Think you can’t forage in the desert? Think again!
In Cooking in Marfa the couple behind the acclaimed Capri restaurant explain how a lack of natural resources can focus the mind
Have you ever woken up and tasted the local flora? Rocky Barnette, the Marfa, Texas chef and Phaidon author has. “Every mesquite tree tastes different, so you have to walk around tasting them all,” Barnette told the New York Times in a 2016 profile of The Capri, the restaurant overseen, from a culinary perspective, by Barnette, and owned by Virginia Lebermann, Barnette’s wife, and co-author of Cooking in Marfa: Welcome, We've Been Expecting You.
When Barnette first arrived in this tiny desert town in West Texas, he was struck by the limitations of its natural assets. “The most daunting thing for a person trying to live out here, much less host guests and visitors, is a lack of resources,” he writes. “Although we sit on an aquifer of fresh water, have a very long growing season, and have loads of wild edibles to be rediscovered; things like food, upwardly mobile human beings capable of being gainfully employed, the ever-elusive Wi-Fi, and even the cellular service that has come to be considered a human right, seem always to be in short supply.”
Yet this did not discourage him from drawing up a menu that focused on the region, its fauna, history and landscape. “These challenges, and particularly the seeming lack of fresh produce in the area, were one of several key points of inspiration for me in my current commitment to a lifetime of learning about the inhabitants and the culture (most importantly what they ate) of our specific region, and more broadly the Americas.”
After all, the pre-Columbian remains, such as arrowheads and rock pictograms, indicate that humans have thrived in this desert landscape for years. There might not be any wild trout or deer, as there are around Ana Roš’s Slovenian restaurant Hiša Franko, nor the wealth of seafood that’s available to Jeremy Charles at his Newfoundland restaurant, Raymonds.
Yet that hasn’t prevented Barnette from growing and foraging much of his ingredients, from the cacti fruit know as prickly pears, through to mesquite beans, Mexican elderberries and marigold flowers. The restaurant has its own gardener and its own botanist, and imports a few of the wilder ingredients, such as chapulines (dried grasshoppers) from producers south of the border.
Barnette has, in the past, put together a preconquest tasting menu, inspired by the ancient cuisines of the region, the recipes in Cooking in Marfa, such a rabbit liver mousse with mesquite toast; yucca blossom tempura; and prickly pear rose sorbet, combine the flavours of the Marfa desert with contemporary influences and techniques.
“Finding fresh produce out here has always been a struggle,” writes Lebermann. “However, from struggle comes creativity. Or as Rocky likes to say, ‘a lack of options clears the mind.’”
To truly appreciate the culinary creativity arises from this sparse, beautiful landscape, order a copy of Cooking in Marfa: Welcome, We've Been Expecting You, here.