Become a biodiversity leader

As an avid supporter of the locavore movement, there is one other related and seldom discussed food initiative your property can take to both elevate your cuisine and to further help the environment.

Firstly, the advantages for promoting local foods are clear. They strengthen your bonds to the community (which can result in additional business via word of mouth), they help reduce food miles as less petroleum (or other form of energy) is devoted to their transportation and, above all, they taste better. The moment you uproot a vegetable or pluck a fruit from a tree, the flavor clock is ticking as the molecules start to breakdown and bacteria accumulate. If you’re skeptical about this last point, compare the taste of a tomato fresh off the vine to one that’s been in the fridge for two weeks.

While buying from local producers is a great first step, supporting biodiversity is another step that your restaurant can take to not only become a culinary leader but to save the environment. It’s something that’s done in concert with decreasing food miles and greenhouse gas emissions. To substantiate this, there is no clearer cautionary tale than that of the Cavendish banana.

To sum it up in a banana peel, as this delicious, yellow fruit’s popular boomed throughout the Western World in the early 20th century, growers in tropical countries gradually came to plant only the one cultivar that yielded the most bang for the buck. Now, this monoculture makes the Cavendish highly prone to extinction because all it takes is a single virus, bacteria or fungus to wipe out acres upon acres of crops unabated. Or at the very least, a highly contagious pathogen can cause years of economic depression for thousands of farmers in a given region (and a subsequent surge in price) until adequate supply is restored.

Sustaining a variety of cultivars helps to prevent this because different subspecies have slightly different resistances to the same disease. While bananas are the most salient example, mono-cropping is standard practice for many other fruits and vegetables as well as poultry and livestock. All told, it makes us highly vulnerable to future ecological disasters and temporary shortages of popular foods.

As a hotel and community leader, however, you can exercise your “food democracy” by voting for greater biodiversity with your ingredient expense account. Normally this term is applied to the average consumer, but alas, your budget is a tad larger than the everyman’s wallet so you can have a far greater influence.

My challenge to you and your chefs is to be proactive in this regard, and it doesn’t have to come via widespread, costly changes to what you offer your guests. Rather, smaller, incremental changes that are actually attainable will have a big impact in the long run. Head’s up: the national food suppliers (you know their names!) are going to offer considerable resistance, as anything non-standard means additional effort.

Another fruit to highlight here is blueberries. Reaching newfound acclaim as an antioxidant-rich “superfood” has meant that more crops have been grown to meet the increased demand. But farmed blueberries, which are substantially larger (and far blander) than their natural counterparts, run the risk of making us neglect other wild cultivars in favor of a more profitable monoculture. To this end, if you have blueberry pie on the menu and have a dedicated wild blueberry picker in your area, why not extend the olive branch?

Moreover, our planet is blessed in that there are dozens of other fantastic regional berries with similar taste profiles, textures and coloration to the abovementioned fruit. Just recently, while out in British Columbia visiting a lovely rural property called St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino, I had an opportunity to sit down with Executive Chef Belkin who uses the local huckleberries to sweeten his house-made bison sausages instead of a store-bought equivalent. This adds another marketable element to the equation because this regional fruit is both strange (“huckle”) yet familiar (“berry”).

In this sense, “wild is the new local” insofar as it’s no longer just about purchasing from nearby vendors but about finding those lesser known and esoteric foods to craft for your guests a truly unique (and ostensibly more flavorful) dining experience.

Also, keep in mind that I’m writing this within a North American context. While I can’t fully speak for Africa, Asia or South America, my frequent trips to Europe continue to astound me with how well they continue to embrace local biodiversity, even in the face of cheaper, imported substitutes. Look no further than the 12-room Tuscan bed and breakfast that’s been growing eight different tomato cultivars ever since they were first brought over from the New World four centuries ago. Similarly, we can all learn a thing or two from grandmothers in the Aegean who still forage for wild herbs to throw on everything from meats to vegetarian pies or casseroles.

Barring a vacation to the Mediterranean, though, instead of going to the grocery store for some plain white button mushrooms, work with a local supplier to get a consistent supply of forest fungi for your culinary fare. Or as a seasonal offering, how about incorporating fiddleheads into a special? And even though the push for biodiversity applies mostly to species from the plant kingdom, animals aren’t completely excluded. There are plenty of indigenous and sustainable game birds that can spice up a dish beyond the expected chicken.

To sum it up in a word, “heirloom” should be plastered all over your menu. Discuss this with your chefs, and hopefully you can save the planet and impress your guests at the same time.