilar Salas Durán.

Image: Azurmendi Restaurant / Sollo Restaurant / Toni Misiano / La Huerta de Carabaña / Punto MX / El Invernadero Restaurant / Héctor Molina / Paso Doble / Culler de Pau Restaurant / Can Fabes Restaurant.

Acknowledgements: Rafael Ansón, president of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; Elena Rodríguez, director of the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy; María García and Caroline Verhille, contributors to the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy

This exhibition is part of the Spanish Gastronomy project jointly coordinated by Google Arts & Culture and the Spanish Royal Academy of Gastronomy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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