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Mexico City’s Famed Floating Farms, Chefs Team Up to Save Fading Tradition

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A variety of lettuce grows on a floating farm known as a "chinampa" in Xochimilco, Mexico City, July 13, 2017.
  • Xochimilco in Mexico is known as ‘Mexican Venice’ and is home the popular floating gardens
  • The capital is conferred by the UNESCO as World Heritage Site
  • The floating gardens’ Chinampa farming and its cultivation techniques dates back to the pre-Columbian era hundreds of years ago

At dawn in Xochimilco, home to Mexico City’s famed floating gardens, farmers in muddied rain boots squat among rows of beets as a group of chefs arrive to sample sweet fennel and the pungent herb known as epazote.

By dinner time some of those greens will be on plates at an elegant bistro 12 miles (20 kilometers) to the north, stewed with black beans in a $60 prix-fixe menu for well-heeled diners.

Call it floating-farm-to-table: A growing number of the capital’s most in-demand restaurants are incorporating produce grown at the gardens, or chinampas, using ancient cultivation techniques pioneered hundreds of years ago in the pre-Columbian era.

While sourcing local ingredients has become fashionable for many top chefs around the globe, it takes on additional significance in Xochimilco, where a project linking chinampa farmers with high-end eateries aims to breathe life and a bit of modernity into a fading and threatened tradition.

“People sometimes think [farm-to-table] is a trend,” said Eduardo Garcia, owner and head chef of Maximo Bistrot in the stylish Roma Norte district. “It’s not a trend. It’s something that we humans have always done and we need to keep doing it, we need to return to it.”

A farmer moves his harvest of squash flowers through the channels of Xochimilco in Mexico City, July 13, 2017.

Xochimilco, on the far southern edge of Mexico City, is best-known as the “Mexican Venice” for its canals and brightly colored boats where locals and tourists can while away a weekend day listening to mariachi music and sipping cold beers.

It has also been a breadbasket for the Valley of Mexico since before the Aztec Empire, when farmers first created the “floating” islands bound to the shallow canal beds through layers of sediment and willow roots.

There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world, and Xochimilco is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

But that World Heritage status and Xochimilco itself are threatened by the pollution and encroaching urbanization that plague the rest of the sprawling metropolis.

Enter Yolcan, a business that specializes in placing traditionally farmed Xochimilco produce in Mexico City’s most acclaimed restaurants Those include places like Gabriela Camara’s seafood joint Contramar and Enrique Olvera’s Pujol, which is perhaps the country’s most famous restaurant and regularly makes lists of the world’s best.

Yolcan has been around since 2011, but it’s only in the last year that business has really taken off with the number of restaurant partners increasing by a third during that period to 22. Last month five of them teamed up with Yolcan for dinner to benefit chinampa preservation.

Ichiro Kitazawa, a chef at the Japanese restaurant Rocoi, inspects herbs on a floating garden known as a “chinampa” in Xochimilco in Mexico City, July 13, 2017.

The company directly manages its own farmland and also partners with local families to help distribute their goods, lending a much-needed hand as an intermediary.

“The thing about the chinampa farmer is that he does not have the time to track down a market or a person to promote his product,” said David Jimenez, who works a plot in the San Gregorio area of Xochimilco. “Working the chinampas is very demanding.”

All told Yolcan’s operation covers about 15 acres (6 hectares) and churns out some 2.5 tons of produce per month. Due to the high salinity of the soil drawn from canal beds, the straw-covered chinampa plots are particularly fertile ground for root vegetables and hearty greens like kale and chard.

Diners reserve weeks in advance for a coveted table at Maximo Bistrot, one of three restaurants Garcia runs. Meticulously prepared plates of chinampa-grown roasted yellow carrots with asparagus puree arrive at the table, accompanied by sea bass with green mole sauce and wine pairings in tall glasses.

