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3 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Willow & Spoon

I’ve found it – the third cafe in my perfect trifecta of quirky Brisbane cafes – and just in time too, because I leave for Shanghai tomorrow – these last three weeks have flown by and it’s hard to believe I’ll be packing my bags tonight.
If you missed the first two of the trifecta, you can read about the incredible cakes and friendly sisters at Sisco, and the extraordinary coffee and 70s decor at Shucked.
Willow & Spoon reminds me at every turn of exactly what I’ll be missing in twenty-four hours’ time – a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, top notch cooking with bright fresh flavours, and most importantly, a chat and a smile to brighten your day and send you on your way feeling well-fed and happy. Shouldn’t that be what all cafes aspire to? Apparently this philosophy is alive and well in Brisbane but yet to hit the shores of China, although I live in hope. 
Willow & Spoon is not what you might expect to find in suburban Alderley. Sitting in a row of old shopfronts, the cheery red walls and friendly lounge on the footpath welcome you in to an interior that looks uncannily like the weatherboard house I grew up in, although we kept our bouclé lounge suite (yes, it was called a suite) inside the house at all times. There’s a checkered red and white linoleum floor, an old white kitchen dresser with leadlight glass doors, and a cabinet housing a collection of Australian souvenir spoons. Owners Tracey Mooney and Keith Nunns want the place to feel just like home, and as they sit you down with a smile you feel instantly relaxed, and quite peckish.

It’s an incredibly gorgeous sunny Brisbane day, so we decide to walk through the cafe’s front room to the back of the house, and here’s where I get an intense case of deja vu looking at the car parked in the driveway underneath the house and the grassy garden with Hill’s Hoist. It is really just like the house I lived in at the age of seven.
But there’s where the similarities with my childhood home end, because we never ate dishes like those served at Willow & Spoon. Chef Adam Starr has taken a mind bursting to the brim with imaginative ideas and translated them into a menu full of dishes you can’t wait to taste. I haven’t been this excited about reading a breakfast menu in years.
We begin with Forbidden Fruit and the Garden of Eden – never was a bowl of muesli and fruit more enticingly named! A whole apple poached with spices is filled with creamy mousse, joined on the plate by fresh edible flowers and fruits all resting on a bed of oats roasted in Manuka honey with dried figs and walnuts. Quite superb.
We follow with Sleeping Beauty – a herby original take on Eggs Benedict with poached eggs wobbling on wilted spinach and a square of mushroom and tarragon ‘muffin’. The eggs, topped with fresh garden pea sauce, are runny and golden-yolky, served alongside sweet roast tomato honey. How can I ever go back to regular Eggs Benedict after a tasting this?
The menu treasures go on and on – The Harlequin – rich smoked cod with house-made brioche, avocado, tomato and green onion salsa and an artichoke veloute is creamy and soft, and next time I want to try Pigs in Zen – pork jowl braised in an asian master stock with enoki mushrooms, quinoa and cucumber with parsnip puree, or The Diabolical Pact – banana, date and roasted green chili loaf with kalamata labna, ricotta and confit of pineapple. 
The dishes could run the risk of overly unusual flavour combinations, but all are thoughtfully, carefully and cleverly executed by Starr and are, simply, totally more-ish. Is there another breakfast menu in Brisbane with this much imagination or care in execution? And it doesn’t stop with the adult menu – children are equally well placed with a plate of Dinosaur Eggs or fresh fruit and mango sorbet.

