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At the Museum  |  Dossier Food without borders

A world tour of the Garden Explore and sample tasty treats from the vegetable garden

©Nicolas Jutzi

On an early September evening, when it still felt summery, host chef Ivan Seris welcomed us for a sensory walk around the Alimentarium Garden. The setting was serene and majestic, with a splendid view over Lake Geneva, embellished with the giant Fork and a cloudless blue sky.

The affable gentleman in his early fifties began his presentation by recalling the roots of this encounter. It was under the leadership of the late Nicole Stäuble, former curator of the Museum, that the vegetable plot was first created twenty-five years ago, with the aim of linking the garden and the kitchen, to recall the terrestrial origin of the ingredients in our dishes. This workshop has been available to the public since 2010 and keeps participants enthralled for two and three-quarter hours. It is designed in two parts, starting with a discovery of plants in the vegetable garden, followed by a tasting of a range of dishes prepared with seasonal produce.

The first stop on this guided tour were the pulses, in focus in 2016. Several varieties of Fabaceae were planted to mark the occasion, to give a glimpse of the diversity of species, ranging from the acacia to soya and haricot beans. Ivan invited us to nibble a raw chickpea to reveal its fresh, slight sweetness. It may well be strange for us to taste them in this form, but Ivan told us that this is how they are sold on African markets. Chickpeas originate in the Middle East and are still widely consumed there, as well as in India.

 

Next, Ivan unveiled the broad bean family, emblematic of Mediterranean countries. Since ancient history, beans have been a symbol of death and rebirth and, as such, the subject of numerous legends and beliefs. Egyptians forbade their consumption, imagining they served as a refuge for certain souls, “perhaps because of their embryonic shape?” a participant suggested. Legend has it that the Greek philosopher Pythagoras preferred to be killed by those pursuing him rather than escape through a bean field, as he did not wish to tread on the beans1. This edible plant, steeped in history, is in any case one of the first to emerge in the spring in our area, marking the renewal of the plant world.

Next up were the high-stemmed Jerusalem artichoke plants, which can rise to two or even three metres! They were first cultivated by indigenous Amerindians in North America and imported Europe in the early 17th century. During the Second World War, Jerusalem artichoke roots were often poorly cooked and prepared without fat, leaving a lasting bad memory for some. It is true that they can cause a touch of unwelcome flatulence... Moving on, we met two of the world’s major crops: corn, native to Mexico, and sorghum, from Africa. These are among the most consumed staples for humans, although nowadays they are mainly used as fodder, to feed livestock.

Some workshop participants were surprised by the rough leaves of the comfrey plant in the east side of the garden. Tasting them revealed an iodine flavour reminiscent of fish, the reason for its nickname as ‘the poor man’s sole’. Comfrey is known for its traditional therapeutic use as a poultice for sprains or fractures, for example, but it can also be cooked as fritters. Ivan likes to observe Mother Nature in the garden, to see where plants choose to grow naturally. He told us, "I am always amazed at how nature adapts, takes over. I love seeing what grows outside the beds, like this sprig of rue that has found its home in a tiny little space.”

 

 

The tour continued through nasturtiums, goosefoot (a member of the spinach family), artichokes, lettuce, exotic aubergines originating in Asia, and tomatoes, passengers on the ships of the great explorers, who brought them from South America to Europe in the 16th century. We marvelled at a parterre of multi-coloured dahlias, only to discover that they are entirely edible! “The roots are a real treat, when boiled and topped with a knob of butter,” Ivan revealed. Finally, the stars of the show arrived: the herbs. Our senses were scintillated with the powerful aniseed-flavoured Mexican tarragon, the spicy-flavoured edible flowers of the giant hyssop, chewing gum-flavour costmary, pineapple sage, fetid rue traditionally used to flavour grappa, and the chaste tree, also known as monk’s pepper.

Time to eat!

 

 

The workshop continued in the kitchen with demonstrations and tastings inspired by the day’s harvest – the dishes are all vegetarian. We quenched our thirst with a homemade cordial prepared with herbs from the garden, and Ivan even gave us the recipe: “One litre of water per kilo of sugar, and as many aromatic herbs as you like, depending on how strong you like it; bring the water and sugar to the boil, then add the herbs and leave it all to steep. After bottling the cordial, it will keep for up to six months,” Ivan advised. This was followed by a selection of crostini, with one made with mertensia maritima leaves, which taste of oysters, causing quite a stir among the group. The illusion is perfect, and offers a clever alternative for those who refrain from eating the mollusc itself.

 
 

The nasturtium then took centre stage, with both its leaves and flowers, either on toast, in butter, soup or fresh pasta. Ivan sliced the leaves to adorn his homemade tagliatelle, which then took on a beautiful emerald green hue. The chef then presented us with four varieties of tomato to compare, used to prepare a ‘one-minute sauce’. They ranged from black to light yellow, and some were sweeter than others. The delicate Rose de Berne variety won all the votes… 

 

A few canapés of ratatouille and basil ravioli later, interspersed with a Botzi pear with spices gleaned from the Vevey market, and we came to the desserts: stewed apples with sage, peach and nectarine crumble with lemon verbena cream, and elderberry crème brûlée. Overall, we enjoyed six savoury dishes and three sweet desserts.

Replete and enthused by the discovery of so many new flavours, we left determined to try out some of this extravagance to change the monotony of daily menus. Not forgetting, however, as Ivan insisted, that “cooking should be simple” and “we can eat well with everyday food.”

 
Annabelle Peringer
Neuchâtel, CH

Annabelle is an archeologist and a historian of antiquity. Since 2008, she has collaborated with several Swiss media and companies, including 24 heures, Loisirs.ch and Coopération, both as a writer and specialist in digital communication. She was Chief Editor of the Alimentarium eMagazine from 2014 until 2017.

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