Tucked away in the southern valley of Mexico City and just far enough away from the urban hustle and bustle is a winding network of vivid tree-lined canal systems called Xochimilco. Set amidst these canals are a series of floating gardens referred to as chinampas.
Chinampas extend back to the time of the Aztecs. They are created by piling mud and decaying plants into small stationary islands, on top of which farmers can sow crops. Reeds are bound together to stabilize the islands and used to fence in each chinampa as an anchor.
This iconic area is usually full of tourists riding gondola-like boats called trajineras up and down the scenic waterways, but Xochimilco is now quiet during the pandemic. Amidst this calm is a picturesque foreground of what the area was and still is – a place to cultivate crops and an everlasting archetype of Mexico’s urban agriculture movement.
Right in the heart of the chinampas is an agroecological community and meeting place called Arca Tierra. The community comprises a network of 65 peasant farming families or chinamperos, 35 chefs, eight food artisans, and two artists, all with shared missions of revitalizing and protecting traditional agricultural practices and promoting fair trade.
The network practises regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture focuses on restoring soils that industrial farming methods have degraded. According to co-founders Pablo and Lucio Usobiaga, their goal is ultimately not “just to grow plants but to build an organic ecosystem.”
Arca Tierra grew out of one of Lucio’s earlier projects, Yolcan, which, since 2011, has been recovering the techniques and traditions of agriculture in the Chinampas. Lucio has a background in agroecology. Pablo is his brother and business partner. Both are passionate about conserving the chinampas.
Supporting peasant farmers’ work is crucial to strengthening the local economy, protecting culinary and cultural traditions, and land regeneration to fight climate change. “They take care of the environment, feed us, and connect us with nature,” Pablo says. In the past, farmers faced one option of selling to intermediaries at Mexico City’s wholesale markets. Prices would fluctuate daily, and market uncertainty would make it very difficult for chinamperos to plant their crops. The main farming season spans from June until October.
A majority of what is cultivated now is split and supplied amongst three groups. Fifty-eight percent is provided to some of Mexico City’s top well-known restaurants, including Pujol, Quintonil, Rosetta and Maximo Bistrot. Thirty-seven percent is supplied to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, a subscription service that provides consumers with a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. The final five percent is used to create monthly farm-to-table, sustainable gastronomic experiences, connecting farmers to gastronomes in central Mexico City.
Gastronomic experiences allow Mexicans and tourists interested in gastronomy to see how their food is organically grown. The meeting place itself is a countryside picture out of a postcard. Vibrantly coloured heads of cabbage, spinach, chard and kale are perfectly lined in neat rows. Farmers working the fields dot the extensive area spanning one hectare of the chinampa area or six chinampas. The community is also growing on 1000 m2 of experimental land in Huasca, Hidalgo.
The team at Arca Tierra recently hosted renowned Oaxacan chef Jorge Léon of the award-winning restaurant Alfonsina and the creator of Pujol’s famed madre molé. “We were delighted sharing the flavours of our home in the chinampas of Arca Tierra”, said Léon. The event was multi-faceted. Close to 100 guests not only experienced rustic down-to-earth, refined Mexican cooking; but were also given a chance to learn about the organic ingredients that made up each dish and the farmers responsible for growing those ingredients.
The five-course meal consisted of five progressive dishes highlighting different vegetables from the chinampas.
The first course was a variety of lettuces, heirloom tomato, highlighted with cottage cheese and almond dollops and tossed with a mandarin vinaigrette. This dish was vibrant and fresh – a great introduction to the vegetables of the chinamapas.
The second and third courses were smaller bites, both with different but punchy flavours. One course was barbecued shrimp wrapped in rainbow chard with avocado and coriander. The other was a tostada bite with parsley, purple cabbage, kampachi and horse mackerel mayonnaise. Fresh vegetables complemented and accentuated both dishes.
The main attraction though was the plato fuerte – a cumin molé with halibut, baby carrot, mustard, and wildly addictive blue corn tortillas. The molé was light and airy like it had been strained, sieved, stirred and nurtured for days. It was wild trying to deconstruct the flavours of this dish – the spicy and the sweet. It was one of those dishes where guests wished they could vault inside the mind of Léon to understand his creativity and way of interpreting ingredients and flavours.
The final course – the postre -- consisted of calabaza with a splash of lemon. It was subtle and clean. All in all, the menu was reminiscent of a bright summer day. The dishes were vibrant, with bold flavours and fresh ingredients. The cooking felt soulful.
Guests were also treated to cocktails served and sponsored by Jose Cuervo and wine from Mexican winery Casa Madero. Even though the spirited afternoon felt too short, it provided a concise understanding of the underlying foundations of what makes Mexico City, and Mexico generally, such an extraordinary, rooted gastronomic destination.
The Usobiaga brothers will host these larger gastronomic events twice a month. They continue to build partnerships, more so friendships – with the Mexico City food community with each passing day. Each added partner to the network becomes part of a larger family.
Arca Tierra will host their next event with Gabriela Cámera of Contramar, and San Francisco restaurant, Cala, on March 21st. Tickets for this event have already sold out, attesting to the growing popularity of Arca Tierra.
The experiences are, after all, connecting Mexico City’s gourmands back to nature, the original peasant agriculture that sustained their ancestors, and the roots and fundamentals of what they are eating.