As the 30th anniversary of the reintroduction of the Milu back to China is approaching, I was interviewed by Global Gourmet magazine. It was a straightforward interview, questions and answers. Hope you will enjoy reading it.
2015 marks the 30th Anniversary of the return of the Pere David’s Deer (Milu) to China which brought me to the Middle Kingdom in 1984. It is an occasion to celebrate one of the earliest successful conservation programs in the world that saw the Bedford Family save the Milu from extinction by collecting all remaining animals in the world (only 18 in total) in the early 20th century on their Woburn Abbey Estate in the United Kingdom.
Since their return, Milu thrive in China and, in addition to nature reserves, zoos and wildlife parks across the country, three free living populations are established in Hubei and Hunan provinces.
The China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation celebrated the Milu return in Beijing during the UN Biodiversity Day on May 22nd, 2015.
Later this year, in mid-November, the first ‘International Symposium on the Conservation, Protection and Management of Milu and Biodiversity in China’ will take place in Beijing.
It will be co-organized by the Beijing Milu Ecological Research Center (Milu Park at Nan Haizi) and the Woburn Abbey Deer Park. The 15th Duke of Bedford who flew to Beijing with the first batch of Milu in 1985 will come to China on this occasion and it will be a great opportunity for the original team that handled the reintroduction to share old memories and celebrate their amazing achievement.
I was recently interviewed by City Weekend, one of the leading english-language publications in Beijing, about the reintroduction and how it all happened. I wish you an enjoyable read!
Last year, just before Christmas, I went to Lyon to visit friends. It was actually my first visit and I was amazed to discover such a multi-faceted city. Many years ago, when I lived in Switzerland, I often drove between the UK and Lausanne but never managed more than a fleeting drive through the city so I was very excited to finally have a chance to discover the old Lugdunum. As early as in the first century, Lyon was named “Colonia copia augusta” or “place of noble abundance”. Over the centuries, benefitting from its geographical position at the merging of rich agricultural regions, the city developed a wealth of high quality supplies. Beef from Charollais, lamb from Auvergne, poultry from Bresse. Milk and butter from Dauphine. Carp from the Dombes, pike from Ain and trout from the Alps. Truffles from Ventoux and mushrooms from Valmorey. The list goes on to include fruits and vegetables from the nearby Rhone Valley and stunning wines from Dijon in the north to Avignon in the south.
Former Hotel Dieu hospital with the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere in the background
In the 1930’s, the Prince of Gastronomes, Curnonsky, named the city the “World Capital of Gastronomy”. One must say that the food here is fantastic, be it in the many small family-style restaurants called “bouchon Lyonnais” or in the Michelin star-rated restaurants in the city and its surroundings. Bouchons have sometime only two or three tables serving typical Lyonnaise food specialities such as black pudding with roasted apples, hearty pâtés, pig’s trotters, breaded tripe smothered in sauce gribiche and others. These small restaurants were initially established in the 19th century by house cooks that used to work for Lyon’s affluent families. They started treating the “canuts”, weaving workers in the silk factories that made the city so famous and prosperous, to popular and straightforward meals. The dish called “la cervelle de canut” (canut’s brain!), made from curd cheese mixed with garlic and herbs is a testimony to their humble origin.
They proved to be great cooks and developed a host of new recipes made from the bounty of the local farmer’s markets and the catches from streams and fields and were called “Mère” or mother. La Mère Filloux was famous for her quenelle of pike with crayfish butter; la Mère Pompon for duck with orange sauce; la Mère Guy for eel stew (matelote d’anguille); la Mère Brazier for “Langouste Belle Aurore”, a whole lobster drenched in brandy and cream. La Mère Brazier, otherwise known as Eugenie, a country girl from the hillocks outside Bresse ended up becoming the first woman in France to win three Michelin stars in the 1930’s. Her bouchon eventually lost its luster in the 90’s but Chef Mathieu Viannay has been reviving it successfully for a few years: “Artichauts et foie gras”, “Poularde de bresse demi-deuil” or “Paris-Brest et Pralin” are back on the menu as they were during its heydays. With two Michelin stars, it is nowadays the highest rated restaurant in the city.
Lunch-time in the bouchon we went to was like the underground at peak hours. A constant flow of people coming and going; the owner yelling at the kitchen to deliver food quicker; the bartender working hard at pouring local wines (like Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône) from a traditional 46 centilitre jug, preparing “petit noir” (anywhere else called espresso) and collecting payments; waiters resetting tables as quickly as possible to accommodate the many people standing at the door and waiting patiently for their seats.
