A Chef's Ambitious Quest to Harvest Rice From the Sea | Time

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This is one of the few things Ángel León does with sea fruits.

In 2008, as a young unknown chef, he took a fish from a fish fillet, combined the two proteins with collagen, and attached it to the fillet of another fish. He called them bastards and served them in a restaurant at a loss

, His restaurant in Puerto de Santa María, the port city of El Salvador in southern Spain, just across the Gulf of Cadiz. He found that fisheyes cooked at 55°C in a thermal cycler until the gelatin disintegrated became an excellent thickener for umami-rich seasonings. Next, he discovered that microalgae can chelate impurities in turbid kitchen utensils, just like egg whites in traditional French cooking. In the following years, León used sea bass to make mortadella. Mussels make blood sausage; conger eel skin, imitating crispy pork skin; boiled cod with spaghetti and various parts of the tuna head to create towering, gelatinous, separated osso buco.

It is these ideas and the unremitting curiosity behind them that make Leon one of the most influential chefs in the world. The Spanish call him "Chef del Mar", and he is a man dedicated to the ocean and its bounty. But Aponiente is different from other gilded seafood temples in the world. You can't find Norwegian lobster there. Or Scottish langoustine. Or Hokkaido

In fact, unless you are a fisherman from Andalusia, you are unlikely to know most of the fish that Leon provides for guests.

That's because León is not interested in picking the most famous creatures from the sea. He wants to discover something you don’t know in more depth: “Hedonism is okay. Have you eaten something no one has tried on earth, or ate another spoonful of caviar?” Jellyfish, sea worms, foraging from the bottom of the sea A large number of sea "dishes": all entered his menu.

But for Leon, hedonism is no longer helpful. Everything he did conveyed an unwavering commitment to commemorate the ocean. He thinks of the ocean in the way that a physicist or astronomer thinks about the sky: as a space of infinite discovery, the right combination of curiosity and discipline can provide solutions to the most pressing problems of the 21st century. In his broad enthusiasm, boyish curiosity and fierce ocean fanaticism, he met Captain Nemo and Willie Wonka.

Follow Leon long enough and you will find that his adventure into the abyss is not all-encompassing, but part of a very specific dream that has been formed in his mind for many years. A dream has gone far beyond the walls of his restaurant, extending to the coastal plain of Cadiz. In this dream, he saw those with long wooden broomsticks scratching the surface of the swamp, and rough salt crystals piled up on the white hills gleaming in the Andalusian sun. He saw that the vast estuary network in the region was full of flora and fauna-small, candy-sweet white shrimps, edible seaweeds such as marine wheatgrass mixed fish, snappers and mackerel, studying in dense silver schools. He saw a series of mills built of stone and powered by the sea, grinding grains for daily bread use in the area. Stormy, the sun shines on the saltwater economy, just like the economy that once made Cadiz the center of the world.

Cadiz was founded by the Phoenicians in 1100 BC and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. In the course of three thousand years, many of the greatest empires in the world settled here because of their strategic location: a long strip of land on the edge of the Iberian Peninsula, just outside the mouth of the Mediterranean. The Romans, Visigoths and Muslims all had the Cadiz era, and their empire was fueled by the wealth of this flooded water world. But it was not until the age of exploration that the city became the launch pad of Spain’s greatest ambitions, including Columbus’s second and fourth voyages to the Americas, and Cadiz became one of Spain’s richest cities.

Those days are long gone. After Spain lost its American colony in the 19th century, Cadiz never recovered. Today, it has the highest unemployment rate in all regions of Western Europe. Leon wants to solve this problem to help rebuild the strong marine economy that defined Cadiz's most legendary years. For this reason, his career has been a slow and steady struggle.

