Visiting Xochimilco, Mexico City

Xochimilco's ancient floating gardens are the key to the city's rising culinary scene

Contramar. Pujol. Quintonil. Máximo Bistrot. These names are some of Mexico City's most instantly recognizable restaurants (Enrique Olvera's Pujol and Jorge Vallejo's Quintonil have both made the World's 50 Best Restaurants list numerous times), but they also share something else in common: Each sources the produce used to create its renowned dishes from the organic bounty in Xochimilco, the city's floating gardens that date back to the time of the Aztecs.

Most people know Xochimilco as a popular tourist destination, with its colorfully decorated tour boats called trajineras, which crisscross the canals filled with tourists and locals who can enjoy meals on board, listen to the serenades of passing mariachi and explore the tianguis (open-air markets) that surround the docks. And while tourism is a draw, this part of Mexico City is home to acres of farms called chinampas, located within an ecological reserve called Cuemanco that spans more than 6,000 acres. The farms were created roughly 1,000 years ago by rafts made of juniper branches that were floated in the shallow water and piled with mud and soil from the lake bed. Crops were planted into the soil on top of the rafts, which sank over time. A new raft would replace it and sink; eventually, several rafts piled up to form islands, in time creating the canal system.

By the time the Spanish captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in 1521, the chinampas were a pillar of the economy, supplying the city with produce transported via the canals. Their superrich black soil is ideal for farming, producing roughly eight times the amount of goods compared to conventional land. "Whatever you plant there will grow," Pedro Sanudo, the restaurateur behind the popular spot  Alipús in Mexico City's Condesa neighborhood, says. "They grow every variety of corn, all kinds of squash, different varieties of beets and carrots—they've even grown unusual types of potatoes brought over from Peru."

However, Xochimilco's farms are being threatened by a variety of factors: Gray water that's being pumped into the canals to refill declining levels and runoff from the pesticide- and fertilizer-laden zone where ornamental flowers are grown. Ricardo Rodriguez, a pioneer in the grassroots movement to preserve the site, adds that of the roughly 22,000 chinampas in the area, the majority are abandoned simply because no one wants to farm them. His company, De la Chinampa a tu Mesa, works with the remaining chinamperos, or farmers, to get their organic products into the hands of chefs and everyday citizens alike.

"Ten years ago, no one was that interested in Xochimilco's farms. They didn't understand the quality of the produce," he says. Rodriguez began by selling CSA-style baskets of fresh produce that are delivered to locals' homes. One of them ended up in the hands of Gabriela Camara, chef/owner of Contramar. She asked Rodriguez to supply her restaurant with produce, and soon, other restaurateurs followed suit—at one time, De la Chinampa a tu Mesa took orders from 17 Mexico City restaurants.

Rodriguez continues to operate the CSA portion of his business but has added a tourism component as well. "This started with chefs wanting to come to the chinampas," he recalls. "Patricia Quintana [an acclaimed Mexican chef and food writer] brought people to the chinampas as part of a gastronomic tour of Mexico City, and now we get requests from around the world." Rodriguez's tours include visits to the chinampas, meetings with farmers and a meal made from produce straight from the farm aboard a trajinera.

Today, many restaurants, like Quintonil and Pujol, contract directly with the chinamperos, a shift that has changed the lives of many farmers. Previously, growers sold their goods at the massive Central de Abasto, a wholesale market that sets prices for the whole country. Rather than have the prices of their organic crops undercut (due to conventional produce trucked in from regions far from the city), working with area chefs has resulted in fair-trade pricing.

Back at Alipús, Sanudo goes twice a week to Xochimilco with his chef to select seasonal produce from a collective of chinamperos to be used in each dish on the menu. "We must support these farmers; we must know where the things we're eating come from. At least, that's the philosophy that many of us who work in the restaurant business have," Sanudo concludes. "It's important that Mexico City uses its local agriculture, because it's the last surviving bit left. I think it's a responsibility for those of us who are restaurateurs."