Stir Crazy

Today we are in Shaoxing, home of rice wine, at the Pagoda Brand factory. Not the distilled stuff that gets turned into baijiu, but the 20% booze made by traditional methods for the last 3000 years, which served to get the Chinese munted before they discovered the grape or the distillation process. “Traditional” methods on this leg always seem to amount to the same thing, which is mixing in some rotting fungus and leaving everything in jars for a few months. This is how the soy sauce was made in Amoy; this is how they knocked up the Kouzi baijiu, and it turns out to be the way they make the rice wine, too. There are some more complex steps, I am sure, but we won’t be shooting them until tomorrow.

On paper, the idea of spending the last four days in a Shanghai hotel had seemed like a good one. We could get to know a neighbourhood. We could get our laundry done and be around to pick it up the next day. We could wind down and lose the repetitive grind of checking out and in and out and in. Except our last two days are to be spent filming in Shaoxing, which turns out to be a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way. Today we leave the hotel at 0700 and don’t reach the factory before 10, but then there’s the tour and the pleasantries, meeting the boss, and dickering over the right angles… and then it’s time for lunch in the company restaurant.

The whole facility has been designed for super-class A* visiting dignitaries – the Shaoxing company has got an entire wall of specially designed “celebrity” bottles with their own bespoke logos, and the images of sportsmen I have never heard of emblazoned upon them. Maybe the staff are designed to be part of the experience. The walls are spattered with photographs of portly Chinese men in suits, grimly concentrating as someone in a company anorak hectors them about wine-making, but the staff in the visitor centre are all noticeably attractive Chinese girls in what appear to be regulation-issue flared miniskirts. Come for the drinks, stay for the view?

We don’t get started filming until 1300, severely limiting our light and our day. The director is spitting feathers at the fact that another film crew turned up this morning and faffed around all the things we want to faff around, thereby indisposing the workers to slow down their afternoon to pander to us. We shall have to come back tomorrow, on my last day, before I run to the airport, and the crew themselves will be obliged to return a third day without me to shoot a festival about the god of wine. Belatedly, we all realise that we should have stayed in a Shaoxing hotel – travel time over the next three days is going to rack up nine hours back and forth. Either we take it out of our shooting time, or wake up insanely early so as not to miss the light.

The fermentation process involves great vats of fresh-boiled rice tipped into large jars of lakewater, mixed with wheat-based yeast. The porridge thus created veritably bubbles like a soup, the heat of its own fermentation causing it to chug away to itself, warming the entire jar. Mr Wang, the chief fermenter, wanders among the vats with a stick that terminates in an H-shaped bar – this is a pa, used to stir the rice mixture and cool it. It has to be kept constantly around 34-36 degrees Centigrade for the optimum conditions. The director wants to film the stirring process, but arranging this is like herding cats, since every time we set up a shot, Mr Wang is called in to stir, and then he immediately does so before we can start filming. Moreover, he refuses to stir any given a pot a second time, as that would cool it too far, which means we have to set up his camera for another shot somewhere else; stir and repeat. Meanwhile, Mr Wang’s colleagues are banging around in the background, shouting at each other, and a coach party of Chinese tourists keeps blundering into the shot.

There is scant time remaining before I will have to leave for the airport, and we still need to film the introductions for the Grains and Ceramics episodes and my wine-tasting experience. We rush a shot of me at lunch talking about the prevalence of rice in the Chinese diet, and then over to the museum for the final shots. But whereas the museum was a relatively peaceful venue yesterday, today it is rammed with tour groups, who keep poking their heads around the corner and trying to take selfies in front of the equipment.

Perhaps fittingly, my final piece to camera is another boozy taste test, before an array of dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet rice wines. The best of them taste like dessert wines, the worst like a sherry solution of sugar and plums.

“Okay,” says the director. “Go to the airport. Everybody say goodbye to Jonathan. You won’t be seeing him again.” That’ll be my performance review, then. They already have more B-roll to shoot; I have a plane to catch. There is no time for speeches or proclamations. Mr Mao is already gunning his engine outside, petrified that he will be held responsible if I don’t make it to the airport in time. Eight weeks in each other’s company ends with the briefest of hugs and a dash for the door.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).

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