A Touch of MagicK
27 Feb, 2019 | Alicja Hagopian
Photos: Alicja Hagopian
La Paz’s renowned cultural café is just one aspect of the region’s independently produced local food renaissance
Café MagicK was founded in 2014 by husband-and-wife team Stephan Gamillscheg and Alison Masiel Pino Pinto, two years after they married. When he left Denmark to work for an NGO in La Paz, Gamillscheg found an vibrant artistic and cultural crowd here, but there was a lack of spaces for people to congregate and express themselves. Coming from Denmark, which has a notable café culture, he was surprised to find that the city was surrounded by rich coffee-growing regions but an absence of good quality coffee being made here. And so Café MagicK was born. But despite its name, MagicK is much more than just a café; it’s also a bar, with live music and other events – and above all, incredible food. MagicK’s dishes are seasonal and experimental, everything from healthy spins on traditional meals like pique macho to exquisite culinary creations featuring unexpected flavour combinations, such as the hongos ostra MagicK (oyster mushrooms, tempeh, polenta, manioc and various colourful vegetables, finished with a fragrant white wine sauce).
Gamillscheg considers MagicK to be one of the front runners of the city’s burgeoning culinary scene, especially because of the restaurant’s vegetarian-based menu (save for a few fish-based items). Gamillscheg is a vegetarian himself, and he wanted his restaurant to promote the same healthy lifestyle. That’s no small task in Bolivia, whose residents traditionally have a meat-heavy diet. In fact, new customers sometimes cannot understand how meat does not feature on MagicK’s menu. But people are warming up to vegetarianism, Gamillscheg says, even though ‘the tempeh or the mushrooms cost above the price of the finest fillet.’ Since the restaurant’s opening, similar establishments have opened around the city, and MagicK itself will undergo an expansion in the near future – and Gamillscheg is even considering adding another location in the municipal theatre, reflecting La Paz's growing appetite for a bit of MagicK.
From the start, the owners knew that they wanted to keep the menu as organic as possible and serve paceños unfamiliar and exciting ingredients. Gamillscheg says that the menu constantly changes, describing it as a ‘conscious fusion kitchen’, combining Bolivian produce and international techniques. For such special products, customers are willing to pay a higher price, as that is what sets MagicK apart. A good client-producer relationship is crucial, because on such an intimate scale a business is essentially codependent. Not only do the producers need their clients in order to keep their business afloat, but restaurants like MagicK need to be able to rely on their purveyors to stock their pantries. Due to the nature of small-scale agriculture, certain factors will occasionally hinder production, so it is essential to have a flexible kitchen that is able to adapt to its resources. One workaround is the popular and bountiful sharing platter, which doesn't constrain the kitchen but instead allows it to improvise with whatever ingredients are available that day.
For Gamillscheg, working with independent producers can be challenging and costly, but ultimately it reflects the ethos which he and Pino believe in, with regard to health, culture and the environment. We visited several of MagicK’s producers and talked to them about the ups and downs of local, organic and sustainable farming, and why it just might have the potential to take on the agroindustry.
PRAAI (Promoción Agroalimentaria Inclusiva, or the Promotion of Inclusive Farm to Table) is a social project that promotes organic and sustainable production and rights for its producers. It provides a variety of produce, most notably baby vegetables, which gives PRAAI a unique position in the market. The organisation’s eco-friendly philosophy is threefold: First, the nutrition for the plants which its members produce must come from compost. Second, no pesticides or chemicals are used to treat diseases; instead, natural products are used as alternatives. Third, in order to reduce water consumption, water-collection systems must be used as well as autonomous filtration and distribution networks.
We visited Noemi Mamani Pucho, a university student who participates in PRAAI, at her greenhouse in El Alto, where she is developing her thesis on the mycorrihizal (symbiotic) relationship between certain fungi and the roots of plants. She raises yellow cherry tomatoes that are sweeter than the usual red cherry tomatoes, which make them popular with buyers such as MagicK. She’s currently improving her greenhouse so that her tomatoes will grow year-round. Mamani’s colleague and fellow PRAAI member, Tito Valencia Quispe from the Universidad Pública de El Alto, is also working on his own crops. ‘It’s a great thing for an agronomist to have their own greenhouse,’ he says. ‘For me, the greenhouse is where I can de-stress.’ Along with leafy greens and a variety of herbs, Valencia grows strawberries and, of course, baby everything – radishes, carrots, beetroots, among others.
