Beijing, 16 September 2013

Last week, I was down in Fujian province. Tea connoisseurs will know the province, it being the home of black tea in China (as well as of white tea and oolong) and, as a result, of some of the most famous black tea brands, including the three Fujian Reds: Tanyang Gongfu, Zhenghe Gongfu, and Bailin Gongfu.

fujian red

I’ve written a previous post about a fourth black tea from Fujian, smoked this one, which was my grandmother’s, and now is my wife’s, favourite tea: Lapsang Souchong.

But I was not in Fujian to explore its tea. I was there to visit two factories. One produces spirulina, a family of blue-green algae, which in the last several decades has received a lot of press as a sort of miracle food for the undernourished, and which was already being eaten by the Aztecs back in the 16th Century when the Spaniards conquered them. I’ve mentioned this wonder product in an earlier post.


The second factory produces glossy ganoderma, a fungus which the Chinese have been consuming for the last two thousand years for its medicinal properties and which has a renewed lease of life as a possible anti-cancer drug.

glossy ganoderma

The two factories were quite distant from each other as well as from the nearest airport at Wuyishan, so our days were long as we drove to each factory, visited them, and of course had long and copious dinners with our hosts and various local worthies such as the mayor or party provincial secretary.  It was with some relief that I saw we had finally arrived back in Wuyishan that last evening of the trip. Alas! I had rejoiced too soon. Wuyishan is an important centre for the tea trade, with scores of tea shops lining the main roads. Our driver, who also happened to be the son of the owner of the spirulina factory, had the great idea of taking us to one of these tea shops. Its owner was a good friend of his, he informed us brightly. He had been so good to us that I didn’t have the heart to say no. So we drew up in front of one of these tea shops, and were greeted effusively by its owner as we got out of the car. He was an Artist, he later informed us, which presumably explained his heartily embracing me; no normal Chinese would ever have done such a thing. It also no doubt explained his pony-tail, something which is now rare in China since the heady days of the birth of the Chinese Republic, when Chinese men everywhere cut off their queues to mark their liberation from Manchu rule.

In any event, he ushered us into his tea house, introduced us to his mother and sister, bid us sit, and quickly made us a cup of tea.

chinese tea ceremony

After a few minutes, and perhaps after a quiet word from his friend the factory owner’s son, he invited us to follow him up some back stairs, to a more private den on the second floor. Here, he had us sit around a table whose top was a square slab of rough stone into which he had carved a Chinese character; this in turn acted as a channel for a little fountain which emerged from the middle of the table’s top. The fountain added a quiet sound of running water to the proceedings. Our host announced that he would be serving us a rare black tea made from just a few kilos of leaves picked every year.

Tea in the mist

He gave us each a little cup which could contain a thimbleful of tea; he had made them himself, he informed us. He then ordered an acolyte who was hovering in the background to pull out his 18th Century Qing cup, which turned out to be even smaller than the ones we had been given and sat on its own tiny wooden table. We all inspected it with great respect. By this time, our host had boiled the water and transferred it to a small cast-iron Chinese teapot. With this, he poured a thin jet of hot water over the cups to warm them, and then added water to the tea. He let it stand for a while, then filled our little cups.

We all sipped our tea – I, out of the Qing cup – and murmurs of appreciation rose up. Now, I don’t pretend to be a tea connoisseur. In fact, I keep it a secret in China that I drink my black tea with milk and sugar. This would put me quite beyond the pale for most Chinese if it ever became common knowledge. And I have never appreciated the green tea which I am routinely offered here. But I actually liked the tea our host had offered us! It did indeed leave a mildly sweet aftertaste, as he had predicted. We drank a few more thimblefuls, after which he declared he would have us try another black tea. This one, he said, was even rarer. Just a kilo or so was collected every year, from one wild tea tree whose location he kept deeply, deeply secret.

old tea treee

It had to be sort of slurped to appreciate its taste, he instructed us. I duly sort-of slurped the tea and was astonished to discover a mild chocolaty aftertaste. Yes, my host smiled, that’s what many say.