As I move on to my second coffee, children from nearby tables are running in the open space of the grassy garden, and customers are arriving for morning cake and coffee. I bet they all leave with a smile on their faces, as I did. 
 Shop 2, 28 Samford Road
Alderley, Brisbane
Open Tuesday to Friday 7am to 3pm, Saturday 7.30am to 2pm, Sunday 7.30am to 1pm
Ph +617 3113 3810

2 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Shucked

Here’s my second of three great and quirky Brisbane cafes for your delight!  
This one, Shucked – named for shucked coffee beans – is like walking into your cool best friend’s living room and unexpectedly finding a bunch of top barrista coffee nerds hanging out there, nonchalantly whizzing up cups of coffee with a perfect crema every two minutes. Totally relaxed. 
Shucked is tucked into a lane in the previously coffee-poor suburb of Newstead, rendering the original hole-in-the-wall outlet an instant success and necessitating expansion into a larger, lighter, high-ceilinged brick space. Owners Naomi Mawson and Mark Ferguson opened a year ago, with the aim of creating a cafe with ‘great coffee, great food and great service’ similar to their favourite haunts in Melbourne, and now find themselves running one of Brisbane’s best and most popular coffee stops.
The place has an instantly laid back feel, furnished with a high long communal table graced with mismatched wooden stools and a delicate glass cold-filtered coffee apparatus that drips away slowly all day, filling the pot below with smooth, clean-flavoured black coffee. There are couches too, for lounging, and smaller tables if you don’t feel like being communal.
I love the walls – lined with contrasting panels of original rolls of 70s wallpaper (shipped all the way from New York), in geometrics, florals and mustard tones, and I really get a kick out of the pheasant, poodle and red cat salt and pepper shakers, and the lace doileys, all secondhand finds that make Shucked totally original and take me straight back to my seventies childhood.
And the coffee – a unique blend from local coffee roasters Blackstar – is smooth, full-bodied and packed with flavour. I’m no coffee expert but this coffee is great, and a second cup is practically a given as soon as you take your first sip. They even stock legendary Aeropress coffee presses, and I am now the proud owner of an amazing device I’ll be taking back to China to brighten up my otherwise dark coffee days in Shanghai.
Even more excitingly, the Mawson’s have just appointed a new chef who is adding some amazing dishes to their breakfast and lunch menu – smoked trout with shaved fennel and pear salad, sardines on toast with beetroot mash and fennel flowers, along with sweet favourites like melting moments and the triumphant warm banana and walnut cake served with a shot glass of maple syrup and espresso ricotta. 
Shucked is just a great addition to Brisbane’s coffee scene, and well worth a trip to Newstead’s little back streets to spend an enjoyable hour or two sipping top quality. You’ll feel instantly 15% cooler the minute you walk in the door. Guaranteed. 

Shucked

9 Creswell Street, Newstead
Brisbane

Open seven days for breakfast and lunch
Weekdays from 6am, weekends from 7am

Ph +617 32574567

1 of 3 Quirky Cafes: Sisco

I flew out of Shanghai with the words of a good friend in my ear: 
“Enjoy the coffee” she said, as she wished me well on my way back to Australia for a flying visit. It’s no secret that, as much as I miss dumplings and noodles while I’m away from China, what I miss even more in Shanghai is good cake and coffee. Preferably together. 
What my friend was jealous of, and rightly so, were the dozens upon dozens of cups of good coffee I was planning to fit in between shifts at the hospital (where I hope to earn enough money to pay for that crazy Chinese campervan scheme of mine), in the hope of stockpiling enough coffee experiences to see me through the lean Chinese coffee-filled months ahead, without developing a caffeine-induced arrhythmia in the process. 
Since arriving in Brisbane the weather has been uncommonly unfriendly with non-stop rain and grey skies, but for me it’s the perfect excuse to sit inside one of the inner city’s many gorgeous cafes sipping coffee expertly made by the hands of an experienced barrista, rather than a twenty year old Starbuck’s apprentice named Cyanide.
Time away from the place has made me realise that one of Brisbane’s essential charms, for those lucky enough to live here, is the city’s culture of very individual, independent cafes, spurning the insipid global coffee chains for a charming combination of quirk, personality, excellent coffee, freshly baked cakes and great service. Brisbane is overflowing with them.
I’m starting with Sisco, in the inner city suburb of Spring Hill, and this week will bring you two more of my new favourite coffee and cake spots.
Sisco sits in a narrow old wooden shopfront on the sunny side of the street in inner city Spring Hill, and is one of the friendliest places in town. 
My waitress, who has an impressive tattoo of The Tiger Who Came To Tea on her arm, takes my coffee order (flat white, no melamine) and tells me the apple doughnut cakes are really good today, served with double cream. The combination of the words ‘apple/doughnut/cake/double cream’ seem inseparable with the word ‘good’ in my head, so I order one.

