Los Poblanos: Beautiful, Organic New Mexico
27 Dec, 2013
Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm is a fascinating mix of the intrinsic elements that comprise New Mexico. Incorporating the heritage of Mexico, Native America and the specific culture of the Middle Rio Grande Valley in which it resides, Los Poblanos has come to represent the highly unique qualities of its location with its architecture, artwork and décor. But it’s not just the look and feel of this magnificent property, it’s also the agricultural and dining experience; the Los Poblanos restaurant sources much of its fare right from the property’s own organic farm, and most of the rest from other local sources. In short, it is an immersive experience for the visitor into a singularly unique culture.
“We get people from all over the world who are blown away by the experience, because after they come here they have an idea of what New Mexico is going to look like,” Matt Rembe, Los Poblanos’ executive director, told Organic Connections. “Before they arrive, they’re thinking desert and very stereotypical New Mexican architecture. So they’re kind of thrown when they get here because it’s very green, very lush, and we have a pretty diverse ecosystem and an incredible foodshed.*
“At the same time it is a great metaphor for New Mexico. A lot of it has to do with our location. We’re in the Central Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande obviously has been an important part of New Mexican history for centuries.”
Los Poblanos has had many visitors simply coming to view and study its architecture. The inn itself originally served as the private residence for the 800-acre rancho, and in 1932 the ranch house was renovated and redesigned by legendary architect John Gaw Meem. Meem was also commissioned to design and build a second structure on the property, La Quinta Cultural Center. Both still stand proudly today as operational facilities as well as showpieces for guests, admirers and students of great building design.
“John Gaw Meem is the most important twentieth-century architect in New Mexico,” said Rembe. “He really helped preserve and perpetuate the great New Mexican architecture, and New Mexico has some of the oldest architecture in the United States. He helped restore the big churches on some of the pueblos like Acoma and did the master plan for Santa Fe. He designed our two buildings, and they really integrate all of the New Mexican cultures; you get Spanish, Spanish Colonial, Mexican, Native American and Anglo all kind of rolled up into this architecture.”
Los Poblanos Organic Farm
A prevalent theme of the Los Poblanos architecture is farming—for very good reason. “Farming is a central part of what we do,” Rembe said, “but really the architecture and the agriculture go hand in hand. The buildings only exist because of the farm; they were designed and built with the farm in mind. That’s why they have all this agricultural-themed art in them that was originally designed by the architect.”
Hence a good part of preserving the culture at Los Poblanos has meant keeping the farm alive and thriving. “All of what we have been trying to do today has been driven by preservation, and we look at sustainability and preservation as working in tandem,” Rembe continued. “Perpetuating the agricultural history meant taking care of the land and being good stewards of the land just like we were being good stewards of the architecture and the history. It was simply part of our value system and also part of the history to farm dynamically. These days, farming dynamically means being conscientious in taking care of the land and the soil.” The primary crop on the farm is lavender, planted over a decade ago by Matt’s father, Armin Rembe. The lavender is utilized in a wide array of bath and beauty products provided to inn guests, and is sold from the on-site store and distributed throughout the world.
Five years ago Rembe brought in renowned New Mexican chef Jonathan Perno as part of a project to provide his guests with a farm-to-table experience. So now, quite in addition to lavender, a wide variety of seasonal crops are grown.
“We always keep lettuce and radishes on rotation so that the kitchen can use those at all times,” Los Poblanos’ farm manager Kyle Johnson told OC. “We grow carrots and beets. We just pulled out some specialized eggplants; we had an Asian eggplant, a Japanese eggplant and an Italian eggplant. We recently harvested two different kinds of sweet peppers, two different kinds of spicy peppers, and kale, and we also planted broccoli and cauliflower.
“Everything we grow is heirloom and/or open-pollinated seeds. We don’t use any hybrid seeds or GMO seeds, obviously. We’re big on saving seeds. For example, we’ll grow cilantro and when the seeds set we save some of those seeds for ourselves, and then we bring some into the kitchen and they grind that up for coriander.”
Farming and Family History
Sustainable farming has quite a history at Los Poblanos, which in modern times has translated into organic farming.
“During the 1930s and 1940s Los Poblanos was a very progressive farm,” Rembe explained. “They were introducing heritage Churro sheep back to the Navajo Nation. It was a state-of-the art dairy. They used turkeys for pest management in the fields with the crops, and they had one of the first corn harvesters in the state.”
Matt Rembe himself is part of Los Poblanos’ sustainable history—it was actually Matt’s father who began organic gardening on the property, which he and his wife continued into their retirement.
“My dad started farming organically, and he was going down to our local farmers’ market and selling his produce,” Rembe recalled. “As I was growing up, what they did with their free time was gardening and working on the farm. In their retirement, my parents were not the type of people who liked going on cruises or playing golf. They kept on farming.”