Husband-and-wife duo Abel Rojas Pardo and Dunia Verastegui Baes founded Andean Champions, an oyster-mushroom farm, nearly ten years ago. They didn’t have an auspicious start, as at the end of their first year, their yield fell far short of their goal. A harsh winter brought a frost which killed everything they had worked for. It was a huge blow, Rojas says, and they realised that they had to commit even more to their enterprise. Two years later, Verastegui decided to devote herself full time to the enterprise. The business is a constant experiment, staffed largely by students with an environment of curiosity and a drive to improve.
When I visited Andean Champions farm outside of La Paz, I expected to encounter a typical greenhouse. But mushrooms, unlike fruits or vegetables that sprout from seeds or roots, originate from spores in a laboratory-like setting. If this conjures up images of scientists in a lab coats, you're on the right track. The process begins in a controlled environment in which oyster-mushroom spores are incubated before they are inserted into containers of digestible materials like sawdust or straw, into which they grow their roots, or mycelia. The containers are then moved into an area with high humidity and controlled lighting, which then trigger the production of fruit bodies – the edible part of the organism – which erupt through small holes of the containers in clusters called troops. Once these troops emerge, the oyster mushrooms will be ready for harvesting in about a week.
Mushrooms aren’t hugely popular in Bolivia, so it’s a tricky business to be in. While some people are eager to snatch up the product wherever they can find it, business can be fickle. Many of Andean Champions’ clients are restaurants, and when a dish accommodates rarer items like a fine mushroom, business is good. But if that dish suddenly disappears from the menu, the producers' livelihood disappears along with it. This is one of the difficulties they face as smaller-scale producers, alongside the complications that go hand in hand with learning the fundamentals of trade for the first time. Nonetheless, Rojas is optimistic about the future and hopes to increase production significantly in 2019. His advice on starting a business is simple: ‘The most important factor isn’t money or land – it's the decision to just do it.’
‘We can't continue to form a society based upon animal produce, and we have to find a alternative source of protein,’ Tierra Consciente’s founder, Marcos Nordgren Ballivian, says. Four years ago, Nordgren founded the company, which ferments soy, beans and peanuts to produce a variety of tempeh that contains high levels of probiotics, calcium and vitamins, along with a healthy dose of protein. Nordgren has since branched out into other unconventional foodstuffs which are particularly revolutionary in the Bolivian market. In addition to a vibrant assortment of vegetables such as yellow zucchini, mushrooms and herbs, Tierra Consciente produces a gluten-free long-life bread made from potatoes in lieu of wheat. It’s dehydrated for a week before packaging, ensuring a months-long shelf life.
But Nordgren’s vision for local, independent production does not come without its challenges. He says that the largest difficulty lies with logistics – that is, delivery, distribution and price negotiation. Buyers are used to purchasing en masse, a practice that is in opposition to the essence of small scale production. Furthermore, consumers have become accustomed to a certain price range which is only feasible within the framework of big industry. When small businesses attempt to function within that traditional framework, prices are often hiked by middle men while the businesses themselves are left with, pardon the pun, peanuts. But who is to blame? As Nordgren puts it, ‘We can blame industries, we can blame governments, but at the end of the day it is an issue of the producer-consumer model.’ Moreover, it is a daily struggle for producers to stay organic when it is far easier and often cheaper to use chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Nordgren also says that society awards large-scale producers for being wasteful, because it's easier to sell a product which is packaged – and yes, that packaging is almost always plastic.
Independent producers don’t just grow their products – they also have to teach themselves the ins and outs of the business. But despite all the demands, Nordgren finds his job stimulating and feels privileged to be able to do what he does. Though the existing market may be tough to crack, buying local offers unique organic and sustainable options, and producers like Nordgren are working hard to make this reality more accessible in the future.