Some proprietors, such as le Père Chauvin, the former owner of the Café des Fédérations, are known to be very temperamental. It is being said that on some days in the morning when he opened his bouchon he used to put out a sign indicating that the place was already fully booked for lunch so that he might decide who was or wasn’t worthy of dining in his bouchon on that particular day! On that day, we selected quenelle of pike with crayfish butter and saucisson with boiled potatoes, two traditional dishes showcasing honest cooking with local top quality ingredients. Lemon tart with meringue made a perfect ending to the meal. We were told that we had to leave by 13:00 pm to allow for a second tabling of guests and we obliged!
Afterwards we wandered through the narrow cobbled streets and “traboules” in the old part of the city. The word ‘traboules’ is a corruption of the Latin ‘trans-ambulare’, or ‘to pass through’. The earliest date from the 4th century and were built to allow more direct access to the town’s fresh water source than the winding streets and alleyways in the old town provided. There may be as many as 400 traboules in Lyon (but not all of them are accessible) mostly in the Vieux Lyon and the Croix-Rousse, the old silk weaving quarters.
Most people tend to believe that the Silk Road ended in Venice, but it actually extended to Lyon where the silk industry was very prosperous for centuries. Although the silk industry as such is something of the past in the city, it must be noted that Hermes is still producing their famed silk ties in the Lyon area. Traboules were used by the silk-weavers to ferry their goods quickly from workshops located at the top of the Croix-Rousse hill to the merchants down in the city and to the docks along the Rhone and Saone rivers.
The Passage Thiaffait, built in the beginning of the 19th century on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse with an entry by a portico, is a curved traboule, which ends with a staircase leading to the hill. It is part of a UNESCO listed World Heritage site. Following its renovation completed in 2001, the Passage Thiaffait now hosts studios and workshops, an area named “The Village of Creators”.
We could not be in Lyon and not visit one of Paul Bocuse’s restaurants. Interestingly, he began his career at La Mere Brazier in 1946 before becoming a worldwide star with his three Michelin-star restaurant located 30 minutes north of Lyon at Collonges-au-Mont d’Or. In addition to a solid budget, one needs to book weeks ahead to get a table which we had not done. We therefore went to “L’Ouest Express Part-Dieu”, a much simpler operation with outdoor terrace located next to the biggest shopping mall in Europe (La Part-Dieu) serving salads, snacks and desserts. Our crepes made ‘a la minute’ and served with homemade fruit compote were excellent. Over the past 20 years, Bocuse has actually opened four new successful brasseries in Lyon, each in one cardinal point, North, East, South and West. Very large, they are normally quite busy and attract mostly visitors eager to experience a Bocuse restaurant at a fraction of the three Michelin stars price (although a meal there is not inexpensive). At age 88, Paul Bocuse has no appetite for slowing down. His latest endeavor in the city was the opening of a restaurant-school in November 2013 in his hotel-school, ‘Le Royal’, overlooking Place Bellecour in the heart of Lyon!
The statue of Louis the 14th, King of France, set on Place Bellecour at the heart of Lyon
The following day, we went to Fourvière, the hill immediately west of the old part of town, rising abruptly from the river Saone, where original Roman settlements were excavated. Fourviere has been a popular place of pilgrimage since the roman time and there was already a small shrine dedicated to the Vierge Marie built in 1170. Nowadays, perched on top of the hill, the Catholic Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière looms impressively over the city. It is dedicated to the Lady of Immaculate Conception, who is believed to have saved the city of Lyon from a cholera epidemic in 1643 and again in 1823.
The basilica is associated with the famous Fete des Lumieres/Festival of Lights that now attract 2 to 3 million visitors over a 4-day period each year. Indeed, in 1852, the festivities planned for the unveiling of the golden statue of Marie had to be postponed to December 8 due to bad weather. On that particular day, although the statue was in place, planned fireworks could not take place due to heavy rain. Spontaneously, the people of Lyon thanked the Virgin Mary for saving the city by lighting small candles in their windows. This marked the origin of the illuminations of December 8.
Following the basilica visit, our friends, Veronique and Olivier, told us that they had booked a table in a small restaurant nearby. Incidentally, it was one of the best in the city, called Tetedoie !!! The one Michelin star restaurant, established on the site of a former hospital called l’Antiquaille, is set in a contemporary building offering a 180-degree view over the city at its feet, with the Alps in the far away distance. The design is stylish and sleek, yet warm and comfortable. The first section of the dining room hosts large tables and the second section has a more intimate setting. Romantic tables (for two) are by the large floor to ceiling window and the place was fully booked on that evening (we learnt that Olivier had made the booking several days ahead).
