Gastronomy and Nature in Harmony

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.

Toni Misiano's Organic Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

Collaborations between farmers and chefs have led to a boom in plant-based foods and cooking that is as tasty as it is healthy. Not only that, they are helping to revive agricultural land that was abandoned when people migrated to Spanish cities from rural areas during the mid-20th century.

Toni Misiano's Organic Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

A new generation of homestead farmers—some of whom have backgrounds in other professions—are working in partnership with institutions to recover seeds, experimenting with foreign plant species to enhance Spanish produce. They are opposed to the pace at which wholesalers and superstores operate, preferring to let the land work at its own rhythm.

Restaurants that truly value vegetables, appreciate the work of truck farmers, and are prepared to pay a fair price for their produce are placing orders for these organic crops even before they have been planted.

Crec3r ProjectReal Academia de Gastronomía

This new alliance also seeks to educate people on the need to start valuing the land and sustainable farming again in a country that, despite being the largest organic producer in Europe and the fifth largest in the world, is lagging behind when it comes to organic consumption.

"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."

Toni Misiano's Organic Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

The King of Mini-Vegetables and Flowers

Miniature artichokes, zucchini, lima beans (white beans from Valencia), broad beans, and potatoes, as well as the flowers from different vegetables, are the star products of the 2-hectare organic vegetable garden that belongs to Toni Misiano and his family. They have been farmers for 5 generations, in Albalat dels Sorells (Valencia), and have won over the kitchens run by Ricard Camarena, with whom Misiano works exclusively.

Toni Misiano's Organic Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

When he and his wife took over the family farms left to them by his parents and in-laws, they decided to go down the route of organic farming. But they could only find a market for their crops in Europe, because although Spain is at the forefront of organic production, as a consumer, it is a long way behind.

Given the overcrowded European market, Misiano attempted to stay local, but found that there was not much demand for his produce.

Ricard CamarenaReal Academia de Gastronomía

Then, 8 years ago, he met Ricard Camarena, who owns the eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, as well as the more informal venues Habitual, Canalla Bistro, and Central Bar.

The chef was struggling to find the produce he wanted, and they forged a partnership in which his cuisine and creativity were led by the ingredients.

Toni Misiano's Organic Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

Both are firm believers in homestead farms, and produce that is allowed to ripen on the plant and that retains its sensory qualities despite having a short life span. For that reason, any excess produce is preserved so that it can be used throughout the year.

They also agree that respect and valuing the work they do together are the keys to their success.

Toni Misiano's Organic Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

"It's better to produce 1,000 kilos of high-quality onions without pesticides than 20,000 kilos of tasteless ones," argues Misiano.

"90% of people don't understand the value of vegetables, which are so cheap and underrated, and yet they are prepared to pay a fortune for hormone-packed meat or mediocre fish," adds Camarena.

Both are ready to change this mentality.

Hector MolinaReal Academia de Gastronomía

To the Rescue of Seeds

Héctor Molina left his job to start selling the oranges and clementines that he grew on his homestead farm online. In 2009, he and José Polo de Bernabé y Borrás embarked on a project to recover the first type of mandarin to have been sold in Spain. It was first brought to the country in 1885, to his village of Vila-real in the autonomous region of Valencia. This project sowed the seed for the creation of a company—el3ments—and a germplasm bank containing 1,000 different samples.

Seeds of the Company "El3ments"Real Academia de Gastronomía

There are 3 essential factors in producing outstanding crops: water, sun, and earth; hence the name el3ments. However, it also requires high-quality seeds and Molina has devoted himself to recovering, studying, and sowing those seeds.

His treasure trove includes 200 varieties of tomato and a collection of 200 different cereals, as well as foreign varieties that he is testing to see how well they adapt to Valencian soil.

For this farmer, seeds are a fundamental part of a region's culture and identity, and must be preserved.

Hector Molina's Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

His fruits and vegetables have earned the approval of renowned chefs, but he is considered something of a rare breed in a region where 8 hectares of arable land are abandoned every day.

Molina argues that it is farmers who preserve the landscape, and that is why he is calling for more projects that add ethical value, respect the land, and work with the seasons for the sake of a happier and healthier society.

Crec3r ProjectReal Academia de Gastronomía

Conscious of the importance of instilling these values in future generations, Héctor Molina has been the driving force behind Crec3r, an agricultural education project aimed at school children, which lets them become little farmers whose crops end up in their school canteens.

Francisco SánchezReal Academia de Gastronomía

An Obsession with Tomatoes

If there is one fruit that is given a hard time as much as it is eaten, it is the tomato. That's why the Almería-born Francisco Sánchez has devoted himself to finding the explosive taste, delicate skin, fleshy texture, and balance between sweetness and acidity that are characteristic of the best tomatoes. He began by trying as many as 24 varieties, until he found the holy grail of tomatoes: the Montañés de la Galia.

