Chef and designer, Ximena Sáenz studied at the Instituto Argentino de Gastronomía en Buenos Aires. After working in publicity for a few years her passion for cooking and food took her on a different path and today Ximena shares with the INC the important role nuts have played in her life.
When I was a child, there was a walnut tree in the country house where I spent my summers. It was stunning and it refreshed us under the midday sun. When it was filled with fruits, green furry balls fell from the tree. They said it was a walnut tree, but its fruit didn’t look at all like a walnut. Scratching it was intriguing, to reveal that slightly meaty, sticky pulp under that fuzz and then discover the shell I knew and the nut inside.
They say walnuts have the shape of a brain or a butterfly. When Christmas season arrived, we got to crack the walnuts open with a special tool. In those days, shelled walnuts weren’t available. Or there were, but as they were more expensive my mom wasn’t willing to pay as we could do it ourselves. The whole process of cracking them open and finding both halves separated by that sort of folding screen fascinated me. The shell was more alluring than the nut itself. It was a boat, a little house or a tortoiseshell.
A few years ago, at a food fair, I tasted a chocolate tart that was the most delicious I had tried in 37 years. Crunchy cocoa short-crust pastry, creamy chocolate filling. Bitterness, moderate sweetness, and a perfect combination of textures. I was surprised to find out it was a vegan tart. My mind collapsed because in my world coming from a French gastronomy school, you could only reach that kind of texture in the pastry when there was butter involved. I went to the back of the trailer where was selling the tart and cornered the baker. “Where is the butter?” I claimed as if I were asking, “Where did you hide the murderer?” But what they’d said was true butter wasn’t involved. The tart was made of an almond base, and that was enough.
Nuts have amazing properties. They can give you so much from just a handful. In all cultures, they play the lead in so many famous dishes: bakery from the Middle East, the pecan pie from North America, Asian dishes with peanuts and cashews, macaroons, granola, stolen, marzipan… the list goes on. But as the years continue, they’ll be even more prevalent in our lives. In the rising vegan and plant-based food trends they are a fundamental element as we have seen in recent year with vegetable drinks and nut “butters”.
I constantly ask myself if this “complex” moment we’re currently going through around the world is related to the constant torture we inflict on our planet. An exhausting punishment to squeeze it until its last breath. In this context, I can hear all the voices that have been shouting for years about the urgency of rethinking ourselves in a completely new way. Among many other things, the need of rethinking how we feed ourselves. In that sense, the vegetable world comes strong, and its best warriors, seeds and grains, brim with energy. Seeds with enough energy to invigorate whole trees… Like that one that shared its shadow in our childhood.