The chef, Christian Tetedoie, offers creative dishes inspired by the seasons and the freshest products available on the market. The ‘a la carte menu’ therefore changes regularly as well as the set menus. One of those normally showcases traditional Lyon dishes with a modern twist such as the pike cake with marinated and crispy fennel accompanied with flamed crayfish and sauce Nantua (inspired by the traditional quenelle of pike with crayfish butter). Although he remains attached to local traditions, chef Tetedoie is adventurous and goes off the beaten track with creative encounters such as the goose liver and dark chocolate terrine, the bold combination of lobster and head of veal or the surprising risotto with squid and sea urchin cappuccino we discovered on that special evening.
This beautiful dinner marked the end to my first visit to Lyon. I hope to be able to return one day for the festival of lights. It seems absolutely stunning and has inspired many other cities in the world so it must be worth the trip despite the huge number of visitors crowding the street during this period.
For more information on Lyon, these links will be worth checking out:
Mentioning Xian brings different images to different people. For many, it is associated with the Silk Road, the key trade route between East and West that ran for more than 6400 km (4000 miles), and during which Xian, in its heyday, was one of the most populous cities in the world. To other people, it is the place where the world-famous Terracotta Warriors were un-earthed 40 years ago, while people keen on Chinese history remember Xian as the seat of more than 13 feudal dynasties ending with the Tang Dynasty’s fall in 907.
Therefore, on my first visit in 1986, my expectations were very high. Flying to Xian, my imagination was running wild with visions of beautiful palaces, stunning pieces of art, priceless artifacts and the unique Tang Dynasty sculptures (ladies in long flowing robes) that I have always found extraordinarily elegant.
Reality struck me upon arrival. The airport was small, messy and its location in the city made landing tricky and uncomfortable. The roads were dirty and dusty turning into deep mud whenever it rained (and it rained almost daily during this particular trip). Taxis were run-down and drivers notorious to go by the “scenic route” with foreigners so the cab fares ended up much higher. The stern buildings also reminded me of those built in my native Slovakia after 1945, without any Chinese touches, style or elegance, so the arrival was a let down.
Luckily, the city is one of the most interesting and fascinating in China to visit due to its incredible past and my mood improved considerably during my stay. Arriving at the Golden Flower Hotel (that became several years later a Shangri-La hotel) in the early evening, I was astounded seeing a crowd of local people staring at the hotel from outside. I understood later that it was one of the tallest structures in the city at the time and at night, it was “shining” while the streets around were dark with the standard dim lights in all buildings and blocks of flats.
Xian was already very popular with foreign tourists as the Terracotta Warriors had already been discovered more than 10 years prior to my visit. The city was on all inbound tourist’s itineraries and those going to see the Terracotta Warriors in the morning could hardly stop to admire the features of the warriors as masses of tourists would basically create an unstoppable flow. So I decided to visit other sites first to better enjoy the warriors in the relative peace and quietness of the afternoon.
The city is so rich in cultural treasures that visitors never have sufficient time to explore them during their few days in what became the capital of Shaanxi Province. I selected the Ban Po Neolithic Village as my first stop. There, history takes on a completely different meaning. My imagination went into overdrive as I walked slowly through the remains of several well organised Neolithic settlements dating back more than 6,700 years, trying to imagine how people used to live in this matriarchal society during times long gone by.
From Ban Po, I went to the Huaqing Hot Spring, a complex of hot springs initially built as an imperial retreat during the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC – 771 BC). Over time, various emperors added buildings and facilities to the original compound . The Hot Springs Palace was built by Tang Emperor Xuanzong, and favoured by Yang Gui Fei, his preferred concubine. Overlooking the beautifully landscaped lake with lots of greenery and what looked like thousands of golden carps, I was told a more contemporary story, called the “Xian Incident”, which took place there in 1936.
It appears that Chang Kai Sheng (also called Chiang Kai-shek), the leader of the Chinese Republic from 1928 to 1948, was literally caught up with his “pants down” by a former warlord, Zhang Xue Liang, while he was residing at the Huaqing complex. Temporarily kidnapped, he was eventually “convinced” to join in a united front with the Chinese Communist Party to fight the Japanese Imperial Army. This united front would eventually end in 1945 leading to the overall victory a few years later of the communist party and the subsequent departure of Chang Kai Sheng to Taiwan that he ruled with an iron fist until his death in 1975.
