Foraging the Costa Verde
Barra Lima’s John Evans Ravenna hops on a rock to get into an island in the middle of a Koi pond in Parque El Olivar, an almost 90-sq kilometer, 400-year-old olive grove in the middle of San Isidro, one of Lima, Peru’s wealthiest residential districts. There’s a patch of alyssum (Lobularia) growing there. It’s a small white, ornamental flower that smells like honey and has a faint taste of cauliflower.
Evans has created a flavor map of Lima’s Costa Verde, from the Pacific beaches and coastal marshes to the upper cliffside parks along the malecones of San Isidro and Miraflores, giving his seafood centric restaurant an unmistakable Limeño flavor.
Lima is supposed to be dessert. A place where nothing grows. Yet, he finds edible plant life everywhere we go. There’s molle, the bright pink fruit, often sold as pink peppercorns, of the Schinus molle tree from the Andes that lines the streets of the neighborhood surrounding Barra Lima. He uses it to smoke trout. On a beach in Barranco, where others have gathered in their wet-suits to surf, he and Mario Panezo from his kitchen team, find sea lettuce and two other algaes growing amid the crab covered rocks. All of it gets disinfected and then finds its way into different ceviches or sometimes just to serve as a bed for the conchas (scallops). There is cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), a type of goosefoot similar to quinoa, growing on a sidewalk garden beside the ceramic studio making his plates. Along the Miraflores malecón he gathers mint, paico (epazote), and oxalis growing like weeds in unattended flower beds. He collects the kefir like leaves from a red pepper plant that he’ll later use for infusions, add to chocolate in pastries, or in gels.
Evans worked in restaurants around Latin American and Europe before opening Barra Lima, a sort of new wave cevicheria. His first experiment in foraging was at the three Michelin star Lasarte with Lasarte with Martín Bersetegui in Spain’s Basque Country. The restaurant was set in a place with abundant vegetation and different plants could be collected within a short walk from the kitchen. Later he worked in the pastry section and Garde Manger at Boragó in Santiago, Chile and was introduced to a new style of foraging, where the highly seasonal menu is structured to adapt to to what the staff would bring in that day.
“For me the direct connection with the soil and the product is very important,” says Evans. “To personally to collect algae, salicornia, an herb, a vegetable, a fruit growing wild in nature is more valuable in terms of connection and respect for the product than simply going to the market and buying it.”
South of the city, there’s salicornia (sea beans/samphire). Some of it, like in the pantanos, a shrinking wetland in Chorrillos, are contaminated so he cannot use it. So, we have to drive south, past the lucuma and fig ice cream stands along the Pan-American highway. There’s another wetland where it’s growing in abundance. No one uses this halophyte here. It’s a plant that has been forgotten in Lima. When he collects enough gifts to other restaurants. Diners are surprised but texture and salinity as they don’t know what it is.
Some products he’ll find well outside the city. He collects wood sorrel (Oxalis carnosas), which he uses with trout, in September from a humid ecosystem in the hills above Pachacamac. In high-altitude lakes near Ayacucho, he gathers cushuro, a cyanobacteria that is rich in protein that he adds into dishes throughout Barra Lima’s menu.
For the ingredients he cannot collect directly, the underutilized fish and shellfish that make up the bulk of his menu, he works with a network of small producers along the coast. He knows each one by name. A man named Carlos near Ica sends him scallops and razor clams. There’s Max near Huarmey that sends him lisa, a type of mullet, and Roberto, near Piura, with parrotfish, cherlos, and grouper.
There are restaurants like Central that have teams combing the country seeking out ingredients, or those like Malabar with their own farms. However, for most restaurants in Lima, ingredients just come in a box in the kitchen and are then broken down. Little else is known about them.
Peru prides itself on the relationship between its food and its landscape, yet few chefs in the Peruvian capital, one of the world’s great restaurant cities, are actually in touch with the life cycles of the ingredients they cook with. There’s something that’s almost spiritual about this connection between the ingredient and those that prepare it. The attention to seasonality, the optimum moment for use in a specific dish, the less valuable pieces, and the all-around visualization of the places these ingredients come from are an important part of understanding the structure and layers of flavors in a dish. It’s a knowledge that can be translated to the diner.
“There is nothing more beautiful than being able to remove something from the ground, work with it, process it, cook it, taste it, and serve it,” says Evans. “You see the path from beginning to end and that fills you with satisfaction when a diner leaves with a smile after trying something you took such care in making for them.”