Instagram and oxen: How a Puerto Rico restaurant gets its ingredients

Lifestyle

“Is my mouth going to feel like this forever?”

I ask the question, formed with some difficulty, to the people standing next to me in a neat row of plants. I just ate one called a lemon drop, also known as a paracress. It looks innocuous enough – like an oblong, yellow gumdrop – but after popping the plant whole, I get a taste of sour, then a spicy kick, then nothing. My mouth feels numb, scrubbed clean.

“No, just for two minutes,” replies Efrén Robles. The farmer explains the plant is sometimes added to cocktails, or eaten as a panacea after spicy food. It can also be used as a palate cleanser.

“Whatever you try after this, your mouth will be perfectly washed,” he says. “It’s like a sorbet.”

The maze of greens continues on in every direction – part of the farm Frutos del Guacabo, west of San Juan in Manatí, owned and run by Robles and his wife Angelie Martínez. As we wind through the rows, the couple and their son, Adrian Rivera, stops to pluck perfectly-ripe fruits and vegetables, proudly showing off each as you would photos of the grandkids.

We taste our way through the aisles: sweet cherry tomatoes, fresh mint, arugula and anise, watercress with hints of wasabi. After starting the farm in 2010, they’ve expanded to grow a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, herbs, microgreens and edible flowers, plus they raise goats, chickens and rabbits.

Edible flowers being packaged and ready to ship. — Photo courtesy of Frutos del Guacabo

Frutos is just one of the places Juan José Cuevas, executive chef of 1919 Restaurant inside San Juan’s Condado Vanderbilt hotel, sources his ingredients. The celebrated chef returned to his home island in 2012, after spending years working in kitchens from San Sebastian, Spain to San Francisco and New York City, including chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill.

While Puerto Rico currently imports upwards of 85 percent of its food, Cuevas has made it a top priority to use mainly local ingredients at the waterfront fine dining restaurant.

Cuevas started working to form the relationships akin to what he had back in New York from the moment he returned to Puerto Rico. “In New York, I would go to a farmers market, and know the farmer, his wife, his grandson. It was that kind of relationship. And you build that.”

In Puerto Rico, he’s built a strong community of farmers and producers that he relies on to supply the vast majority of the ingredients he spins into signature dishes: tender, slow-cooked king salmon, chayote salad with citrus and local goat cheese, crispy kale and cilantro, a side of potato churros that makes every other potato look sad in comparison.

Farmers like Robles and Ian Pagán-Roig of El Josco Bravo have become essential to the chef’s success in making 1919 one of the Island’s best restaurants. The farmers grow a diverse range of produce, and together they’ve created an infrastructure that gets it to the chef’s door quickly.

“The difference between our tomatoes and others: they pick them when they’re still green,” says Robles. “We pick ours when they’re ripe, because it’s only one day to delivery. Or sometimes the same day.”

Ian Pagán Roig walking through the fields of Frutos del Guacabo.Ian Pagán Roig walking through the fields of Frutos del Guacabo. — Photo courtesy of Frutos del Guacabo

Puerto Rico has a complex and long farming history that dates back centuries. “All farming was dedicated to sugarcane production,” says Pagán-Roig. “Our grandparents and great grandparents, every Puerto Rican was dedicated to sugarcane production. They were exploited. So that was the immediate reference, when people thought of farming. Grandparents didn’t want that for their kids. But it’s a different kind of farming now.”

Even after the decline of sugarcane farms, a commonly held belief was that the island’s land was only good for growing plantains, yuca and other root vegetables that make up the staple of the Puerto Rican diet. Not long before Maria, though, the tide started to turn.

A new generation of Puerto Ricans understood the value of cultivating the land and growing varied crops. When the hurricane hit, it became increasingly important to move toward a more self-reliant agricultural infrastructure. “For the farmers, all their crop was wiped out,” says Cuevas. “There came a realization that first we have to sustain ourselves. What else can we grow? There are some things that take a long time to grow, and some that take a short time. So they begin to diversify.”

We arrive at El Josco Bravo, about forty minutes southwest of San Juan, right after a rainstorm drifts past. The air is heavy and fragrant with soil and crops, while oxen graze in the distance and a dog darts down rows of broccoli, cabbage and kale.

Pagán-Roig, the farm’s 30-year old owner, describes the days following the hurricane. While the food supply was mostly processed goods and gasoline to power farm equipment was scarce, the farmers immediately started planting again, using the oxen they always rely on. “Within weeks, we were eating fresh lettuce and kale.”

Pagán-Roig has been working with Cuevas for about two years, providing the chef with fresh produce in the same way the farmers at Frutos do: consistent communication with what’s fresh that week. El Josco supplies 1919 with vegetables like zucchini, summer squash, green beans, lettuce and carrots.

“I think no more than ten people in Puerto Rico are growing carrots,” estimates Pagán-Roig. “It’s very important, in a practical way, but also in a symbolic way, for Puerto Ricans to realize that we can grow a lot of things. That most of our diet can come from our soil. We have a lot of farmlands that are abundant. We have the resources.”

Though Frutos del Guacabo uses old farming techniques, they also leverage modern technologies.Though Frutos del Guacabo uses old farming techniques, they also leverage modern technologies. — Photo courtesy of Frutos del Guacabo

While the young farmer draws on age-old, oxen-powered techniques, this new guard of Puerto Rican producers tap modern resources, too. Recently, Robles and Martínez spotted a shishito pepper on chef Dan Barber’s Instagram feed, inspiring the pair to grow them some 1,500 miles south on their home island in the Caribbean Sea.

Soon after, Cuevas added the peppers to a dish on his Valentine’s Day menu at 1919. Social media also comes in handy for leads on fresh ingredients all over the island. When a friend saw a Facebook message from a farmer who had more eggs than he could use, Cuevas tapped him to supply all the eggs to the Condado Hotel. “I refuse to use the egg mix, says Cuevas. “It’s very common, at all hotels. It would be easier, of course, but we’re putting that money back into the local economy.”

And speaking of local economy, there’s a woman who whips up homemade jams for breakfast, in flavors like guava and pineapple and mango. “I don’t care what she gives me, I just ask her to use local ingredients,” he says. Cuevas has found a community who care as much as he does about helping Puerto Rico – and it’s still-burgeoning farming economy – to flourish.

“Support what’s yours, consume locally,” says Efrén Robles. “If you’re in Connecticut, it needs to move that way. If you’re in Boston, it needs to move that way. If you’re on an island in the middle of nowhere, it’s even more important.”

Back at Frutos del Guacabo, my mouth is starting to recover from the lemon drop, just in time to taste a piece of tamarind, cut off the tree seconds ago. Robles is right. My palate is cleansed, and the fruit is brighter and tangier than anything I’ve ever tasted.

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