As we continued to drink the tea, our eyes started to wander around the room, taking in the various ceramic pieces placed on the shelves around us. Our host began to take them down to let us inspect them. This small cup was Song, he said – Song! Oh  –– My –– God! I love Song ceramics!

song cup

– while this one was early Ming, he continued, and that shallow bowl was Qing. My head whirled. And as we sat there, sipping our tea and holding the ceramic pieces gingerly, oh! so gingerly, I felt for a moment – an instant – like a Chinese scholar of yore, sitting in my study, sipping my favourite tea, gently turning my ceramic pieces in the light, murmuring that Tang love poem I loved so much – and wondering if I would ever pass the next level of those damned imperial examinations …

chinese scholar-2


Fujian red: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-kvSw6A0btv8/UIlzv5xNqLI/AAAAAAAAAkw/T0MCEP9zCSE/s1600/goldenmonkey_base.jpg
Spirulina powder: http://spirulinapowder-review.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Spirulina-Powder.jpg
Glossy ganoderma: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d7/Jreishi2.jpg
Chinese tea ceremony: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_UERtENI3oaU/TKzqT_cEx2I/AAAAAAAABvM/ENJO27ZhxiI/s400/chinesetea2.jpg
Fresh tea leaf: http://www.pingminghealth.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/green-tea-leaf.jpg
Old tea tree: http://www.puerh.fr/dynamic//files/system/articles/80/17.jpg
Song cup: http://p2.storage.canalblog.com/21/37/577050/46025483_p.jpg
Chinese scholar: http://images.visitbeijing.com.cn/20121011/Img214758300.jpg


Beijing, 14 September 2013

In the trip to Xinjiang which I mentioned in my previous post, we were also taken to see a tractor manufacturer. Row upon row of bright new tractors greeted us as we walked into the factory’s yard
tractors outside
but we ignored these, headed as we were for the shed where they assembled the tractors.

It was with some relief that we exchanged the heat and light of the yard for the cool darkness of the shed interior. There, we were introduced to the plant manager, and after a hearty shaking of hands all round he launched into his exposé of all the wonderful things his factory was doing. I let his voice wash over me as I took in a yellow tractor, newly assembled, standing proud and tall before me.

tractors inside

And suddenly I was 14 or 15 again, standing, on a beautiful summer’s day, by the side of a tractor. I was out on the plains of Manitoba, an hour or so’s drive from Winnipeg, on a farm owned by the parents of a friend of my sister’s.  The farmer was asking me if I wanted to try ploughing a field and I was saying yes. Why not? Everything is possible when you are 14 or 15.

So he gave me a quick lesson in tractor driving and ploughing, and sent me off to a distant field. And off I went, my hat cocked at a jaunty angle as I surveyed the surroundings, Lord of everything I beheld.  After 10 minutes, I arrived at the field – the North American plains are very big and tractors are very slow – and there I found myself faced with an unexpected choice: there were actually two fields, one to the left and one to the right, and no fences. Which one? I hesitated, trying to remember my instructions – no mobile phones in those days, no way to check back – and eventually plumped for the field to the right.

So I started ploughing, starting as instructed at the field’s edge and going round in ever-decreasing circles until the middle was reached. By the end of the first circle, I noticed a man standing on the edge of the field. By the end of the second circle, he had walked over and signaled me to stop. He asked me politely what I was doing. Well, I was ploughing the field, I replied lamely. Yes, he responded patiently, but on whose instructions. Well, I said, and here I named my farmer host. Ah, he said, but the fact was that I was ploughing HIS field. Not that he minded, he added quickly, the field was fallow (thank God! I screamed inside of me) and no doubt it would benefit from an extra plough, but still … He pleasantly instructed me to stay still while he phoned his neighbour.

I sat there, on the tractor, with my hat at not quite such a cocky angle now, with a sense of impending doom. And indeed my farmer host came scorching over like a bat out of hell. He covered in 10 seconds in his battered old car what had taken me 10 minutes with the tractor. He bounced out, glared at me, and excused himself profusely with his neighbour, but the offended party was very gracious about it all and the situation resolved itself pleasantly.

My farmer host next turned to me and in that very deliberate and slow tone one reserves for the village idiot told me that I was meant to be ploughing the LEFT field. And to make sure that the village idiot had understood he pointed very insistently at the field in question. Suitably chastened, with my hat drooping about my ears, I headed for said field, and started again.

So there I was, circling the field, spiraling slowly – EVER so slowly; the field was very big – towards its middle.  I have to tell you,  ploughing is pretty boring. After about the fourth circle the novelty of it all had worn off and I was wondering how to pass the time. I tried singing, but the noise of the engine drowned out even the lustiest of my songs. I tried driving with one hand, but that palled after 2 minutes. I tried driving with one leg up on the dashboard, but that was uncomfortable. In a moment of desperation, I even thought of trying to drive sitting backwards but luckily good sense prevailed. So I was reduced to just driving, driving, driving in ever decreasing circles as the sun slowly dropped to the horizon of the endless Manitoban plains.
Ploughing the plains may be boring but the plains themselves have a strange beauty. As a boy brought up in undulating landscapes, used to cresting land-waves and finding hills rising up before me, I initially found the plains disorienting. Whenever my parents took us out for drives I never knew which way to look. But after a while I began to appreciate the way the sky was so close to the land, seeming to press down on it and you, and how you could really enjoy cloud formations in the vast, uncluttered sky of the plains. I could never get over those fields of wheat stretching off as far as the eye could see, registering on their waving surface every meander of the passing breeze …
the plains-7
I was nudged, the plant manager had finished his peroration. I came out of my reverie with a smile playing on my lips, which no doubt delighted the man, reinforcing his conviction that what he did was incredibly interesting. With another round of hearty handshakes, we emerged blinking into the strong sunlight and headed for the car and the next factory.