Chef Eduardo Garcia, founder of Maximo Bistrot and former migrant worker in the US, cuts mushrooms at his restaurant in Mexico City, July 13, 2017.

Garcia estimated he gets about two-thirds of his ingredients from Yolcan or other organic farms nearby. He was born in a rural part of Guanajuato state where his family raised corn and largely ate what they grew, so sourcing local is second-nature.

“I think all of the world’s restaurants should make it a goal to use these alternative ingredients,” Garcia said, stirring a pot of beans flavored with the aromatic epazote herb. “Even though it’s a little more expensive, a little more difficult to find.”

Chinampa produce generally sells for 15 to 100 percent more than comparable goods at the enormous Central de Abasto, the go-to wholesale market for nearly all of Mexico City’s chefs that is so monolithic its competition sets prices across the country.

But chefs who buy from Yolcan are happy to pay a premium knowing they’re getting vegetables free of chemical fertilizers or pesticides and also supporting a centuries-old tradition.

Diners at Maximo Bistrot also said they enjoyed their meal, especially the burrata with chinampa-grown heirloom tomatoes. One couple said they are willing to pay the prices of these high-end eateries in order to have the best produce.

“We’ve eaten in 26 countries around the world, and for the price and quality, this was awesome,” said Kristin Kearin, a 35-year-old masseuse from United States. “I honestly think that using small producers is going to come back.” (VOA)

Next Story

Mexico-US Tariff Deal: Questions, Concerns for Migration

Washington and Mexico City both took victory laps Saturday over a deal

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Mexico, US, Tarrif
People enter the U.S. at the Otay Mesa port of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, Calif., June 8, 2019. - U.S. President Donald Trump touted on Saturday his deal averting tariffs on Mexico, a plan economists warned would have been disastrous for both nations. VOA

As Washington and Mexico City both took victory laps Saturday over a deal that headed off threatened tariffs on Mexican imports, it remained to be seen how effective it may be, and migration experts raised concerns about what it could mean for people fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.

Other than a vague reiteration of a joint commitment to promote development, security and growth in Central America, the agreement focuses almost exclusively on enforcement and says little about the root causes driving the surge in migrants seen in recent months.

“My sense is overall the Mexican government got out of this better than they thought. The agreement though leaves a lot of big question marks,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s good that the two sides reached an agreement which allows both of them to save face, but it’s not clear how easy it is to implement.”

Guard deployment

Mexico, US, Tarrif
Migrants sleep on a sidewalk in Tapachula, Chiapas state, Mexico, June 8, 2019. President Donald Trump has put on hold his plan to begin imposing tariffs on Mexico, saying the U.S. ally will take “strong measures” to reduce the flow of Central American migrants toward the U.S.border. VOA

The deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops appears to be the key commitment in what was described as “unprecedented steps” by Mexico to ramp up enforcement, though Interior Secretary Olga Sanchez Cordero said that had already been planned and was not a result of external pressure.

“I have said before, migration into Mexico also has to be regulated … orderly, legal and safe,” Sanchez Cordero told The Associated Press. “So the National Guard that we were going to deploy anyway, we’re going to deploy. It’s not because they tell us to, but rather because we’re going to do it anyway.”

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Mexican measures

Mexico was already increasing enforcement with detentions, deportations and checkpoints. In recent weeks it broke up the latest migrant caravan, snuffing out most of the appetite for traveling in large, visible groups.

If Mexico does more as promised, it’s likely to be seen in intensification of those same efforts, experts said — raids on hotels where migrants stay or on bus companies transporting them north to the U.S. border. The two countries also agreed to share information on and disrupt people-smuggling networks, a new focus seen earlier this week when Mexico arrested two migration activists and froze accounts of over two dozen people alleged to have organized caravans.

A concern is that even more aggressive enforcement could put migrants with legitimate asylum claims at risk of being deported from Mexico to the dangers they fled in the first place. Also, Mexican security forces are known for often being corrupt and shaking migrants down for bribes. A renewed crackdown is seen as making migration through Mexico more difficult and more dangerous, but doing little to discourage Central Americans desperate to escape poverty, hunger and violence.