And what comes next is a kind of heavenly cake epiphany. 
Imagine, if you will, all the things you love about a cinnamon doughnut – the crisp outside, the scent of cinnamon and yeast, the grainy sugar crystals that stick to your lips and the corners of your mouth, and the warm soft inside. Now think of all the things you love about your grandmother’s apple sponge cake – soft sweet pieces of apple in a light crumb cake. Now top that, in your imagination, with a dollop of thick fresh double cream. Pretty damn good, huh?
There are other incredible home-made temptations to eat with your coffee, like the strawberry, rosewater, and pistachio syrup cake, or the lemon curd tarts topped with strawberries, or the pink and white striped coconut ice (a nostalgic Australian childhood classic). The cakes change daily and are always fresh, interesting and delicious (chocolate beetroot cake comes to mind).
I believe Sisco also make a mean breakfast and tasty lunches, and next time I’m there before morning tea time I’m going to order the poached tamarillos with french toast and chocolate ricotta.

The quirk and passion behind Sisco comes from sister owners Kelly (pictured) and Vicky Jones, who dreamed of opening the sort of cafe they and their friends would love to eat at, then just went ahead and did it. Love their attitude! Vicky is the mistress of the menu and comes up with cake masterpieces daily, and Kelly runs front of house, taming the queue of customers lining up at the street-side coffee window for their daily fix.

The pair seem to know every customer by name, favourite coffee, and preferred seat, and Sisco is exactly the sort of place where I dream of becoming a regular, with the sisters sitting me down by the window and seconds later delivering me a creamy flat white, and an enormous slab of the daily cake special with double cream.

Sisco Cafe
500 Boundary Street Spring Hill
Open Monday to Friday 7-3
Saturday and Sunday 7-2
for breakfast, coffee and lunch
Ph +61 7 3839 4995

Shanghai Street Food #26 Sesame Breakfast Pastries: Dà Bǐng 大饼, Shāo Bing 烧饼

Da bing breakfast pastry

The overwhelming choice of breakfast street foods in China means a morning smorgasbord of flavours every day. The most difficult thing is choosing what you want to eat. Should it be savoury or sweet today? Crispy or soft? Bready or cake-y? With or without soy milk?

It’s pretty hard to go wrong with bing, a kind of all encompassing term which means any food which is flattish, roundish and like a bread or pancake. The bing family of breakfast foods includes the perenially popular folded pancake jiān bing 煎饼, and my personal love, the scallion oil pancake cong you bing 葱油饼 made by the vendor on Nanchang Lu. 

Most little breakfast shops also sell dà bǐng 大饼 (big bing) or shāo bing  烧饼 (baked bing), both names referring to small (not big) sesame sprinkled breakfast pastries. Crispy, warm and flaky, they lie somewhere between a flatbread and a pastry and are very inexpensive – usually 1 yuan each. 

The vendor may ask if you want sweet or savory bing (tián de háishì xián de 甜的还是咸的) – I like the salty ones, finding the sweet ones a little plain. 

It’s great to watch them being cooked – the bread dough is sprinkled with either a little sugar, or salt and scallions, before being shaped and then pasted, Indian naan style, onto the inside wall of a 44 gallon drum ‘oven’ to get nice and crispy, then rested on the circular oven shelf to keep warm.
The Shanghai Street Food Series
Now in its third year!