But now, he believes that he has found the core of his ambitious dream: the rice field stretches for miles, feather stalks-sticking out from the sea itself. For a long time, scientists have identified seagrass as one of the most important ecosystems to cope with climate change, but what is less known is that these grass leaves also contain many small edible particles with great potential. Among all the dreams that León pursues in this quiet corner of southern Spain, this is his plan to realize his future dream. Not only can it help Franken fish or mussel sausages, but it can also help rebuild his beloved area, and if lucky, it can even change the way we feed the world.

One morning in 2019, he was on a 26-foot boat. Fishing boats,

As we drove past the top of Cadiz Mountain, the sun had just risen to the horizon, and the spires of churches and the domes of mosques reflected the multi-layered history of the city.

"I'm a terrible student. He can't sit and is always in trouble." "But when my father took me out of his boat, everything changed."

León was born and raised in Cádiz with his two sisters and his brother Carlos, who helped manage Aponiente. Their father keeps a small fishing boat. After school and on weekends, he will take his two sons to fish in the Gulf of Cadiz. Hematologist Ángel León Lara has high hopes and often clashed with his son over ground problems. Leon said: "But once we get out of the water, we are no longer father and son." "We are friends."

His brother Carlos saw another sibling on the water: “The boat is a place where the barrier between father and son breaks. We will smoke, tell stories, and do things for friends.” Carlos told me that Ángel can’t Sitting long enough to be unable to go to the classroom, he was captured by the sea. "Most children dare not touch creatures from the ocean. But Ángel will smell them, touch them, rub their scales, and poke their eyes."

Leon's success at sea only emphasizes his struggle on land. His hyperactivity made him a threat in the classroom. He went to five high schools and barely graduated. He attended a hotel school in Seville, where he studied cooking for three years and began to establish a foothold among the terracotta warriors. In 1996, he moved to France to cook at Le Chapon Fin, a Bordeaux winery opened in 1825.

When we passed the fishing boats and the pier on the outskirts of Cádiz, Leon kept quiet, an espresso coffee sandwiched between his fingertips. Since his early years with his father, he has rarely missed the sunrise on the water. His first target when firing

It is to get out of trouble, beyond the range of mobile phones, beyond the ability of the restaurant team and family. "The truth is," he stared at my notebook, "I like to come here alone."

When we sailed into the high seas, the silent spell was broken. Leon said: "Turn left, you reach the Mediterranean Sea, turn right, you enter the Atlantic Ocean." "Two completely different worlds." The connection between the two waters, two very different ecosystems merge into a special The marine life continues to be the main source of inspiration for the city of Leon.

Leon turned on the fish tracker and showed me the school of fish swimming 20 meters below us. He opened the bait storage at the stern, grabbed a hand-sized squid, and placed it on a huge hook. He rolled up another cigarette, put it on his mouth, and sank into the chair.

"Sometimes I don't even fish. I came out to clear my mind. I used to be a-psychopath-I would walk into the sea by myself. But now I have a family to consider." León and him His wife Marta runs the more casual Taberna del Chef del Mar on the road in Aponiente. He has a 5-year-old boy, Ángel. "Easy is the best dish I have ever helped create."

France teaches Leon discipline-how to figure out the stock, how to get quail, how to cook 14 hours a day without complaining. After that, he jumped around, cooking in Toledo, Seville, Buenos Aires, preparing to start his own business.

At that time, El Bulli on the Catalan coast was hailed as the best restaurant in the world, and its performer leader Ferran Adrià was busy rewriting the rules of food. By the time El Bulli closed in 2011, a generation of disciples had spread across the country, spreading the gospel of technology and modernist cuisine. In the first ten years of the 21st century, Spain has become the world's gastronomic center.

León is one of the few chefs in the country that has not emerged from the El Bulli system, but he has the restaurant’s most enduring legacy: questioning the need for all conventions. When León opened Aponiente in 2007, he set out to change people's perception of the ocean. Not only by thoroughly rethinking how to handle familiar fish, but also by looking for ingredients that have never been tasted. He revolves around the menu

Junk fish: Pandora, krill, snapper, mackerel, sea eel. But in León's mind, these are the most noble and delicious creatures in the ocean. His culinary challenges are the same as the growth trend of environmentalism.

