Garden of Contentment

In the New Yorker, Fuchsia Dunlop, author of Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China, writes about a restauranteur in Hangzhou who is trying to supply only locally-sourced organic ingredients:

Dai is the owner of the Dragon Well Manor, a restaurant in Hangzhou, the provincial capital. In an age of industrialization, dire pollution, and frequent food scares, the Dragon Well Manor is committed to offering its guests a kind of prelapsarian Chinese cuisine. Dai assures them that everything he serves will be made from natural ingredients, untainted by pesticides or melamine, and with no added MSG. Each morning, his buyers drive out into the countryside to collect the best of the season’s produce. Often they make several trips in a day: a quick dash to a nearby farm to pick up freshly harvested vegetables; a longer journey to inspect a pig or collect a consignment of eggs; an evening excursion for freshwater fish, shrimp, and eels. At other times, they will drive into the mountains, hike for hours, and then stay overnight before returning to Hangzhou with, say, a batch of wild shiitake mushrooms. Dai accompanies them when he feels like it, partly because he enjoys the outing and partly, as he told me with a mischievous grin, to make sure they don’t cheat him by buying produce in a supermarket.

The Manor has never advertised and steers clear of media attention, but it has a devoted following among Zhejiang’s public figures and wealthy businessmen, who come to unwind on the secluded terraces of its landscaped garden before retiring to a private room for a dinner of seasonal delicacies. Guests can look through the “purchase diary,” a large leather-bound volume containing copies of each day’s contracts with the farmers and artisans who supply the kitchens, along with photographs of them picking vegetables, making rice wine, and slaughtering pigs. Dai has never heard of Chez Panisse or Stone Barns, but he is engaged in a similar mission: to guarantee the integrity of his food supplies while shoring up a dying culinary and agricultural heritage.

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