Number 1   Roast Sweet Potatoes
Number 2   Snack-on-a-stick 
Number 3   Liangpi – a spicy cold noodle dish
Number 4   Langzhou Lamian – hand-pulled noodles
Number 5   Cong You Bing – fried shallot pancakes
Number 6   Baozi – steamed buns, Shanghai style
Number 7   Jian Bing – the famous egg pancake
Number 8   Dan Gao – street cakes
Number 9   Shao mai – sticky rice treats
Number 10  Summer on a Stick – fresh fruits

Number 11  You Tiao – deep-fried breadsticks
Number 12  Dan Juan – egg rolls
Number 13  Shao Kao – street barbecue
Number 14  Bao Mi Hua – exploding rice flowers
Number 15  Chou Doufu – stinky tofu
Number 16  Bing Tang Shan Zha – crystal sugar hawthorns
Number 17  Mutton Polo
Number 18  Yumi Bang – puffed corn sticks
Number 19  Mian Hua Tang – cotton candy
Number 20  You Dunzi – fried radish cakes

Number 21  Suzhou Shi Yue Bing – homestyle mooncakes 
Number 22  Gui Hua Lian’ou – honeyed lotus root stuffed with sticky rice
Number 23  Cong You Ban Mian – scallion oil noodles
Number 24  Guotie – potsticker dumplings
Number 25  Nuomi Cai Tou – fried clover pancakes
Number 26  Da Bing, Shao Bing – sesame breakfast pastries
Number 27  Ci Fan – sticky rice breakfast balls
Number 28  Gui Hua Gao – steamed osmanthus cake
Number 29  Zongzi – bamboo leaf wrapped sticky rice
Number 30  Shengjianbao – pan-fried dumplings

Number 31  Mala Tang – DIY spicy soup

The Five Wonders of Wuxi

Wuxi residents may be upset to hear me say this, but I had kind of low expectations of the town for my first visit last Friday. I just didn’t want to get my hopes up about a place that’s home to China’s third largest lake and ninth largest Buddha statue, in case I found it all a bit underwhelming and was left wondering whether I shouldn’t actually be visiting the eighth largest Buddha statue instead. Wherever that is.
But as it turns out, Wuxi is quite wonderful in an understated sort of way, in the way only a city that doesn’t rely on tourism can be, just by being itself. I didn’t even see the lake (third biggest in China) or the fairly big Buddha, but I still had a great time thanks to Wuxi-ren Unbravegirl who took time off from her frantic Bloggie-winning schedule (Best Asian Blog, by the way) to show me around the place in her new role as the Wuxi Tourism Board’s Ambassador and incoming President of the Wuxi Visitor Hosting Programme. 
I hope they’re paying her a lot because she is really a very good host. And here are four things I didn’t expect to find in Wuxi:
1. Excellent blue sky
Wuxi really outdid itself with the weather on Friday, turning on a very nice blue sky dotted with clouds and a day so warm I could have left my coat at home. I finally felt a breath of hope that spring might come this year after all. 
(Note to Shanghai: I haven’t seen a blue sky for thirty-two days. Grey drizzle is not attractive for thirty-two days in a row so you need to pick up your game because if Wuxi can do it, so can you.)

2. A very pretty temple
Wuxi’s Nanchang Temple has everything – monks in saffron robes, a multi-story pagoda you can climb, flags, lanterns, and a lot of incense. And because it’s called Nanchang Temple I really had to visit, although it felt awkward to point out to my Wuxi Ambassador that Nanchang Lu’s Nanchang (南昌) is different from the Nanchang Temple’s Nanchang(南长), so I didn’t. And it was still very lovely.

3. Canals
I’m not going to call Wuxi ‘The Venice of the East’, in fact I’m not even going to call it ‘The Venice of Wuxi’, but there is no denying that a few well-placed canals lined with whitewashed houses hung with lanterns add enormously to the atmosphere of a place. The factory spewing smoke in the background probably needs to go, but add in a curved stone bridge or two, and you’re done.  

4. Street foods I’ve never seen before
I’ve now seen and eaten a lot of Chinese street foods. A lot. But Wuxi had a whole variety of specialised Chinese street sweets I’d never seen before, in quite unique colours. I’ve grown quite wary of Chinese sweets with their occasionally jarring flavour combinations (pork floss doughnuts come to mind) and these were no exception, a timely reminder that taro and custard should never go together.