In the first three years, people passed by, read the menu, and then turned around. They didn't-understand what this strange restaurant wants to do. Leon found himself teetering on the edge of the ruins.

He remembered a conversation with Adrià in his early years, which helped him keep going. "No one knows me," he said to the famous chef. "Perfect," Adria said. "That's because you are pushing Vanguard."

No bite on the boat

We are waiting for the tide to rise, that is the moment when gravity and inertia cancel each other out before the tide turns. According to Leon, the eight-minute balance is when the fish is most active: "If we were to catch anything today, it would be."

At the time of the collision, Leon dropped the fishing rod from the rear edge of the boat and set the fishing line, then ran inward and tried to locate the boat using radar-directly in the middle of the screen that looked like a smudge. "This is the action."

We sat quietly, waiting for the action, but the action never came. Slowly, the boat began to be sucked back to the shoreline. The tide has changed.

One day, Aponiente won the first Michelin star, which is what León calls "help change everything." In 2014, it won the second star. Suddenly, people started going to Cadiz to dine in restaurants. By the time it received the third Michelin star in 2017, Aponiente had established a firm foothold in the international market. León uses an evolving platform to enhance information, collaborates with universities on sustainability projects, organizes events with chefs and academics, discusses the fragility of our marine ecosystem, and develops commercial products such as bacon. It is made from discarded sea bream and smoked. pineapple.

Despite all his successes, Leon is not your typical celebrity chef. He rarely leaves his hometown and avoids participating in international tournaments, preferring to spend long mornings on the water and long nights in the laboratory. His simple Spanish and small-town humble expression are more suitable for fishermen.

One of Spain’s most respected food critics, Cristina Jolonch, said: “He has opened his own way in the gastronomy world, but the most important thing is his protection of the ocean.” Leon realized this. . "Apart from being a good cook, Aponiente will no longer make sense on the day I can do nothing."

Every January, Leon and his R&D team travel by train

, This is the most outstanding food conference in the food industry, and the auditorium of reporters and chefs shines with the latest discoveries. In 2009, he introduced an edible form of phytoplankton, which is now used in kitchens all over the world. In 2011, León announced the first production line of a seafood-based deli, using discarded fish to make mature sausages, blood sausages and sausages. Everything that died was real. In 2016, the auditorium was completely dark, and León appeared on the stage with a special cocktail

Bioluminescent debris was found in the little crab's abdomen, and when he spun the gin and tonic, they glowed like a galaxy of stars.

In 2018, León and his team decided to adopt a different approach. He explained: "We turned the sea upside down. We want to really look at the seabed and see what secrets it contains." They found a vast and diverse marine botanical garden in the dark depths: roots, fruits, leaves. Leon tends to compare everything he finds underwater to analogs on land, and soon his menu is filled with sea pears, sea tomatoes and artichokes. The so-called vegetables have a different effect than bubbling crab intestines or fish maw bacon, but Leon knew he needed to focus on the bottom of the sea.

This is how he finds what he has been staring at. Leon remembers seeing vast rice fields on the edge of the bay when he was in Cadiz as a child. When he talked to the team, he realized that what he called "rice" was actually

Eel grass grows on coastline grasses all over the world.

Juan Martín, the resident biologist in Aponiente, has worked with León for many years, and he knows the plant very well. "I have been studying seaweed for 15 years-but always from the perspective of the ecosystem. It never occurred to me or anyone else who studies it that it is edible." That is, until León Appeared in Aponiente one day and printed an article in 1973

It records the diet of hunters, gatherers and gatherers in Sonora, Mexico, who have eaten eelgrass for generations. Like many grains, a complex process of threshing, winnowing, roasting and crushing is required before being boiled into a slurry with water. Season the seasoning with the seasoning to make the flavor stronger: honey or turtle oil.