Matt has fond memories of growing up in such an unusual place. “I have to say it was a pretty good childhood around here,” he said. “Now Albuquerque has sprawled into this metropolis of 800,000 people. In those days we were kind of out of town in a farming district. Now Los Ranchos, where Los Poblanos is located, is a little green oasis in the middle of this big metropolitan area. But back then we rode our bikes all over the valley, had rope swings going across all the ditches—which we call acequias—and played football in the Rio Grande.
“We had lots of chores to do, which we look back on fondly, although at the time it was a pain. I was in charge of chickens and pigs, and my brothers were in charge of the sheep. In the summertimes we worked forty hours a week at a pretty young age, out in the fields or in the gardens or throwing hay bales into the barns.”
Expansion of Organic Farming
The organic farming continued beyond Armin and his wife. The Rembes provided land to one of the first CSAs in New Mexico, which farmed on the property for nearly ten years. Another farmer came along and did the same, and his CSA expanded to such an extent (3,000 to 4,000 members) that he eventually moved on. At that point Rembe had an inspiration. “We wanted to have control of the vegetables that we were putting on all the menus for our own guests,” he said. “So now we do our own farming. We’re using the original 1934 greenhouses, and our farmers and our chef work very closely together, picking seeds and growing native crops.”
When Chef Jonathan Perno joined Los Poblanos in 2008, he was already well versed in the many culinary pleasures available from the farm-to-table experience, having spent a good deal of his professional life in the San Francisco Bay Area before returning to his home state.
“I was cooking in the Bay Area from about 1989 to 1997,” Perno related. “Using locally sourced ingredients was common practice that wasn’t discussed—you just did it, especially in the higher-end restaurants. The flavor is overall better and such ingredients are simply easier to work with. You don’t have to do too much with fresh local food to make it taste really good.”
While the cuisine definitely has a specific intent, it is constantly being approached from an endless variety of new directions. “Everything we create is embracive of Middle Rio Grande cuisine,” said Perno. “We try to bring chilies in everywhere; we try to bring in different spice blends. But it’s really embracing everything—old, new, and having no boundaries. Matt is very good about allowing me and my team to create and move forward and continue to push our own envelope versus just the envelope of the cuisine that we’re presenting to people. In return, I’m hoping that I’m pushing other chefs and establishments that are in our area as well.”
Perno described some of the dishes he has recently produced, based on what is seasonally available from the Los Poblanos farm or otherwise locally. “We just did a lunch with all our own herbs that we grow. It’s real simple, with shallots and Japanese-style eggplant with a house-made garganelli noodle, which is the original rigatoni. This one has lemon zest and pecorino cheese incorporated into the dough; then we hand-rolled them and we did a little baked version of that dish with cream and pesto and cheeses.
“I’m doing a squash broth for a house-made ricotta tortellini, with leeks that are grown locally. We have seared rib-eye with a cascabel brown butter beef sauce and marconi pepper, stuffed with a ricotta-herb mixture and vegetables.
“We made pancakes out of a blue corn meal that comes from the Tamaya Pueblo, and they mill it themselves. We also made some sweet potato pancakes from sweet potatoes that we got from a farmer down south of us.”
“It is actually the purest agri-tourism, field-to-fork experience that you can have, and it’s also a visceral experience,” Rembe pointed out. “When you sit down for breakfast, the kids can go out and harvest their own eggs; then they get to bring them to the kitchen and be part of that immediacy that we’ve all gotten so far away from. People don’t know where their food comes from. Seeing it while you’re here and then knowing that it just came out of those fields is pretty powerful. I think 50 percent of our guests are return guests because they really get it, they really love it.”
Rembe’s holistic vision has certainly found its mark. “We have this little comment book that is in the breakfast area,” he concluded. “It looks and sounds as though we hired some writer to go in there and invent and enhance a bunch of comments, because our guests are truly blown away. And these are people that have stayed in authentic places throughout Latin America or Europe. It’s certainly not just a high-end traveler, it’s a discerning traveler. It’s people who are wanting an authentic and unique experience.
“One thing we hear again and again is the word authenticity—that it’s coming here and meeting real people, observing our farmers, and seeing that the food is true and earnest and that we’re making the products ourselves in small batches. The architecture is authentic and New Mexico herself is an authentic state.
“There is so much duplication of what we experience these days; you stay in a W hotel in Chicago, then go all the way around the other side of the world and stay in another W hotel. So our customers certainly are looking for an experience that is unique and different, and when they come here they say it can’t be compared to any other place.”
*foodshed: The geographic and agricultural region that produces food for a particular population.
For more information, please visit www.lospoblanos.com.
Photo credits: Judson Rhodes, Don Campbell, Tim Keller, Alexander Vertikoff, Sergio Salvador, Josh Hailey, Mike Crane, Vladimir Chaloupka