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Farmer Mau and his wife welcome me into their home on a cool spring morning with a steaming bowlful of pig’s kidney congee and some pu’erh tea with dried chrysanthemums. “It’s a traditional Cantonese tea,” he tells me. “Here in the countryside we lead a very traditional life.” When we’ve eaten and drunk our fill, he pulls on some boots and a canvas hat and leads me out on to their 40-acre farm. In vast polytunnel plots we view pea shoots, pak choy and mustard greens peeping out of the earth, neat rows of Chinese garlic chives and vivid congregations of watercress between the raised crop beds. Outside there are glasshouses for more unusual crops and ponds for fish and irrigation.
This would all be perfectly normal in southern China, but the Mau farm is just off the A229 near Maidstone, Kent. Mau Chiping and his wife bought the land in 1986, and have been supplying Chinese shops and restaurants with fresh produce ever since. The mainstays of their business are pak choy, Chinese broccoli and choy sum, but they also sell purple amaranth, Chinese celery, garland chrysanthemum and water spinach, a gorgeous vegetable with crisp, tubular stalks and spear-like leaves.
I heard about the Mau farm a year or so ago while shopping in London’s Chinatown. I came across a tiny shop in a back alley and was amazed to find unpackaged Chinese vegetables of extraordinary freshness, including a delicious stem lettuce I’d never before seen in England. The shopkeeper told me the place was run by “Sister Mau” as an outlet for the produce from her family’s farm. I was thrilled. For years, I’d been torn between the wish to buy local produce and the irresistible pull of Asian ingredients, most of which are imported. Here, at last, was somewhere I could buy local and Chinese. I became a regular customer, dropping in whenever I was in the neighbourhood to stock up on the tenderest choy sum, slices of enormous winter melon or whatever else was in season. Eventually I persuaded “Sister Mau” to let me pay a visit to the farm.
Mau Chiping, now in his seventies, grew up in rural Guangdong province, coming to Britain in 1974 after a number of years spent in Hong Kong. Arriving in London with his wife and four children, he began by working in the kitchens of a Chinatown restaurant. In 1980 he secured a loan and bought two acres of farmland near Tonbridge, persuading another Chinese farmer to teach him the basics of agriculture. “In 1981 I was the only person selling choy sum in London,” he says.
Over the years Mau has struggled with bureaucracy, competition from Spanish vegetables and, more recently, health problems, but he is a relentless innovator. He uses more unusual vegetables, which Asian restaurateurs cannot find elsewhere, as bait to entice them to buy their pak choy and choy sum from him too.
The fish ponds are another interesting sideline. “Some people eat the carp,” he says. “But mostly they buy them so they can fang sheng – release them into rivers to redeem the sins of their forebears. Say, for example, your father was a soldier and killed many people: you might wish to spend some of your wealth on releasing fish or turtles into the wild as atonement. Many Chinese people do this. One man bought a thousand carp from me – just to set them free.”
After our tour of the farm, Mau (who has no interest in retirement) swaps his wellies for slippers, and he and two employees prepare lunch from vegetables plucked barely an hour before. They stir-fry chrysanthemum leaves and watercress with garlic and ginger, and make a chive-speckled omelette. Then there are the leftovers of a lovely stew of pork, pickled mustard greens and dried lilies, steaming rice, and a nourishing broth of pork bones and beans. We gather around the living room table with “Sister Mau” to eat. Tiny seedlings hatch in polystyrene tubs beneath the window, Chinese paintings gaze down from the walls, and a huge fishing net lies in a chaotic pile in the centre of the floor. After lunch, we say our farewells in Chinese and, laden with fresh watercress and chrysanthemum greens, I leave them behind in their little patch of China in the Garden of England.
Produce from the Mau farm is sold in the alley opposite De Hems pub in Macclesfield Street, London, in the shop opposite the Chinese printing press.
Blanched choy sum with sizzling oil
(You lin cai xin)
The following dish is quick, easy and spectacular. The hot oil awakens the fragrances of the ginger and onion slivers, and the soy sauce gives the vegetables an umami richness. Make it with choy sum, pak choy, purple sprouting broccoli or another vegetable of your choice. (Farmer Mau’s young choy sum is particularly lovely, if you can pick some up in Chinatown.)
300g choy sum
2 spring onions
Small piece of ginger (about 10g)
Small strip of red chilli or red pepper for colour, if you have it
1 tsp salt
4 tbsp cooking oil
1 tbsp light soy sauce diluted with
1 tbsp hot water from the kettle
● Bring a large panful of water to the boil (2½ litres will do).
● Wash and trim the choy sum. Trim the spring onions and cut them lengthwise into very fine slivers. Peel the ginger and cut it too into very fine slivers. Cut a few very fine slivers of the chilli or red pepper, if using.
● Add the salt and 1 tbsp oil to the boiling water, add the choy sum and blanch for a minute or so until it has just lost its rawness (the stems should still be a little crisp). Remove and shake dry in a colander.
● Pile the choy sum neatly on a serving dish, and pile the spring onion, ginger and chilli or pepper slivers on top.
● Heat the remaining oil over a high flame. When the oil is hot, ladle it carefully over the spring onions, ginger and chilli – it should sizzle dramatically. (To make sure the oil is hot enough, try ladling a few drops on first, to check for the sizzle.
● As soon as you get a vigorous sizzle, pour over the rest of the oil.) Pour over the soy sauce mixture and serve.
Fuchsia Dunlop’s most recent book is ‘Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking’ (Bloomsbury, £25)