The final stop on my first day was the visit to the Terracotta Warriors dating from Emperor Qinshihuangdi’s reign (221-206BC), a discovery made by a peasant digging in his field in 1974. The army of soldiers in the hangar-like structure (now called Pit No 1) is breathtaking. There are about 10000 excavated soldiers and horses and excavations around this original site were still going on at that time. Although from a distance, one realizes that each soldier has different features from the others. Since then, more exhibits were added and opened to the public. One can spend long hours in this amazing historical site and my time was up too quickly. I eventually left, walking out of the compound to the “modern day army” of sellers of Xian souvenirs that are still an integral part of the visit today. I bought a very colourful quilt that I kept preciously for many years and that always brought fond memories about my first trip to Xian.
The following day, I went to visit Gao Xue Min, a well-known local paper-cutting artist, at his home. He had already been overseas to host exhibitions and eventually became Chairman of the Xian Paper Cutting Association. I was very interested to discover the difference between this old art form in China and the paper cutting traditions we have in Slovakia and other central European countries. I had a great time sipping Chinese tea while chatting with him and going through his creations. I still have a picture of “Monkeys in the well”, inspired from an old Chinese tale about a young monkey playing by the well at night. Seeing the refection of the moon in the water, it decides to go down the well with the help of other monkeys to get the moon out of the water .….
I have developed a very special affinity to the monkey since arriving in China, partly because it is my Chinese astrological sign, and partly because it holds a special place in Chinese folk art and culture. It is said that monkeys drive away evil spirits. One of the most famous Peking Operas is called the Monkey King and there are many intriguing tales about monkeys in Chinese mythology. One of them has it that a monkey stole a peach from the celestial Garden of Xi Wang Mu. It was not just any peach but a Peach of Immortality destined for a special banquet in honour of “the Eight Immortals” and aimed at ensuring the deities’ everlasting existence. The immortals had waited six thousand years before gathering for this magnificent feast, thus the havoc created by the mischievous monkey’s theft of the peach. As a testimony to this story, I bought a paper cutting on that day representing monkeys and a peach. I framed it and still have it in my sitting room.
I returned back many times afterwards to Xian to continue exploring the city and its surroundings such as the astounding Famen Temple (that very few foreign tourists visit as it is quite a drive from Xian), the Great Mosque that brings me unbelievable (and unexpected as I am a Christian) peace on each visit, the Shaanxi Provincial Museum (that took 18 years to build in Tang Dynasty style and houses over 370,000 precious relics) and the Tang Dynasty Tomb of Princess Yong Tai. But this is another story ….
A fascinating century-old walled city
The Ancient City of Pingyao in central Shanxi Province was founded in the 14th century and is one of only two ancient cities in China listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its layout reflects perfectly the developments in architectural style and urban planning of the Han cities over more than five centuries. Today, approximately 40,000 residents still live in the old city and bicycles and walking are still the main means of transportation as cars are restricted in the city center.
Pingyao was located between Beijing and Xian – the start of the Silk Road, and became the most important trading and financial center in China in the late Ming and Qing dynasties. China’s first commercial banks, as well as insurance and security companies were established there. At its heydays, there were as many as 20 financial institutions within the city comprising more than half of the total in the entire country. Pingyao merchants had branches all over China and connections in various countries/cities such as Japan, Singapore, Moscow, Calcutta, Paris and London.
Staying overnight in Pingyao is a magical experience. At night, dramatic street lighting with traditional old red lanterns enhance the almost palpable sense of time and history. It is like traveling back in time several centuries.
10 reasons to visit Pingyao
1. The city wall is one of the very few left complete and in its original state in China.
2. The wall has six barbican gates and the pattern resembles the shape of a tortoise earning Pingyao the nickname “Turtle City” with the two gates on the South and North representing the head and tail of the turtle and four gates on the east and west the four legs;
3. The ancient town had four major streets, 8 lesser streets and 72 lanes. The main street runs from north to south with the Market Tower located in the middle and was the center of banking and trading in the old days;
4. It is said that old Pingyao courtyards are some of the best-preserved traditional Han architecture in the whole of China and many original courtyards can still be visited to this day;
5. The Rishengchang Exchange Shop is considered to be the first bank in Chinese history and was established in 1823 during the Qing Dynasty. It had 35 branches in China and its business covered Europe, America and Southeast Asia.
