Fine China

An idyl­lic re­treat in Hangzhou’s Dragon Well tea hills re­calls a golden age of gas­tron­omy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Food Issue - FUCH­SIA DUNLOP

THE wait­resses, dressed in tra­di­tional silken dresses, be­gan by bring­ing us fresh, warm, stone-ground soymilk, which they in­vited us to sea­son with soy sauce, tiny dried shrimp, morsels of deep- fried dough­stick, and finely chopped spring onion and pick­les. Then there were cold dishes, eight of them, in­clud­ing del­i­cate bam­boo shoots, tiny cu­cum­bers and wild greens with toasted pine nuts. Af­ter­wards, a pro­ces­sion of hot dishes, from a sim­ple omelette of farm­house eggs and spring onions to a gor­geous, trea­cly stew of belly pork. The doors of our pri­vate room opened into an idyl­lic land­scape of gen­tle hills, tea plan­ta­tions, sweet gum trees and feath­ery bam­boo.

The first time I vis­ited Dragon Well Manor, in 2008, I felt I was eat­ing a kind of mir­a­cle. I found it by chance: I was lead­ing a gas­tro­nomic tour of China and the Sichuan earth­quake meant we had to resched­ule at short no­tice and visit Hangzhou, 180km south­west of Shang­hai, in­stead of Chengdu. A chef friend rec­om­mended ‘‘a kind of rus­tic restau­rant serv­ing or­ganic food’’ on the out­skirts of the city, and we ended up there one lunchtime in May. It was im­me­di­ately clear that this was no or­di­nary nong jia le (a phrase de­scrib­ing farm­house restau­rants of­fer­ing ‘‘rus­tic cheer’’). The food was scrump­tious and ex­quis­ite: en­tirely lack­ing in os­ten­ta­tion; rooted in tra­di­tion with­out be­ing hide­bound; cooked with an eye to bring­ing out the es­sen­tial tastes of the raw in­gre­di­ents; and, above all, pre­pared with a rev­er­ence for the finest and purest of the sea­son’s pro­duce. It was the kind of food I’d dreamed about over many years of ex­plor­ing Chi­nese cui­sine.

The manor is the brain­child of Dai Jian­jun, an ec­cen­tric for­mer of­fi­cial with a heart­felt com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing Chi­nese agri­cul­tural, ar­ti­sanal and culi­nary tra­di­tions. In 2000, he leased land in the Dragon Well tea hills, in­tend­ing to cre­ate a clas­si­cal Chi­nese gar­den. The restau­rant evolved in an ad hoc man­ner af­ter he hired a chef and be­gan serv­ing food to his friends. Dai wanted to of­fer the kind of food that would have sat­is­fied the 18th-cen­tury gourmet Yuan Mei,

FUCH­SIA DUNLOP who fa­mously in­sisted that 40 per cent of the credit for a good din­ner should go to the per­son who went shop­ping for the in­gre­di­ents. Dai de­cided that his kitchen would rely on prop­erly made stocks and tra­di­tional sea­son­ings rather than the mod­ern quick fixes of chicken pow­der and MSG. And he wanted to serve food that his cus­tomers could be con­fi­dent con­tained no pol­lu­tants, pes­ti­cides and ar­ti­fi­cial ad­di­tives.

All the pro­duce used at the manor is sourced from a vast net­work of peas­ant farm­ers and food artisans who pro­vide what Western­ers would call or­ganic or free-range pro­duce — and, in re­cent years, also from Dai’s own farms. A team of buy­ers drives out into the coun­try­side each day to col­lect the sea­son’s bounty: fresh greens, wild veg­eta­bles, farm­house chick­ens and pork, river shrimp and fish from nearby ponds. Within the restau­rant grounds, artisans stone- grind soy­beans and make their own tofu ev­ery morn­ing.

It’s rare in China to find con­sum­mate culi­nary skills mar­ried with such metic­u­lous at­ten­tion to in­gre­di­ents. Din­ing at Dragon Well Manor is like a flash­back to a golden age of Chi­nese gas­tron­omy, when gen­tle­man schol­ars such as Yuan Mei en­ter­tained their dis­cern­ing friends at ban­quets pre­pared by their pri­vate chefs (but with added mod­ern com­forts such as glazed win­dows and air­con­di­tion­ing). It al­lows one to for­get, for a mo­ment, the pol­lu­tion, the food scares and the cap­i­tal­ist frenzy of the world out­side.

I’ve re­turned of­ten to the manor, vis­it­ing in ev­ery sea­son, and just step­ping through the moon gate into its beau­ti­ful gar­den gives me a feel­ing of supreme calm and con­tent­ment. It’s hard to sin­gle out a favourite dish, but I can’t bear leav­ing with­out a taste of the red-braised pork belly. As Dai says, the manor serves fang xin cai — lit­er­ally ‘‘food with­out worry’’, but more po­et­i­cally ‘‘food that puts your heart at rest’’.

Dragon Well Manor evolved from its be­gin­nings as a clas­si­cal Chi­nese gar­den

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