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.