The sustainable sea chef
Enter Chef Ángel León’s marine pantry of the future
Ever eaten luminescence before? The maverick chef behind the three Michelin starred Aponiente – the world’s most sustainable restaurant – is changing how we fish, harvest and cook from the sea
I love the sea more than I love cookingChef Ángel León
and this story begins because of the sea.
The wind is surprisingly vicious, whipping the beach’s sandy grains into violent slaps across my calves. The waves concur with the levant eastern wind, also smacking up against the coastline. Later in the day they will hit Morocco’s northern shores; just 14 kilometres of water separate this corner of Europe from Africa.
My welcome to El Puerto de Santa María is brusque, a nod to the economic hardships suffered in this Andalucian town, from whose waters award-winning Spanish chef Ángel León fishes, harvests and cooks.
This stretch of the Bay of Cádiz is one of the longest most-continuously inhabited areas by mankind in the world, with the eponymous city considered Western Europe’s oldest conurbation. In the 7th century BC, the Phoenicians built a port in ancient Cádiz, whose strategically located docks later were hugely relevant for both trade and naval activities; Cristobal Colón also set sail from here, twice, for the Americas in the 15th century.
Long a profitable pantry for the Phoenicians, the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans also reaped the benefits of the Gulf of Cádiz’s land and waters. It was the former, however, who created a unique landscape from the gulf’s coastal marshes, wetlands and estuaries abundant with biological riches to hand carve 5,373 hectares of salt flats (the word ‘salary’ comes from ‘salt’, which was used for bartering). And salt was their gold. Winegrowers, meanwhile, have been cultivating vineyards and making fortified wine here since the 1st Century BC; El Puerto de Santa María, after all, belongs to the Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Denomination of Origin golden triangle that includes Jerez de la Frontera and Sanlúcar de Barrameda in this southwestern corner of Spain.
The coastal area’s reputation as a rich bread basket came to an end long ago, when, almost in sync with the fall of the Spanish colonial empire, the salt mines were abandoned in the 19th century, putting hundreds of families out of work. Unable to recover its trading reputation, today it has the highest unemployment rate in Western Europe.
But chef Ángel León sought to change El Puerto de Santa María’s fortunes. Through his flagship fine-dining restaurant Aponiente and its casual dining sister establishment La Taberna del Chef del Mar, innovation and change are prevailing.
Because, by applying ecological theory to Aponiente, this experimental sea chef has created a marine pantry of the future while actively improving the fortunes of his home town and its people.
A beacon for sustainability, by carefully drawing from what lies beneath, he has also discovered new raw materials and even superfoods while restoring the ecosystem that literally surrounds Aponiente. Slowly but surely, the natural balance is being re-established.
“We live on a planet wrongly named Earth“
“I love the sea more than I love cooking and this story begins because of the sea; it continues to inspire me today.” Ángel admits to being obsessed with the liquid mass that covers three-quarters of the planet; salt-infused oxygen paired with the wind and the waves are his nourishment and he goes out in his boat every single day, navigating a small part of this aquatic constituent. Salt waters course through his DNA, they drive him, calm him and nourish his belly and his soul. Ángel says he could have been a fisherman, a cook, a marine biologist or a sailor. Given that he took the culinary route, obviously any establishment he put his name to would be inspired by the sea.
After working in France for eight years at various establishments, Ángel returned to his home town to open the first version of Aponiente in May 2007. His menu was shaped by fish offcuts, an unusual yet intrinsic maritime link in this historical fishing town for that time. Today the property, in the heart of downtown El Puerto de Santa María, is home to La Taberna del Chef del Mar, Ángel’s casual dining spot that also makes the most of unpopular cuts.
By unpopular, that means discarded fish proteins such as almadraba bluefin tuna neck dressed up as sea ham, discarded spotted sea bass and hake pieces used to make chistorra (fast-cured sausage) and other marine sausages.