The small pretty buns with the spiral pattern were small and pretty, but best left untouched. The strange purple filling was like stale bread mixed with food colouring. 
I did quite enjoy the honeycomb texture of the Chinese canoli, a fried perforated potato slice wrapped around a filling of sweetened pale purple taro paste. I would eat these again if I was close to starving, but not under any other circumstances.
5. Unexpectedly great noodles
Hurrying to catch lunch before the departure of my afternoon train, and having failed to fill up enough on Wuxi’s sweets, my Wuxi Ambassador and I picked a small noodle restaurant at random based on the fact that it was open and looked like it could serve a meal in quick time. For reasons of haste there was no photograph taken to record what was a stupendous steaming bowl of noodles. 
The scorching hot earthenware bowl was filled to the brim with spiced broth, fine wheat noodles, sour pickles, a tiny wobbling poached quail’s egg, lettuce (delicious and silky soft when cooked), and salty smoked slices of bacon. It was amazing.
All I can remember, aside from the blockbuster taste, was the restaurant’s orange formica stools and tables. If you need the address for your next trip to Wuxi (the one you’re now planning) you can contact your Wuxi Visitor Host for details. 

Where is Wuxi?
It’s halfway between Shanghai and Nanjing, about 45 minutes by super-fast G train from either Hongqiao Station or Shanghai Station. Trains run every half hour.

Taming the Kitchen Dragon: Farm-Style Home Cooking in China

It’s half an hour past midday, late by Chinese lunch standards. A whole hour late actually – lunch generally beginning at the barely-finished-breakfast time of eleven thirty – so everyone in the smoke-filled kitchen is starving and beginning to steal bits of food from the bowls covering the square wooden tea table, dressed with a piece of pale blue floral sheet. They’re all hoping the cook won’t notice.
The cook meanwhile, has a huge fire-breathing machine to control, a square squat black and white patterned dragon in the corner of the room puffing smoke and steam and full of fire, and he’s trying to tame it enough to get the lunch finished so we can all sit down and eat.

I’m in the farmhouse kitchen of the Xu family, along with eight neighbours, relatives and friends who have stopped by to see what’s for lunch, and the dragon is the wok stove that takes pride of place in every eastern Chinese farm kitchen, a rather lovely hand-painted beast of a thing. After a morning visiting the local market and farms of Farmer Feng and her neighbours, I’m having a home-cooked farm-style lunch and spending the afternon seeing the farms of the extended Xu family and their neighbours. 


I’m very taken by these big Chinese farmhouse stoves though, and the skill needed to cook with them. This one (in Farmer Feng’s kitchen) is typical, with it’s simple painted designs and chimney recessed to hold sauces and condiments. Made from rammed earth then tiled and painted, the stoves are so enormous that farmhouse kitchens tend to be enormous too, just to fit them in. I’ve come across some really beautifully decorated and painted ones, like the stove at a peach farm I visited, but others are very simple and functional.
The stove usually has three deep indentations set into its broad top, for two large woks and one small one. The woks, seasoned to a deep bronze-black patina, are divided up according to their purpose – one for stir-frying, and the others for boiling water or steaming.
The stove backs onto a small alcove behind the chimney and has two long narrow fireplaces about the thickness and length of a man’s arm, each fireplace leading to the spot directly underneath one of the two large woks. The fireplaces are fed with a stash of dried bamboo and straw standing in the chimney corner.

