Today our Aiyi arrived back from a week long break in Anhui, her home province. She came bearing a gift for us – about 20 eggs. They were unwashed and clearly straight from the hen, as it were. I was delighted, but at the same time wary. How do I know they are safe to eat? Of course, I couldn’t say that to Xiao Wu, and I at once stored them in the fridge. Are they more or less likely to cause us harm than the ‘cleaned’ eggs (as they say on the pack) from the supermarket, which presumably have come from battery farmed chickens, doubtless full of chemicals of one sort or another.
This is a frequent dilemma in China. ‘Safe’ food turns out to be quite the opposite. Baby formula made abroad is more or less chained to the shelf in our local supermarkets because of the desire for it following the terrible scandal of poisoned mild powder. On the other hand, ‘organic’ food is hard to come by and difficult to assess in terms of its safety, never mind its authenticity.
Last week I bought a fresh looking chicken from a stall on the street near our market. It was vastly overpriced, but the farmer who sold it to me assured me it would taste excellent. When I got home I donned rubber gloves (vegetarians look away now), chopped off its head and feet (Chinese people look away too – sorry about the waste) and took out its innards, which were still in situ. It is years since I have performed this operation or even witnessed it. I remember my parents buying ‘real’ poultry from Kingston market in the 1960s and 70s which required similar treatment.
We duly cooked the chicken very thoroughly in our recently acquired oven. It was a stringy as usual and didn’t taste of much. Our digestive systems played up for about 3 days afterwards although we are now recovering. Fintan’s PA had a fit when he told her where I’d been shopping. But was it necessarily the chicken? How can we know? Sadly, it has probably put me off continuing with such adventurous shopping.
Some students on campus have decided to set up a small business supplying organic vegetables. They have made contact with some local organic farms and each week you can order a selection of seasonal vegetables. In this case I think that organic means that the vegetables have not been treated with shed loads of fertiliser, as seems to be the norm.
Spraying against pests is undertaken with alacrity on campus and on our compound. Every few weeks men with tanks on their backs walk around spraying and we are warned not to go near for a while. Tree trunks are painted with a lime-wash mix which kills off any insects that might have survived the air attack. I’m told that the chemicals used have pretty much been banned from Europe for the last 30 years or so. While it might keep down the mosquitoes, the range of birds on our compound is very limited, perhaps because of the lack of insects.
Although they may be overly dependent on fertilisers for quick results, local people are extraordinarily resourceful about finding spaces on which to plant vegetables. Many of the poorest people are farmers who have lost their land to building. Shacks and small plots spring up on the banks of the many canals and streams. On my cycle route to the campus I pass a stretch where there is a substantial strip of empty earth between the wall of another college and a hedge that is the pavement boundary. Around March, guerrilla gardeners quickly moved in and cultivated the empty land. Broad beans and peas came into flower. But them one morning a JCB type digger arrived and began digging up the plants. Clearly the planting was subversive in some way, or maybe just untidy, and couldn’t be allowed to continue.
The whole approach to creating a garden in an unlikely spot reminded me of the elderly people I meet in my park. They have been displaced from their old houses and now live in presumably comfortable high rise blocks. But they come back to the small intimate spaces of the low pavilion buildings, gather in tight groups, drink tea and eat snacks and apparently try to recreate something of their old life. Happily, they don’t seem to get moved on.