Leon’s R&D team set out to study the plant in detail and signed a cooperative research agreement with the University of Cadiz. "

Martin once said that it was collected and consumed before, but it was never cultivated. "That is a completely different proposition. "They worked with the university to determine the ideal growth conditions: water flow, temperature, salinity, depth, sunlight.

In the summer of 2019, Leon and a small group of chefs and scientists waded into the estuary a few miles east of the restaurant, pulling out bushels of eels from the seabed. They collected a total of 50 kilograms of grain, enough for nutritional analysis and experiments in the kitchen.

"When we first started this process, many things might have gone wrong," said David Chamorro, head of research and development at Aponiente. However, these variables have been favored one after another: a perennial plant with exponential growth, strong nutrients, including a payload of fiber and omega-3 fats, and without gluten.

As for the taste? Leon said: "We have been studying this grain for a year, but I don't know how it tastes." "I am nervous. What if it tastes like sh-t? The day I ate it, I was relieved. Tone.

I first tasted eel grass in the research laboratory upstairs in Aponiente on a rainy afternoon in 2019. Downstairs, the staff cooked and served food, which eventually became the last meal before the COVID-19 pandemic, until the restaurant was closed throughout the spring of 2020, until it reopened in July.

The grain looks more like a rapeseed or chia seed than rice, a short, granular grain with a darker complexion. Leon boiled like pasta, gave me a spoonful, and watched me closely as I processed it. The first thing you notice is the texture: tightened skin and firm texture, each grain pops up on your tongue like a caviar ball. It tastes like the love of rice and quinoa, and has soft brine.

I asked Leon about the inspiration of cereals in the kitchen, but he didn't seem to be ready to speak. Chamorro is optimistic about the possibility: squeezing grains into oil, fermenting them into sake, and grinding them into flour. "Imagine if we give 10 kilograms of flour to the 10 best bakers in Spain, the types of bread we will see-all gluten-free."

However, before you can see eel bread and eel wine in the world, you first need to see more eels. After working with Esteros Lubimar, a fishing company in Cadiz, León and his team developed an ambitious plan to domesticate eelgrass. They did not start with seeds, but required Leon’s impatient process. Instead, they harvested eel gra from different coastal areas across Spain and transplanted it to the Gulf of Cadiz.

If everything goes according to plan, they will harvest 12 acres of eel grass in the summer of 2021. Leon and his team will use most of the seeds (approximately 22,000 kg) to significantly expand the eelgrass between 2022-2023, and he will retain approximately 3,000 acres. Kilograms, you can cook in the restaurant and experiment in the laboratory.

If Leon and his team get their wish, Cadiz will spread over 5,000 hectares of estuaries and abandoned salt beds in the area, and Cadiz will soon become one of the largest eelgrass meadows on the planet.

It is the grass that grows in the water. When Robert Orth, a professor of biological sciences at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, began researching seaweed in 1969, he discovered that it was a very lonely field: "You can literally count the number of papers published by scientists." According to Orth, people either think that seaweed is rough and annoying, or it doesn't exist at all. He said: "Seagrass is the ugly duckling in environmental movement." "They are not as bright as corals, nor as beautiful as mangroves."

But there is something extraordinary about seagrass: they are the only plants that bloom completely in salt water. They have all the equipment of terrestrial plants-roots, stems, rhizomes, leaves, flowers, seeds-but they thrive in underwater environments. Seaweed like

They are ecosystem engineers: the grasslands that they form along the coast represent the most biologically diverse areas in the ocean, gathering fauna that cannot survive without seagrass (such as seahorses, bay scallops, and sea turtles).

However, human factors-climate change, pollution, coastal development-threaten eelgrass all over the world. As Leon and his team improve the conditions for large-scale planting, they hope to promote its growth around the world (Asia, North America and most importantly on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar in Africa) and turn millions of hectares of land into food , A weapon to prevent erosion and resist climate change.

