Mexico City: canals, cuisine and a certain sinking feeling
An age-old agricultural method is still in practice today along Mexico City’s canals of Xochimilco and it’s driving a popular farm-to-table movement at the capital’s top restaurants. But can the ancient farming system manage to survive in the face of urban encroachment?
Welcome to Xochimilco
The meandering canals of Xochimilco are the last vestiges of a once-vast system of lakes and canals that crisscrossed the Valley of Mexico. Declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1987, today’s waterways span some 180km in a protected area that’s home to hundreds of migratory and native bird species.
Every day, scores of colorful gondola-like boats (known as trajineras) ply the canals, offering visitors a vivid reminder of the city’s pre-Hispanic legacy (granted, some visitors see the outing as more of a booze cruise). During the ride, boats glide past chinampas, man-made island plots used today for everything from soccer pitches and quirky art exhibits to farms and nurseries. In the Náhuatl language (spoken by the indigenous people), Xochimilco means “flower field.”
Built from the shallow canals’ muddy soil and decaying vegetation, the artificial islands in Xochimilco date back to the 11th century but it is said that the chinampa farm system has been around for much longer in the Central Mexico region.
The Mexica (aka Aztecs) perfected the skill of building chinampas and they would transport their crops from the southern edge of their capital, Tenochtitlan, along waterways to the city center. But after the Spanish conquistadors defeated the Aztecs in the 16th century they proceeded to drain many of the area’s lakes and canals and eventually a colonial city went up atop a sloshy, dried-out lake bed.
Many of today’s chinampa farmers grow plants and flowers, which require less care than vegetables, but as more of the city’s restaurants seek fresh, pesticide-free produce you see more and more veggies cropping up along the shores of Xochimilco.
The rise of locally sourced cuisine
Purchasing produce from chinampas makes perfect sense for social-minded restaurateurs – they support local growers while helping to preserve an important Mexican tradition.
Yolcán, one of Xochimilco’s top farms, supplies produce such as radishes, beets, carrots, leafy greens and herbs to 17 of the capital’s restaurants. The nutrient-rich soil dredged from the canals is highly productive and it yields vibrant flavorful crops that make a notable difference when preparing any number of dishes.
Sud 777, for instance, does a salad called ensalada caliente de verduras chinamperas, chinampa-grown vegetables plated with exquisite pureés. Chef Edgar Nuñez was one of the first chefs in Mexico City to work with locally produced ingredients from the chinampas and he continues to do so today with great pride. “It’s a very old agricultural method and it’s very much an important part of our cultural identity,” he says.
Seafood restaurant Contramar, known for its popular tuna tostadas and pescado a la talla (grilled whole fish), buys spinach, chard and cilantro from the island farms, while Maximo Bistrot Local chef Eduardo Garcia uses that same pungent cilantro when preparing ceviches for his daily changing menu. Garcia honed his skills under the tutelage of Chef Enrique Olvera of Pujol, one of Mexico City’s finest restaurants and another loyal patron of the chinampa farm system.
Sadly, the once-pristine waters of Xochimilco have become increasingly polluted over time, due in part to illegal island settlers dumping sewage into the canals. What’s more, excessive groundwater pumping (to meet the sprawling city’s insatiable demand for water) is depleting the area’s aquifers and the government has resorted to pumping treated agua into the canals to maintain water levels.
Some but not all farmers have figured out how to work around the problems associated with urban encroachment. Yolcán, for example, works plots removed from illegal settlements and its farms use a sophisticated water filtration system implemented by a local university. When proper steps are taken, chinampa farmers produce a very clean product. Nicos chef Gerardo Vazquez, who has been buying ingredients from the farms for a decade, measures bacteria levels of the crops in his small laboratory and they test cleaner than most store-bought produce.
But environmental degradation has not just affected growers. Early in 2017, tour boat operators found themselves temporarily out of work after a fissure opened up and swallowed a large section of water from a canal. The canal was sandbagged off and the 3-meter-long (10 foot) gap eventually was plugged, but the downtime proved costly for those who rely on the canal for their livelihood.
Some researchers believe the crack opened up because of movement from a nearby geological fault, but other experts blame over-exploitation of the aquifers – and they fear these incidents will occur on a more regular basis if excessive groundwater pumping continues.
The sinking city
Xochimilco has an environmental management plan in place, but Mexico City’s water problems are so much bigger than the canals. Geologists estimate that in certain areas the city sinks about 6 centimeters (2.5 inches) a year, and as water tables drop, subsidence becomes a more serious concern. To fully grasp the sinking-city phenomenon, check out the slanted Catedral Metropolitana, Mexico City’s iconic cathedral on the capital's main square, or the teetering 17th-century Ex Teresa Arte Actual museum nearby.
Water issues may not seem all that obvious when cruising the wetlands of Xochimilco, but environmentalists warn that without a more forward-thinking approach to water regeneration and conservation, tour boat operators, chinampa farmers and the city's inhabitants in general might find themselves up the proverbial creek without a paddle.