Cooking on a wood-fired wok stove is way more complicated than just turning the gas up or down, and it requires a lot more skill, but here’s how it works. Cooking is a two man affair, with the cook standing in front of the stove tossing ingredients into one of the two woks at great speed, and calling out to the second ‘cook’ the necessary instructions – ‘more heat!’ ‘less heat!’ ‘fast heat!!’ and so on.
The second cook sits facing the fireplaces, feeding in bamboo at the required speed for the level of heat. When a really high heat is needed, she works a small electric bellows which draws air through a side vent, magnifying the fire massively (I guess in other farms manual bellows might still exist, although I’ve never seen them used).
Meanwhile, the kitchen is dense with smoke, steam and heat, and the dishes are coming out to the table at a great rate of knots. Every single thing we’re eating today has been pulled out of the earth this morning. 
The pale blue duck eggs, collected today and given to me earlier by Farmer Feng, are going in the soup. The eight different vegetable dishes have come from vegetables picked less than thirty metres from the kitchen – baby celery, fresh scallions and garlic, spinach, bok choy. Many I’ve never seen before including a claw-shaped, multiheaded vegetable called wa-wa cai or baby vegetable, shown below.

It’s quite some spread! White-poached chicken with a soy dipping sauce, and hong shao ji  (red-cooked chicken) in a sweet, sticky soy reduction are both on the table (the chickens freshly dispatched an hour prior) along with crisp fried local fish, and a parade of fabulous vegetable dishes, each one simply cooked to show off the wonderful fresh-out-of-the-ground flavours. Duck egg soup with tomatoes and slices of radish, Stir-fried spinach with finely shredded tofu and a little pork, and the baby vegetable, boiled first to soften it, then gently stir-fried in the wok with a pinch of salt and a touch of oil. It has a forgettable mushy appearance but the flavour I like – a cross between a really fresh brussel sprout and cabbage. That may not be the most attractive description, on reflection, but I did enjoy it!

As did all the assembled neighbours – Wang Ayi (Auntie Wang) in the centre, her cheeks marked from years of winter work outdoors, spent the entire meal negotiating with me to find her single 29 year old son a wife. The foreigner the better, she thought, seeing as he’d so far failed to find a Chinese wife and produce any grandchildren. Twenty nine! she exclaimed.
And heartfelt thanks for a memorable meal to our wonderful two cooks – Xu Ayi, who controlled that fire so well, and Cook Wang who tamed the dragon in the kitchen and sent forth dish after dish of fresh, simple, delicious food. Don’t you wish you could eat like this everyday?

Yours Truly, Finalist in Food Photographer of the Year!

Well, this last week has been certifiably nuts. I had four different magazine deadlines, all on vastly different topics, such that my brain had switched itself permanently to ‘BING!’ even in the middle of the night, which was tiring and inconvenient. 
I would wake up with a brilliant idea about ‘A Weekend in Suzhou’ only to remember that I submitted that particular article the day before, and it would be really super helpful if my brain could now put that to rest and instead, come up with ideas for a funny column about living in Shanghai.
I spent a whole day wet, cold and very muddy photographing the lovely farmers I met in the last post. 
Then on Friday morning, unthinkably, I got an email informing me that I had been seleced as a finalist in an international food photography competition, The Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year. What?? Are they truly really serious?? Only ten minutes before the email arrived I tripped on the stair going into the kitchen while holding an armful of half-full cereal bowls, which all smashed to smithereens and left me bruised and covered in milk and bits of muesli. It was shaping up to be a bad day. And I still didn’t have any funny ideas for a column due in four hours’ time.
But apparently those Pink Lady people were very serious, choosing not one but three of my photos. (Clearly the competition was open to amateurs – me, as well as seasoned professionals, but we all competed together). I’ll say it again – What??! The final awards, and here’s the part where I just about dead dropped over, are in London. England. End of next month. 
Firstly, for those of you who have already heard this news via Twitter and Facebook, I want to say thanks a million trillion for your congratulations, messages of support, and good wishes. You’re all fabulous!
(PS  I’m not permitted to show the images that were chosen until after the finals.)


