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Back to the Future

For the Incas time had a circular structure: The past, present, and future influenced each other continuously. This idea became the foundation for Mater Iniciativa, the agricultural and culinary laboratory headed by Malena Martinez and her brother Virgilio, the internationally renowned Peruvian chef.

Nestled in the hollow of a mountain in Moray, to the northwest of Cuzco, are the remains of the most famous Inca terraces in Peru.

When I arrive, I’m struck by the sensation of having stepped into an amphitheatre surrounded by wilderness. But I have it all wrong: What lies before me is an ingenious agricultural laboratory. Like bleachers, the platforms follow the natural slope of the rock. Stones placed skillfully at the edges hold in the earth. These store up heat during the day and release it into the soil at night. Although the platforms are only a few metres apart, the temperature varies significantly from one level to the next. This created microclimates, each of which distinctly allowed the Inca people to cultivate a wide array of plants in the best possible conditions.

These circular terraces are more than an architectural chef-d’œuvre: They are a perfect illustration of Incan ingenuity. They remind us of the importance of observing the nature that surrounds us, and of working with ancestral species that are naturally adapted to their immediate living environment. Because in the Incan worldview, the past, just like the future, is alive in every present moment.

Vertical Terroir

In Peru right now, as elsewhere in the world, we are observing a cultural return to the values of an agricultural system in which all living organisms exist in symbiosis—a balance between the principles of biodynamics, permaculture, and regenerative agriculture. Mater Iniciativa has been using this approach in all of its research projects since its inception.

Created in Lima in 2013, the agricultural and culinary laboratory headed by Malena and Virgilio Martinez aims primarily to expand knowledge of Peruvian ecosystems. Discoveries are then integrated into Virgilio’s flagship restaurant, named the 6th best restaurant in the world in 2019 by The World’s 50 Best. Each of a single meal’s sixteen courses, called “moments,” showcases food from a distinct altitudinal environment—a particularly delectable way of exemplifying the benefits of vertical (rather than horizontal) farming.

The first “moment,” for example, originates a dozen metres below sea level, highlighting fauna and flora from off the coast of Lima, sargassum in particular. Found in abundance on nearby beaches, this brown seaweed is distinctly unpopular among sunbathers. But sargassum provides a living environment for a multitude of species, such as seahorses, octopus, and an impressive number of fish. Giving it a place on the dining table is also an act of gratitude for the essential role it plays in marine balance.

A little higher up, at 450m in altitude, we find ourselves in the jungle. The dale-dale root, an Amazonian version of the Jerusalem artichoke, is accompanied by cupuaçu, a fruit in the extended cacao family, and tamarillo, an egg-shaped version of a tomato that grows on bushes.

Some “moments” are dedicated to the surroundings of Moray of course, giving pride of place to numerous hyperlocal tubers, as well as the region’s famous staple, coca. Through the succession of dishes, the restaurant emphasizes the ingredients as well as the rich diversity of their environments. Food is served with an awareness of the history of the ingredients: the centuries of priceless Peruvian traditions.

“We share everything”

In early 2018, the team behind Mater Iniciativa opened their newest restaurant in Moray, called Mil. Mil pays homage to the particular richness of Peru’s high altitude ecosystems. “It’s a challenge to concentrate solely on local ingredients,” says Luis David Valderrama, chef of the establishment. He must make sure he receives a steady supply of his most desired products, and he is constantly learning from his suppliers, who contribute actively to the design and development of his creations. “It’s an incredibly gratifying way to work. We learn a lot from our neighbours, and we share everything.”

 

To promote the transmission of ancestral knowledge, the team at Mater Iniciativa turns to the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages of Mullak’as-Misminay and Kacllaraccay. Like many Peruvian communities, these villages carry on Incan agricultural traditions, though the Empire collapsed nearly 500 years ago.

“We learn a great deal from this proximity,” says Rodrigo Cabrera, coordinator of Mater Iniciativa, Central, and Mil.

“We listen to the communities, try to understand how they see their world, and what they wish for in their lives.”

Their herbarium is a fitting example of this exchange—it is a slow and magnificent co-creation. When I enter the small, earthen structure that houses the restaurant and laboratory, I stop for a moment to look at the plants drying. They’re hung from long strings, the way we might hang works of art (here, they are considered works of memory). The plants are then laid out on recycled paper made partially of corn husks and each one is categorized according to its various names and, more importantly, its various uses in the kitchen and in traditional medicine.

Corn cobs of various colours and sizes are spread out on the large work table. Petri dishes hold clearly-labeled groups of kernels, as though we were in a scientific research lab. There are also dozens of potatoes and other tubers that are specific to Peruvian culinary culture.

In addition to studying all of these plants, the team at Mater Iniciativa grows various species on its seven hectares, and thus the lab supplies some of the food for the menu at Mil. There is quinoa, and its little sister kaniwa, and over fifty varieties of potatoes, gifted by a neighbour (who grows some 500!). “Virgilio is my mentor,” exclaims Valderrama. “He’s a dreamer and he never stops dreaming. And Pia León, his wife, is an excellent chef. She is the one who transforms the projects into reality.” Léon was named Best Latin American Chef in 2018, the year she opened her own restaurant, Kjolle, in Lima.

In their wish to include the two neighbouring communities in the entire process, the Mater Iniciativa team called on anthropologist Francesco D’Angelo. He spent time among these communities learning their dynamics and customs. “In Mullak’as-Misminay, for example, food, work, and energy are still currencies of exchange,” D’Angelo explains. He quickly understood that reciprocity and redistribution of crops was at the heart of these communities’ practices—practices that strengthen the relationships between various players in the food sector.

“In addition to being paid for their labour, workers get to take home half of what is harvested,” he says. The inhabitants had their doubts about Mater Iniciativa’s intentions at first, given that it is the organization behind one of the best restaurants in the world. But little by little, the team has gained the villagers’ trust, and now they collaborate with the organization in both the fields and the kitchen. “They don’t work for us, they work for themselves, and for the project [Mater Iniciativa],” says Francesco. “We are building a horizontal relationship, and we think this contributes to lasting human relationships.”

It’s the same with knowledge sharing. Together, they do all kinds of tests, and make chicha de jora, for example, a traditional drink from fermented corn. Each winning formula is written on the glass wall looking out onto the inner garden, and the results are offered up to everyone; the findings are shared. “Techniques of underground cooking, such as huatia or pachamanca, recipes for charki (dried alpaca meat) and methods for preserving potatoes, such as chuño, are just a few examples of the customs that are essential to preserve, since they are so indelibly linked to our culture,” adds Rodrigo Cabrera.

Mater Iniciativa now has a catalogue of ingredients to maximize knowledge transmission. The organization has created a menu for Mil that honours farmers and pickers in the Cuzco area; those from other regions of Peru provide the ingredients for the three restaurants in Lima.

The more-than-present moment

Ever since my lightning fast visit to Mater Iniciativa, I have been reminded daily of its thoughtful and respectful approach to food, agriculture, and community. If the present urges us to delve into our traditions and revive forgotten practices, it’s clearly because we are in search of meaning. To remedy our situation, in the here and now, we must recognize the preciousness of nature, food, and the people who bring them together to feed us. Like the Incas, let us draw from our past and begin to see the present moment as a chance to approach one another, to create a more sane world, a world that is truly human.

 

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Catherine Lefebvre is a nutritionist. Passionate about travel and culinary culture, she is particularly interested in the hidden stories behind the agriculture and typical dishes of different countries. She is also the creator of the podcast Sounds Like, a series of soundtracks from the places she has visited. @catlefebvre