There has never been a better time to think locally. Farm-to-table, and in some cases even roof-to-table, has become a cultural phenomenon, with like-minded restaurants springing up across the country. Meanwhile, everyone from culinary establishments to French chefs are taking note—and in the case of Relais & Châteaux’s newest collab with Slow Food, this means bringing back near-extinct ingredients.
For the uninitiated, Relais & Châteaux is a celebrated association of 560 hotels and restaurants from around the globe, founded in France 63 years ago. Slow Food is a 30-year-old grassroots organization established to prevent the disappearance of local food, cultures, and traditions. Together, this unique duo has partnered to create the Ark of Taste, a list of 693 ingredients, all of which are on the brink of extinction.
“We share the battle,” says Relais & Châteaux vice president and owner of Les Maisons de Bricourt, Olivier Roellinger. “Food that respects both our environment and our producers [has been] a fight initiated at a time when everyone except for a few thought the future lay elsewhere,” he explained. “We must link gastronomy to biodiversity, respect for ecosystems and social justice to small producers. The fact remains that it is essential to move forward and initiate new actions to make the Slow Food movement a global commitment.”
Slow Food understood Relais chefs, as experts in the field, often work closely with local producers and farmers; they knew their regions best and could bring these ingredients to life just by putting them on menus. Patrick Henriroux, Sebastian Bras, and Rémy Giraud, as well as several other Relais & Châteaux chefs, have already begun to reintroduce these indigenous ingredients.
“For too long chefs have remained distant,” said Roellinger, “up in their ivory towers, concerned only with their clients. We have to be involved with the entire population, from young people to corporations, schools to universities.”
The Saint-Flour Golden Lentil
Chef Sebastian Bras, Le Suquet hotel and restaurant
Documentation of lentil cultivation in south-central France’s Saint-Flour commune dates back to the late 18th century. By the 1970s, lentil production lost its footing due to extensive livestock farming and the increased production of the region’s famous Salers and Cantal cheeses. As a result, fields of lentils were sacrificed for milk production.
The rediscovery and revival of the lentils began in 1997 through the work of the producers who cultivated the fields around Saint-Flour.
“I was so happy to help save this part of our local heritage,” says Bras, who began his work with the golden lentil in 1997 and grew up in Laguiole, an hour’s drive from Saint-Flour, where he runs Le Suquet with his father, famed chef Michel Bras. “It is a product that has enriched my childhood. My mom had a special touch for recipes [with this lentil]. Professionally, this legume opens so many doors to creation, from salty to sweet and spicy.”
The Comtesse de Chambord Bean
Chef Rémy Giraud, Domaine des Hauts de Loire hotel and restaurant
Eight years ago, Giraud discovered the Chambord bean and its sole producer, Nathalie Albezard of Romilly du Perche. “It reminded me of the Mogette bean from my birth region Vendée [in western France],” said Giraud. “Although not quite the same, I was attracted to it because it’s specific to the Loir-et-Cher region where I’ve lived for 32 years.”
The Comtesse de Chambord bean is a storied and original variety. It was famously mentioned in the Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie book “The Vegetable Garden” in 1850 and recorded in the catalog of varieties in 1954. Today, it is listed in the EU’s Official Catalog of Vegetable Varieties as “without intrinsic value,” meaning this variety is available for marketing for amateur gardeners only. Apart from a few devotees, it owes its survival to Albezard (who’s grown it for 30 years). Now, because of Giraud’s involvement through Taste of Ark, it’s not only up to Albezard alone to prevent this royal bean from disappearing.
“Moreover,” says Giraud, “once the bean harvest is done, what remains of the plant (stems and roots), are used to naturally enrich the land in nitrogen.”
The Ampuis Apricot
Patrick Henriroux, La Pyramide hotel and restaurant
“The best apricots I know are the variety called Ampuisais,” says Henriroux, “a local variety from Ampuis, a famous wine village [in eastern France]. They are grown in clay and limestone soil, along with vine apricots, peaches, and almond trees.”
During the 1960s, apricot trees largely gave way to grapevines, though Ampuis was once famous for the suchet, poizat, and noyau doux (“sweet stone”) apricot varieties. Henriroux came across the fruit as soon as he arrived in Vienne in 1989. They were sold at his local Saturday farmer’s market, which showcased more than 400 vegetable producers.
Henriroux describes how their sunny southern exposure gives Ampuisais their particularities, quite small, round, soft yet firm and very tender. They are picked at maturity, their orange-white color with freckles differing them from other apricots. “Apricot D'Ampuis’ compote has no rival thanks to its very low acidity,” he adds. “In my opinion, the best products are ones that have history and local anchorage. They must be savored under the same latitude as where they were born.”
The Ampius apricots are perfect for jams because when mature, they do not require the addition of sugar, juices, or liqueurs thanks to their intense aroma. Today, there are only about two producers who sell directly and who also harvest just a few tons of apricots each year. But Henriroux is working to change that. “If I had to give a recipe, it would be an omelet of Ampuisais with almonds and lavender flower.”
To peruse the full Art of Taste compendium, visit slowfoodusa.org.