Visitors to Mexico City in the past decade may assume that the city has a cooking culture deeply rooted in a strong culinary heritage. But Ricardo Muñoz’s recovery of traditional Mexican cooking techniques and Enrique Olvera’s abstract adaptations of time-honored recipes are new revelations. In fact, it wasn’t until recently that top Mexican chefs refocused the gastronomic spotlight on indigenous cooking traditions and, by extension, on the traditional and ecological imperative of eating and sourcing locally.
A Hidden Food Source in Danger
Surprisingly, despite the city’s brick-and-mortar sprawl, more than half of Mexico City is green space. An important part of the urban food supply is actually grown within the city limits. Beyond the main canals of the famous Xochimilco—where, on weekends, wildly painted boats carry tourists around to the strains of marimba music and the clinking of ice-cold beers—lie the chinampas. A labyrinth of extremely fertile islands and lesser-transited canals, Mexico City’s Aztec-built chinampa canals are one of the most distinctive agricultural systems in the world. Today, without this green zone, the annual temperature in the city would rise by 35.6° Fahrenheit.
But this important natural reserve is in danger, threatened by pollution from pesticides, fertilizers, trash, and gray water runoff from homes and businesses. Furthermore, the city government is draining the very aquifer that is used to replenish the canals, and city jobs with easier money and regular hours are luring away the traditional chinampa farmers (or chinamperos) who tend to this crucial agricultural space.
Luckily, many groups are already working to save the chinampas. One, a local organization called Yolcan, is working on a symbiotic solution that promises to both mitigate some of the threats to the area and to drive the city’s burgeoning organic food movement. Over the past six years, Yolcan’s director, Lucio Usobiaga, has developed relationships with some of the city’s top chefs—from the kitchens of Merotoro, Pujol, Contramar, and Maximo Bistrot—and with some of its most important producers in the chinampas, linking the two communities. The supplier works with five different families of chinampa farmers to grow organic produce they sell to Yolcan at fair-trade prices, providing the chinamperos with higher monthly income and access to the city’s high-end food market.
A Delicious Solution
Chef Eduardo Garcia, or Lalo as he is affectionately called, knows a little about agriculture. He grew up in a family of migrant workers who followed the annual growing season in the United States, and he is now one of Mexico City’s rising culinary stars. Garcia buys almost exclusively from sustainable farmers and fishermen—in particular, from Yolcan.
“The difference between what [Yolcan] is growing and the produce grown in agrochemicals is day and night,” he tells me one morning in his flagship restaurant, Maximo Bistrot. “In texture, in taste: Take, for example, radishes. Eat a conventional radish and it tastes like nothing; eat one of Yolcan’s and it will make your eyes water, it’s so spicy.”
Every chef dreams of having his own garden, Garcia tells me, but the pressures of running a restaurant make it impossible for chefs to spend their days out on the farm picking vegetables. That’s why trusted suppliers and intermediaries are so important. The chinamperos need to trust that suppliers like Yolcan will secure a reliable market for their product, and in turn, restaurants have to trust that what they are purchasing is produced sustainably and that farmers are receiving a fair price for their labor. Most importantly, everything has to taste good.
“I understand if vegetables don’t come out of the ground perfectly,” says Garcia. “If something is little eaten by a bug, that’s fine; if something is crooked or misshapen, it doesn’t matter. Because for me what’s important is that these things come from the earth and that they taste the way they are supposed to.”
If you drop into Maximo Bistrot or Pujol, you aren’t likely to see them boasting about buying organic or local—it’s something Mexican chefs are low-key about—but you will notice the difference in quality, says Javier Van Cauwelaert of the Contramar restaurant group.
“Our clients don’t ask us if our tomatoes are organic,” he says. “But they notice. And they come back for those tomatoes.”
As Mexico City’s culinary reputation continues to grow, collaborations like this one are bringing the “eat local” movement to the forefront of dining in Mexico’s capital. Even better, Yolcan’s goals go beyond supplying organic produce to local restaurants. The organization also raises awareness of the local organic movement by providing a community-supported agriculture home-delivery program available to residents in the city’s central neighborhoods. Additionally, they work alongside farmers and environmental engineers to improve the canals’ water and soil quality using biofilters and organic soil regeneration techniques and are in the process of creating an organic agriculture school where local farmers can learn eco-farming techniques. For a country that continues to dig into its indigenous roots and traditional gastronomy, saving the chinampas is an integral part to recovering a delicious heritage.