"Paso Doble" TomatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

This agricultural technical engineer, who is the son of farmers, has put his Paso Doble project at the forefront in the tomato-growing sector. It is viewed with a certain degree of romanticism compared with the exploitative practices of wholesalers and superstores, who are more concerned with getting a product that is hard-wearing, looks good, and has a long shelf life, but no real flavor.

With his Montañés de la Galia variety, he has succeeded in helping entire generations who were used to insipid tomatoes to discover a flavor they could never have imagined.

"Paso Doble" TomatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

"I produce flavor, not pounds," claims this expert, whose produce is served in select restaurants, as well as in the homes of individuals who appreciate its quality.

In order to encourage more initiatives like his own, he is asking consumers to be more critical of produce and the market, because unless people insist, we will continue to lose nature's flavors.

"Paso Doble" TomatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

Although tomatoes are available all year round, they are technically summer fruits.

Paso Doble is an unusual example thanks to the climate in Almería, where the best tomatoes are picked in winter.

Francisco Sánchez grows his tomatoes in greenhouses to protect them from the wind, using white plastic sheeting to reduce the amount of light they get. He doesn't accelerate their growth as other similar systems do. Instead, he nurtures them to produce the ideal tomato.

Javier OllerosReal Academia de Gastronomía

Vegetable Garden and Restaurant: The New Partnership

The relationship between kitchens and vegetable gardens is growing closer, with a greater emphasis on high-quality natural produce than on technical wizardry. The result has been partnerships such as the one between farmer Santiago Pérez of the Finca de los Cuervos farm, and chef Javier Olleros of Culler de Pau, a Michelin-starred restaurant in O Grove (Pontevedra).

Dish from "Culler de Pau" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

Based on mutual respect and admiration, they both promote the research and recovery of species that are virtually extinct because of their low commercial value; they demand excellence in even the humblest of crops, and the restoration of nature's rightful place in cooking.

"Culler de Pau" Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

Their organic farming methods use biological pest-control systems instead of pesticides, reviving the long-lost flavors that are proving so exciting to a new generation of chefs.

Some of them, including Olleros, have gone as far as creating their own vegetable gardens, although he is still supplied by a network of small-scale producers. One of these is Finca de los Cuervos, which offers him an à la carte supply.

Dish from "Culler de Pau" RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

However, they don't reject foreign produce that they like, such as okra or the common ice plant, and they work with institutions such as the Biological Mission of Galicia run by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) to recover native seeds, village by village. They delight in a crisp lettuce that inspires a culinary creation, or teardrop peas smooth and sweet enough to enthrall their diners.

Sweetcorn from "Culler de Pau"Real Academia de Gastronomía

Working with them is a real luxury for this Galician chef: sweetcorn; different varieties of cabbage, including Betanzos cabbage; Cambados green onions; and "pío" tomatoes are just some of the local varieties that have been recovered.

These are flavors of the past that, combined with those of today, create an unprecedented culinary landscape.

"Culler de Pau" Vegetable GardenReal Academia de Gastronomía

This farmer-chef pairing has led to a new culture of eating vegetables, which they both consider to be largely overlooked.

Gaining an understanding of vegetables does not just mean eating them, but knowing in which season to do so: "There is nothing sadder than an apple ripening in a cold store on a ship: it arrives stripped of everything."

Garlic Sprouts in Lakasa RestaurantReal Academia de Gastronomía

A Lifelong Love of Produce

It was Pau Santamaría's father, the renowned chef Santi Santamaría, who instilled in him his love for produce. So when, after his father's death, the family closed the 3-Michelin-starred restaurant Can Fabes in 2013, he decided to turn to farming. In addition to his vegetable garden in Vic, he works with farmers in the area to supply the best quality produce from the land to well-known restaurants.

ArtichokesReal Academia de Gastronomía

"I hate it when they call me to ask the price." Quality is what he cares about. He is excited by recovered native seeds that mean crops like the "vigatana" onion can be harvested again, or learning how to cultivate foreign crops such as Mexican "huitlacoche" (a fungus that grows on corn).

PeasReal Academia de Gastronomía

For Santamaría, seasonal and local produce are key to respecting nature and cooking. But that is not to say he rejects plants from other countries, since seeds have traveled over the centuries thanks to birds.

He now gets them from a variety of sources thanks to "Saint Google," which has helped him to collect over 50 varieties of tomato.

TomatoesReal Academia de Gastronomía

While the vegan and organic movement is booming, Pau Santamaría laments the fact that there is still a lot of ignorance when it comes to fruit and vegetables.

Buying organic pineapples from Costa Rica is far worse for the environment than eating a freshly picked local plum, which is undoubtedly much more of a pleasure to eat.

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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