Mexico, US, Tarrif
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard gets ready to talk to reporters as he leaves the State Department in Washington, June 7, 2019. VOA

“People are fleeing their homes regardless of what the journey might mean and regardless of what chance they may have for seeking protections in Mexico or in the United States,” said Maureen Meyer, an immigration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, “simply because they need to leave.”

Human element missing

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“It seems like in all these discussions [about tariffs and immigration], the human reality of these people and why they’re leaving Central America was lost,” she continued. “It was ‘what can we do to stop them,’ and not ‘what can we really do to create the conditions in their home countries so that people don’t have to leave.’ ”

Another key element of the deal is that the United States will expand a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocol, or MPP. According to Mexican immigration authorities, since January there have been 10,393 returns by migrants to Mexico while their cases wend their way through U.S. courts.

MPP has been plagued by glitches and so far has been introduced only in California and El Paso, Texas, and Selee said there are logistical hurdles to further expansion. Right now the MPP figure of 10,000 or so represents “a drop in the bucket” compared with overall migration, he added.

Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who led the negotiations, said the agreement does not include any quotas.

Mexico, US, Tarrif
A woman waves a Mexican flag prior to a speech by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a rally in Tijuana, Mexico, June 8, 2019. VOA

If MPP does roll out on a mass scale along the United States’ entire southern border, it could overwhelm Mexican border cities. Mexico promised to offer jobs, health care and education for returnees, but has little infrastructure to do so. Currently most shelters and support programs are run by the likes of NGOs and the Roman Catholic Church.

And if the program were to include places like Tamaulipas, the Gulf coast state where cartels and gangs control large swaths of territory, migrants could be at even greater risk.

Dangerous area

“This is an area that the U.S. government considers that it’s not safe for any American citizen,” Meyer said, referring to the State Department’s highest-level warning against all travel to Tamaulipas because of crime and kidnappings. “And yet it’s OK for us to send people back there?”

Still, the deal was hailed by many in Mexican industry and politics.

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Arturo Rocha, a Foreign Relations Department spokesman, tweeted late Friday that it was “an unquestionable triumph for Mexico.” Avoiding tariffs sends a calming message to ratings agencies worried about a possible trade war, he said, adding that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s government had won U.S. recommitment to Central American development and resisted “safe third country” designation, a concession sought by Washington that would have required asylum seekers to apply first in Mexico.

However, Abdel Camargo, an anthropologist at the Frontera Sur College in southern Mexico, said that by accepting MPP returnees, “Mexico does not become a safe third country but de facto is going to act as one.”

Some such as ex-President Felipe Calderon of the conservative opposition National Action Party questioned whether Mexico was truly master of its own migratory policy. But Jose Antonio Meade, a five-time Cabinet minister who lost last year’s election to Lopez Obrador, praised Ebrard for avoiding damaging tariffs “in the face of very complex conditions.”

In San Jose del Cabo for a summit of North American mayors, Juan Manuel Gastelum of Tijuana, across from San Diego, said he’s fine with more migrants being returned to his city as long as the federal government invests in caring for them. He added that the threat of tariffs may have been necessary to force his country’s hand.

“How else was Mexico going to understand that it is not right to leave migration uncontrolled?” said Gastelum, who is also a member of National Action.

Tijuana rally

Meanwhile, a rally later Saturday in Tijuana that Lopez Obrador called to defend Mexican pride and dignity was expected to take on more of a festive atmosphere.

“It was [originally supposed to be] a meeting to show support for the incoming governor … that turned into a demand for peace and respect on the tariffs issue,” local restaurateur and businessman Francisco Villegas said. “But since the tariffs issue was sorted out by having Marcelo Ebrard and his team up there, it is now turning into a celebration.” (VOA)