Michelin star chefs track down long-lost seeds to give their mother a taste of childhood

Michelin star chefs track down long-lost seeds to give their mother a taste of childhood
© Jamie Smith Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca of El Celler de Can Roca – Jamie Smith

Despite having pioneered pig trotter carpaccio and ice-cream flavoured with cigar smoke, when the Michelin-starred Roca brother chefs were asked by their ageing mother to recreate the food of her childhood, they were stumped.

What followed was an epic mission that took them as far as the Arctic Circle to source the ingredients.

“Some of the ingredients she told us about weren’t on the market anymore. In fact, they don’t exist,” said Joan Roca, founder and head chef at El Celler de Can Roca, twice named the best restaurant in the world.

The mission started when Joan Roca, and his younger brothers Josep and Jordi, heard Montserrat Fontané, 86, tell an interviewer how she wanted to revisit her family’s old country home and revisit the dishes she grew up on in Catalonia’s La Garrotxa mountain region.

The brothers bought the property, a dilapidated old farmhouse called Can Batista, and embarked on detective work that made them realise the extent of the world’s loss of agrobiodiversity.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 75 per cent of crop varieties were lost in the 20th century.

Michelin star chefs track down long-lost seeds to give their mother a taste of childhood
© Provided by The Telegraph The brothers celebrating in 2013 after topping World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – QUIQUE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

A handful of varieties now make up most of the food eaten in the world today, and millions of people could see their main source of nutrition wiped out by a solitary instance of disease or rot.

The brothers’ search to relocate old varieties such as the Olot black turnip and white aubergine once typical in La Garrotxa is recorded in a documentary which is released online on Wednesday. 

The brothers hope the film, called Sembrando el Futuro, or Sowing the Future, will kick-start a global movement among chefs to save dying crop varieties to maintain biodiversity, encourage the use of local produce to reduce transport and rediscover lost flavours.  

“Memory is all we have, I ask God to let me keep my memory,” says Ms Fontané during the film, recalling the harsh years of the Spanish Civil War and Postwar-era hunger of her childhood before she founded Can Roca with her husband, Josep Roca, in 1967, a cheap fixed-menu restaurant that is still running in Girona.

The brothers visited seed banks in north-eastern Spain and even the Crop Trust seed vault in Svalbard, Norway. There, more than a million varieties are being stored in an attempt to cover future needs for alternative varieties as climate change and overexploitation of current favourite crops threaten food security.

The brothers sourced and harvested a dozen or so lapsed varieties for El Celler de Can Roca’s own vegetable garden, and developed dishes for two separate occasions. One was a haute-cuisine tasting menu featuring dishes such as ice cream of fermented white maize, a local variety whose lower yield has seen it replaced entirely with yellow-grain sweetcorn.

The other was a more rustic family affair in a restored Can Batista, where some of the dishes were cooked on an open fire and dark buckwheat flour used for hearty churro doughnuts.

Most importantly, the food was a hit with Ms Fontane.

“She loved it,” Josep Roca, the middle of the three brothers and El Celler’s sommelier, told The Daily Telegraph.

“She is our inspiration, a matriarch who instilled in us the virtues of sacrifice, effort, generosity, hospitality, perseverance – the words of a mother,” Mr Roca said.

“We were searching for that most intimate memory and we ran full on into a problem we did not know about. We realised how much we are losing and how much we need to sow.”

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