The list continues at Aponiente: mackerel sobrasada (raw, cured sausage), sea bass mortadella, sea snail and its offal on skewers, a wand waved over moray eel skin to magically make it seem like crispy pork, marine bacon made from sea bass belly, hake collagen cut into noodles, tuna tail osso buco, Atlantic porchetta and the tuna tarte tatin. This is the chef who pioneered sea charcuterie, the fish butchery trend that is taking the world by storm today. And, by taking a conscientious gamble on ocean preservation and management, Ángel has also discovered new species, more than 40 over the past 16 years.
Marine phytoplankton is one ingredient that he’s been using since the beginning that continues to hold its weight on Aponiente’s 16-course Planet Water tasting menu; spread your dinkel wheat (spelt) slice of bread with plankton butter.
Phytoplankton is also on the menu as a rice dish at La Taberna – Ángel admits it’s his favourite ingredient to cook with as it’s the sea’s most important umami offering.
Other revelations include sea honey extracted from the Maritime Rupee plant, marine oils extracted from microalgae lipids while collagen from fish scales can be used to create gelatin leaves, gelling powders and emulsifiers. A new addition to 2022’s tasting menu was a ‘marine cheese’ made from bluefin tuna testicle, which has properties similar to animal milks. Fermented for seven days, it has sharp acidity and iodine notes akin to a goat’s cheese albeit with the melty texture of a Camembert.
“I’ve always chosen ugly over pretty”, says Ángel. “From the beginning, I’ve used the unattractive parts of the ocean, serving offcuts that were usually discarded and tossed back into the sea by fishermen, making use of all the parts of species that few people knew about. At the time, it was hard to convince diners to come because the word ‘sustainability’ didn’t exist and it was hard to tell our story – even though we used every part, including eyes, tripe and fish scales.
“We try to open our clients’ eyes and mouths so that they understand they don’t have to just be fed from land animals but also from the sea. We continue to eat proteins from the land yet humans’ greatest enemy is not knowing what lies beneath the sea. If you give humans food and they don’t know what it is, if you give it to them in the shape of a food they are familiar with, that changes everything. So we take marine proteins and change them into ‘land’ proteins. No one wanted to eat a fish sausage until we called it a sausage. We disguise it – and it works, from start to finish at Aponiente. Even our desserts come from the sea because we use marine plants, extracting polysaccharides to replace sugar,” he says.
“Let yourself sail with Aponiente’s crew and
imagine there’s no Earth“
While giving a renewed lease of life to discarded fish proteins on the Aponiente menu is one pillar of Aponiente’s philosophy, recovering biodiversity while conserving ecosystems is another vital part of the mission. Since 2012, Ángel and his crew have recovered 28 hectares of a maritime-terfrestrial ecosystem in Salarte’s (Salt Marsh Custody and Recovery Foundation) land and sea stewardship programme in Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park. So far, the NGO has returned more than 300 species of land and marine invertebrates, flora and fauna to their habitats.
The most progressive project is at Salina Balbanera in Puerto Real, whose marshes are just 11 km from El Puerto de Santa María. The drive over is bright yet dusty, hundreds of abandoned salt mines denting the landscape. At Puerto Real, open-sea tides rise and fall four times a day, replenishing these ancient pools with fresh saltwater, giving new nutrients for its numerous inhabitants to enjoy; wild fennel aromas ride the levante’s aeolic energy. These marismas (marshes) are vital, providing the second-most carbon filtration after mangroves, so transforming this environment improves biodiversity.
Oysters and other bivalves are gathered from the sea then cultivated in these four-metre-deep pools for six months or longer that are controlled by flood gates: there’s never been a tastier or plumper oyster than than the one freshly plucked from the net and shucked open by marisquero (shellfish catcher) Juan in front of my eyes. Naturally, the blustery levant wind, whipping around at 50 km an hour, makes conversation tricky.
This revitalising non-profit Salarte is led by Juan Martín Bermúdez, Aponiente’s biologist who is a key player in Ángel’s sustainability plan. “These pools are like a saline spa for fish here, at least that’s what Ángel calls them,” he says. “Molluscs and fish live in this spa, without the threat of predators coming in on the currents. We can introduce young molluscs, decapods (camarones, langostinos and gambas), fish and crabs, and raise them all year round. This whole aquatic community is formed by 127 species, according to the scientists who undertook an inventory – and that doesn’t include birds such as flamingo.”
