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  • Ute Junker

Back from the Brink

They’re the world’s leading chefs — and they’re also championing rare, ancient plants in a bid for greater biodiversity. By Ute Junker.

A dish from Mirazur’s seasonal menu “Flowers” featuring tagete petals. Photography by Matteo Carassale.

He’s a crusader committed to rescuing endangered plants from the brink of oblivion, but the most surprising thing about Alessandro Di Tizio, a lanky ethnobotanist, is not his impressive dreadlocks. It’s where he chooses to work. 

Mirazur’s pantry includes several house-made flower pickles. Photography by Coline Ciais-Soulhat.

Instead of plunging into the jungles of South America or the forests of Africa, Di Tizio hunts down rare species on the French Riviera. Part of the team at the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Mirazur in the town of Menton, he says that much of the area’s rich gastronomic heritage is on the verge of disappearing. “We have a variety of beans that are found only in one village — they almost disappeared during World War II,” he explains. “One elderly woman, Fina, hid some Villatella beans underground in a bar [during the war] and found them when she returned. Today, her grandson Flavio grows them on the same terraces as his grandmother, producing around 200 or 300 kilos a year.”

Di Tizio works with local communities and growers to identify these ancient plants before they disappear. They are then nurtured in one of the half-dozen gardens Mirazur has scattered around the area, including the wild sloping site we are currently wandering through.

As we walk, Di Tizio points out dozens of species of almost-forgotten plants. Many of them, such as the dandelion-like radicchiella dei prati flourishing beside a dry-stone wall — once commonly eaten here as a salad vegetable — could be mistaken for weeds. Others, such as the sorb tree, which grows rosy golf-ball sized fruit, were rediscovered through serendipity.

“It’s a very old variety that was almost completely lost — we found some plants growing along the sides of abandoned fields,” Di Tizio says. “The R&D team doesn’t know yet what to do with them.” Early experiments included drying the fruits and turning them into a powder used to sweeten biscuits. “We’ve now crushed the fruit into a paste — maybe we might make a sort of miso,” he muses.

Mirazur chef Mauro Colagreco in the restaurant’s Rosmarino garden, which grows some 150 plant species for the kitchen. Photography by Matteo Carassale.

Led by chef Mauro Colagreco, the Mirazur team not only runs one of the most acclaimed restaurants in the world, it is also on a mission to ensure that ingredients that formed part of the local diet for generations do not disappear. The loss of biodiversity around the world, Colagreco says, is a crucial issue.

“More than 50 per cent of agriculture today is just five products — corn, rice, soybeans, wheat and potatoes — and usually two or three varieties of each,” he says. Monocultures are not just vulnerable to pests, they also deprive our palates of the full range of flavours that our ancestors once knew.

Around the world, other chefs are also on the case. Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez and his partner, chef Pia León, raised eyebrows back in 2018 when they followed up their acclaimed Lima restaurant, Central, with Mil, a rustic eatery sitting among the peaks of the Andes, around an hour from Cusco and 3,600 metres above sea level. 

Peruvian chefs Pia León and Virgilio Martínez, who founded the “food lab” and restaurant Mil. Photography by Ken Motohasi.

This region is home to 85 of the world’s 110 climate zones across its peaks and valleys, and new plants are still being discovered. Like Mirazur, Mil dedicates significant resources to research and development of the area’s natural riches.

an update of the farmers’ classic choclo con queso (corn with cheese) at Mil. Photography by Ken Motohasi.

Diners who sign up for the Mil Immersion at $US620 ($AU955) a pop don’t just get an eight-course meal, their experience includes visiting local communities and the nearby Incan archaeological site of Moray, as well as a walk with a forager who identifies local species and their medicinal and nutritional benefits. For Martínez, it’s all a means to get his message out.

“We are interested in inspiring people [from] other disciplines and people who might be even more involved in solutions to the problems we live with,” he says. “Entities inside and outside of government, businesses and entrepreneurs, creating a community of people who work consistently to generate bigger changes together.”

Biodiversity isn’t just an ecological issue, it is also an economic one. At the acclaimed São Paulo restaurant D.O.M, Brazilian chef Alex Atala showcases indigenous ingredients from the Amazonian region, which he first explored as a child on family holidays.

Brazilian chef Alex Atala experiments with indigenous ingredients from the Amazon region. Photography by Marcus Steinmeyer.

The most famous ingredient in Atala’s pantry is ants (they taste a lot like lemongrass), but he has championed plenty of indigenous plant species such as priprioca root, not traditionally used as a foodstuff. The plant’s complex aroma — variously citric, smoky and earthy — has long been harnessed by the cosmetics industry. But Atala has found ways to team it with ingredients including fish, chocolate, lemon and bananas.  

Atala supports small community producers and hopes that by showcasing ingredients he can help grow local economies. “Great cheeses and great wines in Europe are not produced by industry but by artisanal producers. The market is aware of their quality and, therefore, pays better. This, perhaps, is the biggest key to transforming food and the people who depend on food,” he says. “All the support work that I have been doing in Brazil for small producers is not so that they can gain scale, but so that they can gain value.”

Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons chef patron Raymond Blanc in one of the restaurant’s many kitchen gardens. Photography courtesy of Belmond.

Raising awareness about exotic ingredients is only part of the picture. At the two-Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons restaurant in Oxfordshire, England, chef Raymond Blanc has been harvesting ingredients from his expansive gardens for four decades. Guests are encouraged to take a stroll before or after their meal, meandering past the beds that produce hundreds of varieties of vegetables, herbs and fruit, and the orchards where 2,500 trees flourish. 

Among Blanc’s many passions is preserving endangered apple species, which are increasing in number as orchards disappear from the English countryside. Blanc enthusiastically recounts how he and his team spent two weeks tasting more than 100 varieties of apple to identify their individual attributes. He pulls out a spreadsheet that details how each apple tastes against a set of criteria: raw, juiced, pureed, baked whole and baked in a tarte tatin.

“It all starts in the garden,” he says. “Food is not only a commodity. It is the magic of the little seed you put in the soil, nurtured by whatever the skies give you, rain or dry weather, that helps the seed grow into a beautiful plant.”

Le Manoir’s garden beetroot terrine with horseradish. Photography by Chris Terry.

It’s not just apples that inspire Blanc. His 2019 book, “The Lost Orchard” (Hachette Australia), celebrates the diversity of orchard fruit, and Blanc and his team are always keen to work with rediscovered varietals. They taste-test each one before deciding which to plant, a task that is a great joy — almost all of the time.

“We tried 50 varieties of aubergines,” he says. A memory brings a rueful smile to his face. “We also did a tasting of 40 varieties of chillies. What a day that was. I won’t be doing that again!” 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eleventh edition, Page 86 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Back from the Brink”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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