01.09.2020 Europe

Green is the new glam for Monaco's princely urban farming set

By Amanda Morrow - RFI
© Fabbio Galatioto
LISTEN SEP 1, 2020
© Fabbio Galatioto

Nestled between the imposing backdrop of the neo-classical Monte Carlo Bay Hotel and the azure waters of the Mediterranean, tidy rows of meaty tomatoes, kale, garlic and black bell peppers flicker in the breeze, looking very much at home in their plush Monaco surroundings.

This humble veggie patch, which feeds the hotel's Michelin-starred Blue Bay restaurant, is a small part of an ambitious urban farming venture that has been steadily transforming the principality's concrete rooftops into lush, fertile land.

Spanning just two square kilometres, Monaco is a well-groomed cityscape famous for its excesses – fast cars, luxury yachts and high-stakes gambling – as well as for its tabloid-frequenting royal family. It is almost entirely urban, and has zero commercial agriculture.

Taking root among the sea of skyscrapers, nonetheless, are plots of organic micro-gardens bursting with local and exotic species. They've spent the past five years tacitly forging oases of greenery throughout the most densely populated place on earth.

While urban farming is all about cultivating food in heavily populated spaces, it's still surprising to find that Monaco, a rocky metropolis almost devoid of arable land, is capable of yielding crops of goodies as diverse as pineapple sage flower, Martiniquan peanuts, sorrel and Chinese pink radish.

Many of the Monegasque locals, too, thought it far-fetched when Swiss-born Jessica Sbaraglia – armed with childhood memories of her family's "potager" and a diploma in permaculture from Normandy's Bec-Hellouin organic farm – suggested the principality's barren rooftops might be repurposed for agriculture.

“They haven't grown anything here for a long time, so the very idea was bizarre to them,” the 32-year-old former fashion model says, recalling those early days spent drumming up interest in her idea. “Considering that Monaco is made up of 80 percent concrete, few people thought I would succeed.” 

Harmonious ecosystems that self-regulate
That was in 2016. Fast forward a few years and, against the odds, the young entrepreneur and her Terre de Monaco start-up have transformed 1,600 square metres of principality roofing into five mini hubs of biodiversity – complete with bee hives and hen huts – that offer a reliable supply of organic produce to Monegasque restaurants and residents.

“Over the past year we've produced 4.5 tonnes of vegetables,” Sbaraglia says, going on to explain that everything in the gardens, from the insects to the plants, is “interconnected”. These are natural, harmonious ecosystems that must be self-regulating.

“It's important to keep the soil 'alive', which means using earthworms, woodlice, insects and fungus so it is regenerated each year and there's no need for fertiliser or pesticides,” she explains. “Unfortunately this way of working also means accepting that some tomatoes may be eaten by blackbirds or a plot of carrots lost to aphids.”

Just a few steps from the chic Blue Bay restaurant, one of Sbaraglia's urban pastures has colonised the roof of the Monte Carlo Bay Hotel conference room. The once-bare concrete slab is now home to 400 square metres of fertile terrain that offers a faithful supply of tomatoes, Romeo carrots (the fat, round ones), Sicilian aubergines, aromatic herbs and a range of edible flowers – all fodder for French chef Marcel Ravin's kitchen.

The Martinique-born culinary artist has forged a partnership with Sbaraglia that enables him to bring the garden – in all of its seasonal wonder – to the plate, he says, without the need for packaging or transport.

“Our vegetable garden is what allows me to be creative,” Ravin explains as he garnishes one of his dishes with a careful assortment of greenery and petals. “I need the garden's help to envisage my creations ... I never write the menu first. First I walk through the garden to touch and smell the vegetables, and this is where I draw my inspiration.”

Ravin is the first Caribbean chef to be awarded a Michelin star. His colourful fusion cuisine – think lobster flambéed in old rum, or slow-cooked egg with cassava, truffle and passionfruit – has won him a devoted following. Led by intensive bio-agriculture, his approach also fits nicely with Monaco's own efforts at branding “green” as “the new glam”.

A principality with green principles
Given luxury is so synonymous with excess, it's perhaps counterintuitive to imagine that environmental protection could be a priority in the “playground of the rich”, as Monaco has been called. But top-down efforts to promote sustainability and bridge the gap between luxury and responsible tourism have steadily earned the principality a reputation as a prime destination for ecotourism.

The Monte Carlo Bay Hotel, holder of the internationally recognised Green Globe certificate for sustainability, is just one of many Monegasque resorts that views itself as a pioneer of sustainable luxury tourism. Energy and water efficiency, promoting awareness and “responsible cuisine” are the fundamentals.

To that aim, Ravin has signed up to Mr Goodfish, a European programme that protects endangered species from over-fishing, and advocates sustainable seafood consumption. This means the seafood at Blue Bay is as seasonal as the veggies from its private garden.

“It's important to respect what the earth gives us, and the restaurant follows that rhythm,” Ravin says, adding that he's at an advantage because Blue Bay is open just three days a week. “I'm really looking to bring the garden and nature to the plate, making cuisine that is both Caribbean and Mediterranean ... I'm not sure I could cook in the same way if we were open seven days.”

Long before winning his Michel star – which he describes as “happy recognition of our work” – Ravin has ensured that primary producers were at the heart of his cooking ethos. “In the past, I was always spending time in the countryside with farmers, picking vegetables and coming up with ideas for my menu,” he recalls. “Now we have a vegetable garden that belongs to us, and we can bring to life whatever we wish.”

Not all crops survive, of course, which is another part of the challenge. “It's always worth trying, testing and tasting,” Ravin insists, before adding: “I've always wanted my kitchen to be something that is 'living' ... Every ingredient is there for a reason, and it's not to make the dish look fancy.”

Ravin and Sbaraglia have proven that, if you're determined enough and have the gumption, it's possible to grow beautiful things on hostile territory. The collective efforts of businesses such as theirs have helped win Monaco a string of accolades for its leadership in sustainability.

“What's great is that, here, you don't feel like you're in a city at all,” Sbaraglia says as she ploughs her hands into the earth and uproots a carrot. “That's what these gardens offer, a piece of nature and lightness that city people perhaps forget."

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