Not only can Juan the marisquero keep an eye on invasive species such as the western Atlantic-dwelling blue crab – which has adapted rather too well to this local ecosystem where eastern Atlantic meets Mediterranean – and keep numbers down, he can also haul in molluscs and crabs exactly to order for the day’s covers at Aponiente. No waste at all.
“Live and nourish yourself from the sea“
If Aponiente has its own biologist, it stands to reason it should also have a research and development laboratory and here the mission goes beyond feeding the restaurant’s diners; the team aims to create food security solutions that can feed the world’s population. Their work – more than 30 projects to date – has been certified by Spain’s Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities. Ángel is currently backing angiosperm or Zostera marina, an aquatic grass packed with nutrients that grows wild in the sea.
This complex fibre is rich in Omega 3 as well as vitamins A, C, D and E, and this is the first time man has cultivated this marine phanerogam. It’s a prototype that the chef is researching at IFAPA’s El Toruño Centre (Andalusian Agriculture, Fishing, Food and Ecological Production Research and Formation) and hopes to roll out across the region, creating a virtuous circle that includes employment and food security.
He says: “Thanks to this plant, we can cultivate a viable alternative to land-grown cereals in the sea, one that doesn’t use fertilisers or pesticides, and only relies on the sea’s movements to cultivate a nutrient-rich food stuff. I call it a huerto de mar or a marine garden. I tried it seven years ago, then with a kilo of grass, started doing tests in the kitchen.
“I want this to be much bigger than Aponiente: it’s a research programme that I’d like to take to other parts of the world. It’s not easy, for sure, because we’re developing a product that’s never been cultivated by man before, from scratch. It takes time and technology to develop – and it needs to be profitable. Then it’s hard, working against the world’s cereal lobby. But I like the fight because this is the real vanguard.”
“Your tears of joy and sorrow are salty“
The 200-year-old Molino de Mareas El Caño (tide mill) was located in a crappy part of town, an abandoned plot of land and marsh close to El Puerto de Santa María’s railway station that was frequented by drug dealers and prostitutes and also functioned as an unofficial rubbish dump. Until, quixotically, Ángel the dreamer overhauled the abandoned molino to give it a new lease of life and Aponiente a more purposeful new home, once again transforming and recovering an ancient landscape in the Bay of Cádiz. The restaurant and research centre is also situated in Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park.
WIthin the stone walls, Ángel and his team serve the 16-course Planet Water tasting menu, on the roof terrace they salt dry tuna belly, it’s the Salarte headquarters where biologist Juan Martín also has an office, it’s where ideas that take sustainability to a new level are born, projects take shape and another Angel León marine vision becomes reality. And with the tide rising and falling four times a day at the base of the mill, the sea chef is both calmed and nourished.
THE 3% FISH WASTE CHALLENGE
Every year the Aponiente crew take three months off to recharge and innovate, and for the 2023 menu, Ángel León has set a new challenge: radically reducing fish waste even further. Last year, of the 10,000 kilos of fish consumed each week in the world’s most sustainable restaurant, 25 percent was wasted and the sea chef aims to cut that to just three percent. Diners can book a table for the new menu, which launches on 8 March 2023.
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What’s so good about this?
The pioneer of fish charcuterie, Aponiente is a leading light when it comes to fishing, harvesting and cooking from the sea – the reason it was named the world’s most sustainable restaurant in 2022 by the World’s 50 Best.
Meet the writer
A freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires, Sorrel Moseley-Williams pairs well in many situations as she’s also a sommelier. Decanter of good words, creator of Sorol Wines, Dill & Tonic G&T and top chef fluffer, you might spot Sorrel sampling vintages by tiny wine producers in the Andes (or indeed her own two Cabernet Franc 2021), fishing for paiche in the Bolivian Amazon or on the pages of Monocle, Decanter and Condé Nast Traveller – and reporting for TOPIA from the wildest parts of South America. She’s also the Academy Chair of 50 Best Bars, South America. Follow @sorrelita.