Here’s why you should add knotweed, morel mushrooms and Hawaiian salt to your grocery list, ASAP.
At the restaurant in the Grace Mayflower Inn & Spa, chef Isaac Olivo makes a dish called “taste of spring”—a salad filled with vegetables and fruits of the season, including black raspberries, heirloom baby carrots, wax beans from the property’s garden and a shaving of foraged Japanese knotweed. The soft green plant looks like bamboo and, when eaten raw, tastes like sour rhubarb. Sometimes the chef adds knotweed to savory dishes, roasting it with olive oil and lemon to bring out a rich flavor similar to artichoke. Olivo uses the plant because it’s seasonal, tasty and grows in abundance in the pastoral corner of Washington, Connecticut. But it also happens to be an ingredient on the Ark of Taste, a collaboration between Relais & Châteaux and Slow Food, the organization that’s been promoting local foods and the preservation of traditional cooking practices for nearly three decades. Grace Mayflower, one of the luxury hotels and restaurants under the Relais & Châteaux umbrella, is cooking with knotweed because it may be the only way to save it.
Slow Food launched the Ark of Taste in 1996 with a mission to protect the world’s culinary biodiversity. The project, its name a nod to the biblical boat, is a catalog of over 4,000 foods from countries that span the globe, including produce, animal breeds, varietals of honey and prepared foods like cured meats and cheeses. According to Slow Food, foods must be "culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, ethnicity or traditional production practice” to make the list. But instead of conserving these ingredients in the traditional sense, Ark of Taste exists to encourage people to put them on the table. If these regional products are embraced, from a particular breed of goat in Piedmont to Alaea salt in Hawaii to umbu, a small, yellow plum-like fruit native to northeast Brazil, it will spur farmers, fishermen and livestock breeders to produce more.
“There are so many products and animal and vegetable species that are in serious danger of disappearing because of our unsustainable food system and agricultural practices,” says Olivier Roellinger, Relais & Châteaux Vice President. “This project is crucial for the cuisine of the future, a more respectful cuisine and more rooted in tradition and based on seasonality.”
With Relais & Châteaux’s presence in five continents and 62 countries around the world, the initiative could actually impact consumer tastes. Their chefs have access to hundreds of hyper-local ingredients, as well as the expertise to spin them into something memorable for diners, whose introductions to a previously untasted variety of plum or bean or crustacean may lead them to seek it out at their own markets. “Our commitments are to educate our public through the dishes we prepare,” says Roellinger. “Food is a powerful tool, and thanks to it, we can raise awareness about a more healthy and ethical diet using these products. Restaurants are building relationships with livestock farmers, market gardeners and fishermen who know how to honor the traditions of the past while adapting to the present.”
At the family run Don Alfonso 1890 near Sorrento, Italy, chef Ernesto Iaccarino delights in cooking with fagioli di Controne, alici di Menaica and ceci di Cicerale (Controne beans, Menaica anchovies and Cicerale chickpeas, respectively.) At the Mayflower Grace, chef Olivo taps into a long list of regionally available Ark of Taste ingredients, including Tri Star strawberries, spruce shoots, morel mushrooms and stinging nettles, finding new ways to prepare them each season. In France, Roellinger has been a passionate advocate of preserving Brittany’s bounty—huîtres naturelles de Bretagne (oysters from the bay of Cancale), butter from Froment du Léon cattle, melon petit gris de Rennes (an indigenous variety of melon)—both at Les Maisons de Bricourt Inn, where he's also the maître de maison, and as a chef and spice master. “Every culture, every cuisine has the right to be respected and celebrated in its place of origin,” he says. “Food is not just a simple combination of ingredients. It represents a whole country, its people, its culture, and it must get the dignity it deserves.”