Ángel León has been making a name for himself as a chef for years thanks to his imagination with seafood at Aponiente, his three-star Michelin restaurant in El Puerto de Santa María (Cadiz). He has elevated discarded fish to haute cuisine, turned plankton into an ingredient for human consumption and even has a range of marine sausages. But his latest discovery transcends the culinary and could put him in history books.
He and his crew have managed to cultivate zoster, a sea grass, which could revolutionise human nutrition and stop climate change.
Is this the most important discovery of your career?
Without a doubt. We have been working on the dream that there may be fruits, roots or other forms of food we could grow in the sea but we never imagined we would find a cereal.
You have received approval from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization?
Yes, they have confirmed that this is a new product that had not previously been considered a food and that this was the first time an attempt had been made to domesticate it. The possibilities are enormous. If resources are put into this discovery, we can possibly cultivate other products under the sea.
When do you think this grain could be grown on a large enough scale to be considered an alternative food?
We are still in a research and development phase, but I think that in two years we could have a seed bank in El Puerto de Santa María with the capacity to plant in other parts of the world and see how it evolves. It won't be expensive agriculture, it doesn't need fresh water or fertiliser and we hope to obtain a yield of 4,500 kilos per hectare.
What advantages does zoster have over other cereals?
I compare it to rice mostly, which has a similar growth cycle of about nine months, but with other nuances and a different texture. We could say that it is a hybrid between rice and quinoa. It doesn't contain gluten, it has a lot of protein and we're talking about the first cereal with omega three.
And in the kitchen?
You can do anything with it that can be done with rice, from eating it whole grain or refined, to making flour and pasta. It takes two minutes longer to cook than normal rice. To tell the truth, I still haven't had a chance to experiment, I've been obsessively focused on planting. In September this year when we harvest around 22,000 kilos, I will get into the kitchen and create some great dishes for Aponiente.
The process of domesticating a wild cereal cannot have been easy.
There has been a lot of trial and error. We have lost crops due to temperature changes in the Strait but we have learned what tidal flow is required, the light and the temperature it needs. We have the help of marine biologists, but for them it is also new.
The benefits are not only found in the kitchen though?
Right. At an ecological level the plant is fantastic because it is home to many species of fish, fixes the soil and brings an impressive amount of oxygen into the environment that can fight climate change. It also offers an economic alternative to degraded coastal areas. Here in Andalucía there are 200 kilometres of abandoned marshes that could be given a new life thanks to underwater agriculture.