An Andalucian three-star Michelin chef says it could be possible now to farm fields of underwater land based “marine rice” after he identified a marine plant capable of producing the rice-like grain not previously considered for human consumption.
The project has already included a test phase where a 3,000-square-metre field of the sea rice was successfully planted and harvested. It started when the chef and his team discovered a single grain by the side of the sea while looking for new natural products for his restaurant.
They also say that the new crop offers the potential for vast fields of marine rice being planted underwater around the world, without the need to ever water or fertilise it.
Angel Leon, also known as “el chef del mar” (‘The sea chef’) says the decision now to unveil the research that has been going on in secret for the last four years is to gain support for the idea of harvesting a marine cereal crop that is something like a mix between rice and quinoa.
He describes it as a superfood that is full of nutritive properties, which it is believed will trigger a gastronomical revolution.
The famous chef, 44, owns the three-Michelin-star restaurant ‘Aponiente’ in the Spanish town of El Puerto de Santa Maria, in the southern region of Andalusia, and he is also the owner of the one-Michelin-star restaurant ‘Alevante’, in Chiclana, also in Andalusia.
He has been a sea lover since he was a child, when he was taken fishing by his dad on a boat, as he explained to Real Press in an exclusive interview.
He said in an interview with Metropolitan Press that his Investigation and Development team at the Aponiente restaurant, along with Cadiz University, “started surfing the Atlantic ocean and the Mediterranean looking for products that we do not commonly take into account and one day, we found a kind of ear (of grain), and we first thought it was an ear from land that had fallen into the sea”.
In botany, an ear is the grain-bearing tip which is part of the stem of a cereal plant, such as wheat or maize.
He said: “It was in the deep sea and in a second phase, we found out it was a grain that lived in the sea, a mix between rice and quinoa that looks like a cereal.”
According to the chef, biologists confirmed it was an aquatic plant called Zostera marina, a type of seagrass considered by scientists to have important biological and ecological functions for the marine ecosystem.
The chef said that “we went to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in the Italian capital Rome, to be analysed by a scientific committee to confirm that it really was a sea cereal”.
The chef insisted that the plant had already been catalogued by biologists, but it has never been grown by humans, so they decided to do go a step further, adding: “We sowed it with the dream of a sea of cereals and can confirm that the project could be viable to be done in extensive crops in the sea”.
All said and done, the team managed to grow the cereal for the first time ever in a controlled environment. So far, it is growing in a 3,000-square-metre area in the natural park in Bahia de Cadiz and it is able to yield 4,500 kilograms per hectare. It is a very productive cereal, as it yields up to five ears per plant.
Furthermore, this cereal “does not need fertilisers, nor compost, only flowing water”, which is a revolution as it can be grown everywhere as “75 per cent of the world is water”, Mr Leon added.
He said: “It can open up a new way of looking at the sea as a new opportunity for feeding people in the future.”
The team has carried out numerous comparative analyses and studies of the marine grain, comparing it to common rice, as well as other kinds of grains grown on dry land, including barley, wheat, oats and corn.
The results have shown that this new cereal is much denser than others, as well as being very nutritional, making it similar to several legumes, Mr Leon said.
According to the chef, not only is this cereal a potential new superfood but also can survive inhospitable environments such as the deep sea in marshland, and even host numerous species of fish. In fact, it can produce subaquatic oxygen, generating life in its surroundings and also avoiding erosion caused by deep-sea environments, and reducing the acidification of the sea.
Mr Leon explained that this plant was found in a local bay many years ago, but it had largely disappeared and the main goal and future project is to bring this new marine cereal crop to the forefront all over the world.
According to the chef and his team, this bay is actually in danger of extinction, and with its cultivation, the area is being recovered.
In fact, according to Mr Leon, it can also help with malnutrition problems in some parts of the world as it can be eaten and prepared just like regular rice or quinoa.
Its texture is dense and firm, “like pasta prepared al dente, but it is green, although it does not taste of the sea. It is a neutral grain that can be turned into flour to make pasta and it also behaves like rice”. It is aromatic, plant-based and iodised and its characteristics for culinary use range from boiling it like rice or pasta, to processing it into flour to make bread or dried pasta.
This marine grain contains a greater quantity of high-quality proteins, carbohydrates, and less than two per cent fat. It contains vitamins A and E, not found in any other kind of grain, as well as high concentrations of various types of vitamin B.
It also contains essential fatty acids, Omegas 6 and 9, and amino acids not found in other common grains and minerals. According to Mr Leon, that is why it can be considered a superfood with exceptional qualities for a healthy diet.
But Mr Leon has not yet decided how he is going to use it in his restaurants, saying: “We are still thinking about how to create extensive crops, there will be enough time in the future to cook it, but first we have to do a lot of crop work, so it is not the right time now.”
With this new project, Angel Leon is pushing the forefront of finding new ways of preserving the sea and the environment in southern Spain, always considering the sea a giant food store. He often wakes up very early in the morning to sail his boat and see the sea. Hours later, he is back at the restaurant to check in with his team about the daily routine, the clients and the orders. His day often ends at around 1 AM in a restaurant that is usually open only half the year, from March to November.
Leon also said that the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic is damaging a lot of the local restaurants, but he has a message of hope: “We are going to keep on fighting to keep the boat afloat and adapt to the new times”.