Would You Eat This?
Michelin-starred chefs from Europe to the U.S. are serving up edible dirt. We dig in as the trend reaches higher ground.
When it comes to our bodies, much less our mouths, we are a clean breed. A two-shower-a-day, hand-sanitizing, dirt- and germ-phobic society. However, attitudes are evolving, and dirt — edible dirt of all things — is making its mark on Michelin-rated restaurants from Copenhagen to London.
While many restaurants have been serving their version of edible dirt for years, the new obsession can be traced to chef René Redzepi of two-Michelin star restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. Noma has been voted best restaurant in the world for the last three years running, and Redzepi, who was recently named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World,” has rekindled society’s interest in the Slow Food Movement and the garden-to-table style of cooking and eating with his emphasis on foraging.
Redzepi’s dish, “Radishes in Pot,” is just that, radishes served in a terracotta pot with an edible dirt made of malt crumble and a cream of herbs. This edible landscape, or edible art if you will, is a not-so-subtle reminder about where our overly styled, sometimes barely recognizable food actually comes from. Chef Redzepi and his crew will be setting up shop in London’s Claridge’s Hotel for ten days during the Olympics, but it’s still unknown as to whether or not he will be serving his most famous foraged dishes.
Londoners with an appetite for the trend won't go hungry, however. A number of the city’s top chefs — Mark Hix, Nathan Outlaw, Claude Bosi — are offering foraged ingredients on their own menus. But the trend is bigger than that still. Guided wild food foraging tours are popping up in urban parks and at various hotels and B&Bs in the countryside. Chris Bax, whose Taste the Wild leads tours and teaches wild cooking courses in the UK, reminds us that a look back is essential to understanding the movement happening today. “Foraging is an ancient skill that was born out of necessity when we hunted and gathered rather than farmed our food,” says Bax.
And its place in society has been evolving ever since. “Foraging first fell out of fashion as we moved to an agrarian economy," explains Bax, "The industrial revolution moved people to cities and food was bought rather than grown." During World War II, one of the British government’s lesser-known slogans, “Dig for Victory,” encouraged citizens not only to farm their own food during The Blitz, but to forage for it as well — an association that shed a negative cast once peace had been restored. "After the war it was seen as an all-too-vivid reminder of ‘dark days’ and went out of vogue again,” Bax says.
These days in London, it’s not uncommon to see chefs listing their food suppliers on menus, something that started in America in the 1970s by Alice Waters and the opening of Chez Panisse in northern California. Waters started a food revolution by introducing properly grown, fresh ingredients and by naming her local suppliers, something that British chefs have long since subscribed to. But as big business, globalization and the industrial food paradigm has, gastronomically speaking, taken us off course, foraging plants our feet firmly back on terra firma. And so it seems only natural that some of that terra finds its way onto our plates every once in awhile.
Some of today’s most highly regarded chefs are digging into the edible dirt trend. Here, the cream of the crop share the concepts behind — and ingredients inside — their inventive dishes:
North Road, London
The dish: Spring vegetables in soil, wild herbs and shoots
The ingredients: Baby vegetables, such as carrots, radishes and spring onions poached in a butter emulsion. The edible soil is made by mixing, baking and then blending a mixture of flours, butter, sugar and beer
The chef says: “Seasonality is starting to be understood as common sense rather than as a fad, and people are excited by dishes that reflect the time and place that they inhabit — which is really what we set out to achieve here.” – Christoffer Hruskova, head chef
Atelier Crenn, San Francisco
The dishes: Several incorporate edible dirt, including Jardin and Ocean and Land
The ingredients: Jardin is edible dirt, dehydrated beets with quinoa and puffed rice, dehydrated rutabaga. Ocean and Land consists of wagu beef and sturgon with a "black sea" of edible dirt with squid ink and sesame and vegetable ashes
The chef says: “We forage many of our ingredients at Atelier Crenn including edible flowers and other produce. We are always inspired by nature and natural elements like dirt. I think people appreciate the beauty of nature and we can bring this beauty to the plate.”
– Dominique Crenn, chef and owner
The dish: Mushroom Soil
The ingredients: Dehydrated hen of the woods mushrooms, almond flour, sugar, salt, butter, pistachio oil and ground caraway
The chef says: “I am deeply inspired by chefs like Bras, Redzepi and Aduriz, among others, who set the pace for dishes with this visual aesthetic. Too often in restaurants the only salad option is a mixed greens salad so we wanted to present something that was our expression of a seasonal garden.” – Justin Bogle, executive chef
L'Enclume, Cartmel, England
The dish: Jerusalem artichokes with Ragstone cream, tarragon and malt
The ingredients: Pastry with malt flour and dark beer for color
The chef says: “We are going for the look of the farm on a plate; the illusion of soil picked off our farm's floor.”
– Simon Rogan, chef and owner