A growing taste for artisanal gourmet goods in China is changing old notions about food and wine production in the country.
It has become a cliché that while China can quickly and effectively reproduce Western technology and manufacturing, the country’s efforts at recreating European artisanal delicacies fall short of success. When it comes to fine drink and cuisine, the words “Made in China” are often a turn-off for consumers. But attitudes are evolving as China’s culinary elite are finding creative ways to locally produce favorite European dishes and wines — with a Chinese spin, of course.
Boutique wineries are now becoming more common in China, with around 400 now spread across the country. Most of these are concentrated in the dry northern region of Ningxia, but winemakers are also growing grapes in places as diverse as Himalayan foothills and the deserts of the old Silk Road.
China is currently the eighth-largest wine producer in the world and will surpass Australia and Chile to be the sixth-largest by 2016, according to the international wine and spirits trade group Vinexpo. And the wines being made in China are growing in quality, as Jim Boyce, a Beijing wine blogger, noted in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal.
“A few years ago, Chinese wine was terrible,” Boyce says. “Now it’s not. But the industry is still in its infancy.”
But for all the stigma surrounding Chinese wine, the stigma attached to China-made food products may be even greater. The country’s food scandals have been “a staple of international news since 2008,” when six infants died and 300,000 fell ill from baby formula laced with toxic melamine.
Moving past such stigma presents a considerable challenge to those that would like to broaden the palate’s of China’s consumers. But dozens of small producers in the country are now producing Western gourmet foods, including proscuitto, baguettes, truffles, buratta cheese, and caviar. The results have been surprisingly successful and “so far untouched by such scandals.”
For the past decade, China’s caviar industry has been exporting their product to Europe, the U.S., Japan, and Russia, and winning accolades. In 1997, Siberian sturgeon was first imported to a research station on the Amur River on the Chinese/Russian border. The industry took off after a visiting French scientist suggested harvesting the fishes’ eggs. Today, Chinese caviar is served in first-class air cabins and accounts for 20 percent of the world output. What’s more, China’s caviar industry is sustainable, a chief concern considering the problems with poaching and overfishing in the Caspian Sea. However, caviar is still sold with Cyrillic labels to make it look Russian, so the made-in-China stigma persists.
Some Chinese restaurants have also embraced the local. Take Madison, for instance, an upscale restaurant in the former French Concession of Shanghai, which serves only locally sourced produce and boasts a menu that “reads like a lesson in Chinese geography.” Some of the offerings include truffles and morels from the Himalayan foothills of Yunnan, smoked trout from the coastal waters of Fujian, and Wagyu tenderloin from the fields of Dalian.
Madison’s chef-owner, Austin Hu, says that Chinese produce “can be better” than Western ingredients, but notes that many customers are still skeptical of locally sourced food. The high prices of the items on the menu is also a concern. But Hu has also found that many are coming to trust his restaurant’s food sources.
“During the bird-flu scare, we sold more chicken than ever,” says Hu’s cousin, Garrett, who helps run Madison. “People trust our sourcing.”
Exporting artisanal cheese to China has proved more difficult, as many Chinese are lactose intolerant and have difficulty digesting it. But Liu Yang, “one of the first to produce French artisanal cheese in China,” says locals have warmed up to his product. Health issues also have a hand in the cheese’s reception.
“Parents want their kids to have safe, real food,” Yang says. “When they come to my shop, I explain where my milk comes from and how the cheese is made.”
Yang says that food’s paramount importance in China’s culture will continue to drive culinary innovation in the country.
“Food culture is very important to all Chinese people, and they are open to new tastes,” Yang says. “The rich and the poor go to restaurants regularly. Eating is the most enjoyable thing in life.”
image credit: Sergio Tittarini