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For the past two and a half years Chilean chef Rodolfo Guzmán of Boragó in Santiago has been quietly injecting penicillin into vegetables.
It all began at a biodynamic farm – biodynamic because it follows Mapuche principles, not because it follows any particular trend – about 30 minutes outside of Santiago where Guzmán and a farmer named Renato experiment with growing different native plants and vegetables. Cows on the farm also supply the restaurant’s milk, an ingredient Guzmán has a special connection to, as it brings back memories of tasting pajarito, a tart milk kefir from his days as a boy in the Chilean countryside. For a time, Guzmán was even obsessed with making cheese. He met a Swiss cheesemaker that gave him a few tips and he began practicing making it at home.
As the story goes, one day while walking on Renato’s farm with his sous chef of the time, Shannon Martincic, who recently opened the funky Seattle taqueria Bar Noroeste, the unusual idea came in his head to treat vegetables like cheese. He thought that it might be way to bring out a greater intensity of flavors. He asked Martincic what she thought about trying to do this back in the kitchen at Boragó. “What the fuck are you talking about?” she responded.
Some laughed when they began adding mold spores to carrots, which they did much in the same way that you would with milk curds to make a blue cheese. It took about two years of experiments. They tested the ideal moment to harvest the vegetables, the amount of time for the vegetables to age, and the correct amount of humidity for each vegetable. “Suddenly, it was like ‘Holy Shit! We’re doing it.’” Guzmán says. “Then we got scared.” When they realized they had something interesting they then brought their findings to a university and found a way to do the process correctly, ensuring that it was safe enough to serve at the restaurant.
The resulting process of proteolysis, which occurs after injecting the vegetables with the bacteria and breaking down their proteins, creates a soft white mold bloom around them, like a Brie or Camembert cheese. The process initially took about a week, though they have gotten it down to a day and a half. Beneath the mold bloom the interior of the vegetables turns into almost a purée. It’s creamy and spreadable, just like a Brie, with the intense flavor of the vegetable. “There’s lots of umami, that’s the thing,” says Guzmán.
Currently Boragó is doing the process with carrots, beets, and apples, though they are testing other vegetables as well. Some of these vegetables have begun appearing on the restaurant’s tasting menus.
These fine dining experiments open up a world of possibilities and it’s difficult to say the extent of their value. Aside of the added health affects that the bacteria can give the vegetables, this could lead to a cheese alternative for those that are lactose intolerant.