6. The first checks/bank drafts in China were issued in Pingyao;
7. Following the Boxer Rebellion, Empress Dowager Cixi came to Pingyao and asked rich bankers and merchants to advance the sum of 200,000 taels of silver (traditional silver currency used in old China) to pay the indemnity demanded by foreign powers. This sum that would amount to hundreds of millions in today’s currency was never repaid;
8. There are several famous and well preserved residences clustered around Pingyao within a 25-mile radius including the 313-room Qiao’s compound that was the set for Zhang Yimou’s famous “Raise the Red Lantern” movie that put Pingyao in the international spotlight when it was released in 1992;
9. Similarly important cultural sites such as the 1,300 years old Shuanglin Temple and the 1,000 years old Zhenguo Temple are also within easy access from the city;
10. An international “Photography Festival” takes place every year in mid September in Pingyao and attracts thousands of visitors, Chinese and foreigners alike;
A unique hotel experience
Established in the former siheyuan (courtyard home) of a wealthy Qing Dynasty silk merchant, Jing’s Residence is named after the owner, Yang Jing, a successful woman entrepreneur who made her first visit to Pingyao in the early 90’s. She immediately felt attracted to the old city that has remained largely unchanged since the late Ming and Qing dynasties. She was also drawn to the local people who go about their business in and out of the old city as they have done for centuries. At that time she dreamed that one day she would have her own courtyard. Her dream came true with the opening of Jing’s Residence, a once in a lifetime project that took her several years to complete.
The Residence went through a remarkable floor to rooftop multi-million renovation and refurbishment. It is ideally located in the heart of the old city next to the historic “First Armed Escort Agency” compound on East Street and encompasses a series of grey-brick pavilions built around a set of five courtyards in the authentic architectural style of northern China. Unobtrusive landscaping features bamboo, water element, white stone from northern China and traditional brick-paved alleyways that connect the various courtyards.
A two-storey pavilion along East Street commands access to the Residence with, in addition to the reception area, an elegant dining room and a small bar and cozy adjacent library on the second floor. The unique character of the Residence is best reflected in the 19 meticulously renovated bedrooms and suites. The intention of award-winner architect and designer, Antonio Ochoa, was to respect the 200-year old architecture and preserve the spirit of the courtyard mansion while enhancing the facilities to 21st century international standards. Modern functional features are subtly incorporated in the rooms yet, at the same time, the hotel conveys the sense of being immersed in a historic environment.
Natural materials create a sophisticated yet relaxing environment. Decorative features range from ancient carved wooden window frames and timber structural elements to bamboo flooring and rice paper ceilings. Many touches pay tribute to local culture and traditional handicrafts: bed heads are made of lacquer or silk; beds provide modern comfort but they recall the design of the age-old kang; decorative ceramic panels are reminiscent of the shape of coal briquettes and antique Chinese wash-basin stands are completely at home in the luxuriously fitted bathrooms.
“La Cité du Chocolat” is located in Tain l’Hermitage, a notable Côtes du Rhône wine-producing commune south of Lyon in France. The contemporary building, established by Valrhona next to their historic production site, showcases the world of chocolate. It encompasses a museum and an adjacent boutique and the exhibition design is based on interactivity between the visitors, their five senses, and the various attractions on offer focusing on production processes, craft, taste and many other interesting angles.
The City of Chocolate opened in October 2013 and during a recent visit I had the opportunity to discover a unique blond chocolate. According to the story it was initially created by mistake by Frédéric Bau, Executive Chef and Director of l’Ecole du Grand Chocolat. One day, he accidentally left white chocolate in a bain-marie for around 10 hours. By the time he realized what had happened, the chocolate had turned blond and smelled of shortbread.
Intrigued, he decided to taste the unusual mixture. Amazed by the distinctive taste and colour, he decided that it was worth trying to recreate this discovery on a larger scale and to explore ways of launching a new line of chocolate. It took him eight years to succeed in his attempt and “Le Chocolat Blond Dulcey” was officially launched in late 2012.
Mostly sold in bars and individual squares, the warm golden colour chocolate is smooth and creamy. The first notes are buttery, toasty and not too sweet, gradually giving way to the flavours of shortbread and light caramel with a pinch of salt. Dulcey is still new and on my visit, only two Dulcey bonbons were available among their otherwise large selection of ganaches and pralines in the adjacent boutique.
Positioned nowadays as the “fourth” chocolate alongside dark, milk and white, Dulcey is a creative option and pairs well with caramel, coffee and hazelnuts as well as yellow, mildly acidic fruits such as mangos, bananas, apricots and persimmons. It is opening up a new world to pastry chefs and chocolatiers. I had the opportunity during the same trip to discover the creations of Chef Christian Têtedoie at his Antiquaille one-star Michelin Restaurant on the Fourvière Hill in Lyon, and the desserts featured a memorable Dulcey chocolate composition! Heavenly …..