Jeanine Olsen, an emeritus professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, said: “As far as the ecological importance of seagrass is concerned, it is impossible to talk about them too much.” “They do not have the reef-like poster appeal, but in terms of productivity. They are equally important in terms of biodiversity, carbon sequestration and habitat."

Despite all the claims that the Amazon is the lung of Mother Nature, the rainforest is only the fifth most efficient carbon sink on the planet. The carbon sequestration capacity of seagrass meadows is second only to tundra, and the rate of carbon absorption is 35 times the area of ​​tropical rainforest.

But, like many of the best tools we use in response to rising temperatures, seagrass meadows have been on the brink of extinction at an alarming rate over the past few decades due to rising water temperatures and increased human activity along the coastline. The lack of consciousness will only accelerate the decline.

In 2006, Orth and a dozen scientists

In the context of the shocking decline in seagrass populations on a global scale: “Salt marshes, mangroves and coral reefs receive three to 100 times more attention than seagrass ecosystems, although the services provided by seagrass and algae beds can at least bring value Twice as high as the next most valuable habitat."

It seems that the message of Orth and his colleagues has been sent. In the years since then, the field has developed rapidly, with more funding and more research. Restoration projects are underway around the world, including one of the coastal lagoons on the east coast of Virginia under the supervision of Orth, which has regenerated more than 3,500 hectares of seagrass meadows.

Until this article, Leon's project has been a tight secret. Even the local Spanish marine biologists don't know what happened. I talked and exchanged emails with half of the top seaweed experts around the world, and everyone responded with their own surprise version. Carlos Duarte (Carlos Duarte) is one of them, he has a wealth of marine expertise, so that he brought him from the tropics to the North Pole, from the dense coastal ecosystem to the unknown depth of the "dark ocean".

Duang told me on the phone from Mallorca that what Leon was doing was unprecedented. I just shared the news with him. He finally said: "This will be the first eel to be domesticated." "They will be pioneers." Then, he paused again. "This is a major achievement."

Duarte knows the region and conditions very well. Although he emphasized that eel production tends to be low, he said that along with other factors such as taste and nutrition, it can be improved through genetic selection. "The problems of traditional agriculture will not be affected in the sea. There is no fertilizer, no pesticides, no insects," he said. "By default, it will be a green sustainable crop. You are not bringing exotic species here. You are taking a jewel in the Gulf of Cadiz, and then doing more."

However, the other side of the equation is not part of any seaweed scientist's environmental calculations: the water itself. Nearly 97% of the water on the earth is salt water. As far as all our brains and ambitions are concerned, humans have never figured out how much to do with salt water. We use it to cool thermal power plants. We use it in some forms of mining. Most of our efforts and resources are focused on turning salt water into fresh water, but desalination is still expensive.

Only 1% of the water on the earth is readily available fresh water, and the earth is becoming thirsty. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, mankind needs to increase agricultural production by 60% to meet the needs of the nearly 10 billion people expected to live on the earth by 2050. But just as our demand for fresh water has never increased, our water supply has never been more questionable. Climate models predict that the rest of the 21st century will be a roller coaster of historic droughts and historic floods, endangering world food supplies. Finding a way to use salt water in agriculture will greatly change the calculus of feeding the earth.

The Dutch took the lead in saltwater agriculture. Government-funded efforts to introduce salt water genes into traditional vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes and carrots have shown promise. For the Chinese, the world's largest rice consumer and grower, salt rice has become the holy grail for nearly 40 years.

The agronomist first developed high-yield hybrid rice in the 1970s and has been trying to crack the code since the early 1980s. In 2018, Yuan and his team successfully planted saltwater rice in desert flats outside Dubai, achieving more than twice the global average rice output.

But they did this through decades of hybridization and diluting salt water with fresh water. What Leon pursues is completely different: native plants grow directly on the seabed, which can provide huge nutrition and ecological benefits.