Farmer Boy, Farmer Girl: Allotment Farming in China

Meet the delightfully friendly Farmer Xi Hu Li, who at nearly seventy years of age has two things to show for a life of hard work – a neat little half-acre farm on the outskirts of Shanghai, and a pair of very fancy silver teeth.
He’s a quietly spoken man, well shy of five feet tall with a soft weathered face and a ready smile, but completely mystified as to why a foreign woman, myself, would suddenly show up in one of his greenhouses. He is far too polite to make a fuss about it though.
I’ll have to go back a few steps to explain how I came to be in his greenhouse. Every time I travel by road or train out of Shanghai I see hundreds of tiny farms, often with rows of arched plastic-covered greenhouses crammed like sardines on the city’s outskirts. I wanted and meet some of these small plot farmers and see what their life is like, how they farm, and where they sell the food they grow. 
The constant scaremongering in China about food safety gets a bit tiring, and everyone seems to live and eat in a state of perpetual alarm-readiness. What’s on the blacklist today? Yesterday someone told me that strawberries sold in Shanghai are injected with sugar solution to make them sweeter and heavier. What? Where does the truth lie? I wanted to see farming in action for myself but until recently I had no idea how to even meet any farmers, let alone wangle an invite back to their farms.
Then I had a lucky break – when I went to Mr Xu’s metal workshop recently I noticed it was smack bang in the middle of a village of small farms, and after taking his portrait he agreed to lend me one of his staff, Little Chen, to meet the local farmers of San Tuan village this week.
The chosen day dawned grey and dismal – pouring with rain, feezing cold and windy, with bouts of sleet. A sunny day would have been lovelier but this is the reality of farming – you have to go to work in any weather. 
Little Chen thought we should go to the local market first to find the farmers, who would be there selling their wares, and we could hopefully coerce one or two into showing us their farms.
The first farmer I met was Dong Ai Xian, selling baby celery so fresh there was still earth clinging to the roots. The seventy year old mother of four children goes to market at four in the morning three days a week, earning 50 yuan a day ($8) selling the vegetables she grows herself. It’s very little money, and the days are long but she says every bit helps.
On the other side of the market I met a row of women selling vegetables, all local farmers, and among them the very shy Feng Wu Bao, who for reasons still unknown to me agreed to take Little Chen and I back to her farm for the morning and meet her husband Xi Hu Li who was mending their greenhouse. I wish you could have seen the hastily suppressed look of surprise on his face when we turned up!
Feng Wu Bao and Xi Hu Li have a traditional zi liu di farm – a small allotment assigned to individual families at the close of the Cultural Revolution, derived from the breakdown of large communal farms. All the farms in this area are run on the same basis and are small, no more than an acre each. The farms can be handed down from generation to generation but can’t be bought or sold.
Farmers Feng and Xi, like all their neighbours, grow vegetables and raise ducks and chickens for their own use, and for their children and grandchildren too, with any surplus taken to market to sell. Because their family are all eating the food they grow their foremost concern is that the food be safe, and for this reason they don’t use any pesticides or herbicides, and the only fertilizer utilized is the manure and straw mulch from their duck pen. 
They’ve farmed this way for over forty years, growing only what’s in season, with the only nod to modernity being the construction of an arched plastic-covered greenhouse in which there is a healthy crop of tomatoes thriving. Greenhouse farming helps them conserve water and prevents crop loss due to birds and pests.
Although they might not be familiar with the term ‘organic’ these farmers have, in fact, been using organic farming principles for a very long time.

Back at their house, I poke around the chicken pen, the duck pen, the storage shed and the tool shed. Not a skerrick of chemicals anywhere. By now, Feng’s best friend and neighour has popped around to see what’s going on. There are smiles and giggles all round as these sixty-somethings share a private joke and have their photo taken.

To be honest, I feel quite elated myself – despite the sleet, the mud, and the miserable grey skies I feel very optimistic that there are many, many farms like this one all over China, not organic, no, but clean, well-cared for and chemical free. It’s nice to know the next time I go to my wet market I can ask: 

你自己种得吗?Nǐ zìjǐ zhòng de ma? Did you grow this yourself?

As I leave Feng presses a bowl of the palest blue duck eggs into my hands, for my family. They’re practically the loveliest things I’ve ever seen.