tractors inside and outside: GUO Li
tractor and the sunset: http://farm5.staticflickr.com/4045/4482416778_f1fc6db355_z.jpg
wheat fields: https://farm5[dot]staticflickr.com/4127/4975335245_a2e33916c3_z.jpg


Beijing, 13 September 2013

Last week, I was up in Xinjiang (or the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, to give it its full title), where I and some colleagues were discussing possible projects and visiting some industrial plants. The most intriguing of these visits was to a plant where this welcomed you when you arrived.
tomato waste-4
Readers would be excused if, like me when I got out of the car and like my wife when I showed her this picture, they scratch their heads and ask themselves what on earth this stuff is.

Tomato waste, that’s what it is.

Yes, these are the left-overs from the process to make tomato paste, a significant industry in Xinjiang, which grows some 4 million tons of tomatoes a year. As you might imagine, with a process that basically squeezes the juice out of tomatoes for further concentration the waste consists primarily of tomato seeds and skins.

Mr. Liu, a spry septuagenarian and founder of the company, met us as we got out of the cars and led us to the exhibition room. He started by explaining that he was on the rebound with this company; he set it up after going bankrupt in a previous foray into capitalism. The business model Mr. Liu adopted in this new venture is simple but ingenious. He takes the tomato wastes off the hands of the tomato paste makers, who are glad to offload them at no cost since they don’t know what to do with them. So far so good. But he doesn’t just dump them in a convenient hole somewhere as most waste dealers still do in this part of the world. No, he works his magic on the wastes to make a whole series of new products with them.

The most important of these is tomato seed oil. Yes, you can press all those little seeds in a tomato

tomato seeds

and make this lovely orange-colored oil
tomato seed oil
No doubt the colour comes from a combination of the gold of oil with the red of lycopene, the chemical which gives tomatoes their red colour. The oil commands premium prices from restaurateurs and others who have refined culinary tastes.

But Mr. Liu is not satisfied with just this one product. He also makes a skin tonifier from the juice squeezed out of the waste.
tomato tonifier
He told us it contains high levels of anti-oxidants, so is excellent for slowing down the aging process.  As proof of this assertion, he said he was made aware of the juice’s beneficial effects by his workers who, it seems, were padding around in the juice with only sandals on and discovered that the skin of their feet was rejuvenated. I pass on this nugget of information without in any way suggesting that I believe it.

Mr. Liu also makes pills from this same juice, no doubt to encourage digestion or some such (I can’t believe the skin of our stomachs and intestines need rejuvenation).

And with everything that is left over Mr. Liu makes cattle feed. Apparently, cattle quite like tomato waste once the seeds have been removed. They clearly have refined palates.

Despite his 70 years, Mr. Liu is bubbling over with new ideas. He showed us a new silo where he will start storing the tomato left-overs so that he can process the stuff more regularly throughout the year – right now, he is forced to do a lot of processing at harvest time and to stand idle the rest of the year. I didn’t quite understand how he planned to avoid the waste from rotting; something about adopting a system used for centuries by farmers in Xinjiang to preserve their cattle feed (the translation got a bit tangled at this point). He is also planning to start processing the small, green tomatoes which are left behind in the fields at harvest time and which actually represent some 20% of the tomatoes grown. And no doubt he has other ideas up his capacious sleeves.

I really admire people like Mr. Liu. He is the embodiment of that phrase much loved in certain environmental circles, “from waste to profits”. I don’t pretend that Mr. Liu invented the process of extracting oil from tomato seeds – a rapid surf of the web after the visit showed me this (although the lotion may be his idea).  But he had the courage, after a ruinous bankruptcy which left him more or less only with the clothes on his back, to set up a new business, seeing an opportunity where others would only turn up their noses. And he keeps on coming up with new products to squeeze out of his tomato wastes.

I feel duty bound, however, to report a slight hiccup in all this. A few mornings ago, my wife tersely informed me by text that the skin tonifier which I gave her to try made her smell like a tomato.  For a tomato lover like myself this may actually be a plus, but for others with a more measured relationship to the tomato this news may give them pause.


Tomato waste: my picture
Tomato seeds: http://www.fixityourself.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/SavingSeeds1.jpg
Tomato seed oil: http://www.onecoup.com/uploadfile/2011822325.jpg
Tomato tonifier: my picture