Rice may be the world's largest source of calories, but it also requires two increasingly scarce resources: land and fresh water. The gas mixture (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) produced during rice cultivation has been found to contribute to climate change. In contrast, León’s sea rice yields similar to land rice, but it can be grown in any temperate coastal area in the world while isolating excess carbon.

Some experts I spoke with expressed concern about the logistical challenges of planting

"Eel grass is a complicated problem," Ott told me. "You must have all the right conditions: light, temperature, current."

The challenge has not been lost on Juan Martín, but Martín pointed out that the estuary on which they will grow eels allows the team to fully control these elements. León and the research team have also been collaborating with geneticists, hoping to improve some of the core characteristics of genetics.

Martin said: "Rice has the advantage of 7,000 years of genetic modification." "In a very short period of time, we can make huge improvements."

Leon is thinking. Not only is it a supercharged version of his salted rice, but he and his team also discussed the possibility of isolating the salt gene.

Hybrid with other staple foods: corn, lentils, lettuce.

Leon said: "It's not just rice." "This is the dream of building an underwater garden for humans."

Leon said: "This is where we are going to grow rice in the distance." Leon pointed from the second-floor terrace of the old factory, where is the home of Aponiente, and below is the sunbathing estuary. "The waters will be full of life: shrimps, oysters, sea breams. Next year, guests will not start their meals in the restaurant, but will eat their first bite directly on the water."

In the early summer, he conducted this tour through FaceTime. It should have been personally. The two of us hoped to plant young eels in late spring, but then COVID-19 crushed Spain and the country was closed until late June. Leon took off his shirt, and a cigarette was caught in a boyish smile and almost disappeared. The restaurant is scheduled to open the next day. He has just made the final tasting and has prepared the menu for 9 months. The unified concept is the edible interpretation of tidal swamps. There will be emerald puddles of plankton butter and ocean marrow,

Forged from sea snails. For Leon, the star of the season is

A kind of sea worm.

Despite the concerns of his employees and partners, León still insists that worms are a core part of the menu. After a different experiment, he sat on the cheek of the grilled sea bream, topped with rich herring broth and crispy sea worm decoration.

But even if he talks to me on the details of the final menu, I can still see that his thoughts are elsewhere. When I asked about plants, he sounded relieved. He said: "This finally happened." "On July 17, our staff is going to collect

From Galicia and Cantabria. We should plant them all before early fall. "

As the shape of the grass finally took shape, he had a new question to worry about: "Should I use 22,000 kg of sea rice to cook?" he asked, his wide-eyed smile enveloped in a cloud of smoke. "The whole process is like giving birth. My chef died somewhere on the way. I was so scared and didn't have much respect for every bitter fruit."

He is back now, sitting down on a long table in the office he renovated during the lockdown. Behind him, on a long white wall, a local painter installed 35 heads of major fish in the Bay of Cadiz. Its function is to make Leon look like a cartoon hero with a group of marine creatures behind it.

"Imagine a rice cake made from ground

Flour and shrimp powder...or playing with the texture of al dente

Pasta... eaten in two rounds: first the husk, then the grain itself... we can harvest as soon as possible. When the seeds are like baby pods, they can be used like peas, but they must have seafood..." Leon continued Going forward, holding his breath, then hit six other ideas.

Leon likes to say that he is just a simple cook. From his always believing expression, he did not read that it was false modesty. He is a child of a pirate from the poorest part of Spain. He has hardly graduated from high school and can find himself capable of doing anything that no one else can do. But he was there, on the verge of another breakthrough.

He explained: "How much do scientists who have been studying one thing in our lives miss? Sometimes you stare under the microscope all day and you don't have enough time to remember that you are hungry."

As he spoke, he began to reach out to the heads of marine creatures hanging on the wall, including mackerel, squid, and dogfish. He settled on the spotted nose of a moray mount-since dawn, fishermen of the same species have returned to the sea, but León used it as a profession to build crispy sirloin cheese and souffles" Potatoes" and sea suckling pig.

"You need science, but you also need hunger."



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