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