Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > Food> Discover > How to serve local flavours and stories

How to serve local flavours and stories

Three distinctive farm-to-table dining projects, with their genesis in the pandemic, are now focused on sustainable and clean eating

A Goan mezze platter from C’est L’avi.
A Goan mezze platter from C’est L’avi.

Listen to this article

At one point in his book, Cooked: A Natural History Of Transformation, author Michael Pollan remarks: “Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers.”

On a lovely morning in MharoKhet, a 40-acre farm on the outskirts of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, that houses over 80 varieties of crops, including exotic vegetables and fruits, we are reminded of Pollan’s powerful words. With 90% of MharoKhet’s produce coming directly from the fields of this ancestral land to aesthetically set-up tables, there’s legacy and provenance in every bite we experience over the seven-course vegetarian meal that is served underneath the shade of guava trees.

Husband-wife duo Vedika and Rajnush Agarwal redeveloped this land during the covid-19 pandemic when they started spending more time there with their little daughter and other members of the family. The idea was a return to roots. The well-travelled couple (Rajnush is a microbiologist with a degree from Oxford, UK, while Vedika studied at Columbia, US) happened to be in Kyoto, Japan, on holiday, dining at Michelin-star restaurants that served fresh produce, directly purchased from nearby farms. “It got us thinking about our own farm, how we could develop it and create an experience for people,” says Rajnush, while we slurp on the millet basil congee, an ode to Rajasthan’s raab, a bajra (pearl millet) broth.

Also read: The chef who transformed a menu from bland to brilliant

A little earlier, during our immersive walk through the farm that has varieties of fruit and vegetable trees, shrubs and plants, besides a greenhouse comprising an exhaustive seed library and exotic crops, Rajnush stresses, “Every dish has a story; every plate has a hero, a protagonist.”

A meal at MharoKhet, then, is an entry point not just into world cuisine but a deep dive into local cuisine served with a sense of flair and elegance. Among other dishes, there are oyster mushrooms on a bed of cauliflower mash with Swiss chard and sunflower microgreens; zucchini stuffed with vegetables and cheese; smoked beetroot soup with jowar (sorghum) lavash and edible flowers, besides zero-waste dishes where even the carrot peel in its dehydrated form is used in a peri-peri masala.

In Goa, it’s the storytelling of farm-to-fork dining that’s driving chef Avinash Martins to create food that’s an ode to his “mother cuisine”. Reimagining Goan cuisine with elan, Martins’ story, much like the Agarwals’, was born from the pandemic, which he calls “a period of personal transformation, a rebirth”. When his popular restaurant Cavatina shut down in the wake of the lockdown, Martins explored neighbouring villages, with farmers sharing stories centred on Goan food and age-old recipes.

For this Goan-born-and-bred chef, the lockdown allowed him to remember carefree childhood days when his granny would give him freshly plucked tender coconut or serve elaborate feasts at home. Martins remembers the sights and smells of balchão, mango pickles, sausages, dried prawns, feni—many of these items housed in the storeroom of their traditional Portuguese home. Appreciating the fact that what he ate as a child was “clean” food has become the driving force today.

Chef and restaurateur Avinash Martins
Chef and restaurateur Avinash Martins

The ultimate recipe of nostalgia, childhood and memories of a loving family celebrating with food has translated into Martins’ celebrated farm-to-fork restaurant C’est L’avi: Table in the Hills (TITH), which opened two years ago. Strictly-by-reservation, this place in Velim is already getting its fair share of celeb patrons (cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was there recently). What’s more, people are creating holidays to coincide with a visit to C’est L’avi, says the chef.

The restaurant is situated on Martins’ ancestral property, which includes 250 acres of cashew and coconut trees. The produce is not only freshly plucked and harvested, it is procured from farms within a 5km radius. The chef—he rarely wears a watch or carries a wallet (“I don’t want to be bound by time or money”)—uses vintage utensils, wood fire, spring water and barbeque for smoking meats, a nod to “all elements that are natural”.

No surprise then that every plate on the communal table that seats 12 has both “nostalgia and an emotional story of historical relevance, be it bread brought by Jesuits to Goa or given as dowry in British-Portuguese marriage alliances of royalty or even becoming the ubiquitous vada-pao”.

At Bengaluru’s Farmlore, which houses an 18-cover communal table, chef Johnson Ebenezer enjoys talking to guests about regional cuisine and the dishes he serves. He’s fielding inquiries from all over the world, with diners wanting to reserve a table at Farmlore. The new private dining room, Omnisense, will open in May.

Nestled in the sprawling 37 acres of ancestral land that belongs to the main investor, Kaushik Raju, a third-generation hotelier from The Atria Group, Farmlore, much like MharoKhet and C’est L’avi, was a pandemic project. “It was a time that allowed us to pause and reflect,” says Ebenezer, who returned to India in 2018 for “the sake of my family”. He was in Malaysia, running the Michelin-star restaurant Nadodi. A passion project for both Raju and Ebenezer, roughly 60-80% of the produce for a 10-course meal comes directly from the farm.

If sustainable eating, self-reliance in produce that reaches the table, and a negligible carbon footprint are what MharoKhet, C’est L’avi and Farmlore are giving patrons, here’s how they are doing it—drip irrigation to save water; using solar and wind energy; using rainwater harvesting mechanisms; composting through age-old organic, natural, indigenous methods, among other ways. Ebenezer illustrates by way of an example: “The sous vide technique requires plastic bags, which we don’t do given our ethos of sustainable eating. We look at the indigenous method—trapping juices of a dish in banana leaf.”

Also read: Looking beyond masala dosa, through Amma's lens

Set to gain even more currency in 2023, farm-to-fork dining is getting a fillip with chef-entrepreneurs such as Martins, the Agarwals and Ebenezer tilling the earth to unearth an even more important dimension of how we eat—telling the story of how the produce reaches our table.

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based writer.

Next Story