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Early morning spring mist shrouds the foothills and bamboo forests of Mohkan Shan, high up in Zhejiang Province, two hours drive south of Shanghai. The air is Alpine clean, small mountain rivers run with the freshest water imaginable and the forests hum with birdsong. It’s little surprise then that this idyllic setting has been home to a tea plantation for centuries, making the most of nature’s rich bounty in this beautiful and unspoilt corner of China.
For the past three years it has also been home to Le Passage Mohkan Shan, a French luxury country house hotel and gourmet destination. Although the hotel is a recent addition to the landscape, it follows in a great tradition as its look and feel revives the spirit and charm that first enticed Shanghai’s elite to the area in the 1930s. Following in the footsteps of nineteenth century Europeans, they would come to the hill station to escape the summer heat of Shanghai and the densely-populated cities of China’s eastern seaboard.
Today the hotel’s rooms overlook the terraces of a working tea plantation estate that provides unique inspiration to one of Asia’s brightest culinary talents, the recently-appointed head chef Toyo Koda. Toyo’s experience encompassed stints at renowned venues including Tokyo’s Hotel Okura and the Hotel Plaza Athénée in Paris. In 2013 he spotted n.34 in the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants List by S.Pellegrino for his work as Head Chef at acclaimed French restaurant Franck in Shanghai. There he set up the kitchen, designed the menu and created the whole food philosophy.
Christophe Peres, owner of Le Passage Mohkan Shan, explains why Toyo was a natural fit to join Le Passage: “He is all about creation, produce and ingredients. And what Mohkan Shan has is an amazing wealth of seasonal and organic produce that Toyo has free reign to explore. He adds that Toyo’s cuisine melds: “Modern and light French cuisine, his Japanese background and his work with local Chinese produce - an amazing blend of the best of three cultures.”
This bounty of produce that Toyo has to play with takes many forms. Locally-reared organic black and white pigs are fed on organic vegetables to create a line of home made charcuterie including saucisson, rillettes, bacon and more. Likewise, bamboo shoots from the forests blanketing the countryside make for remarkably nuanced and versatile additions to dishes. Toyo makes regular visits to his array of local suppliers, including a couple in their 80’s who grow herbs, tea and vegetables and also raise geese on their smallholding high up in the breathtakingly-beautiful hills.
Key amongst the produce that Toyo uses is, naturally, tea. Tea has huge symbolic and cultural significance in China, while its centuries of history in the hills of Mokhan Shan comes riddled with intrigue. Notable is a cunning act of bio-piracy in 1848 when England's East India Company dispatched Scottish plant collector Robert Fortune to collect the finest varieties of tea to break China’s monopoly of the market. To gain easier access to China's interior he shaved his head, leaving just a ponytail, and wore Chinese clothes. He travelled to the plantations near Mokhan Shan, collected plants and seeds and set up nurseries in Shanghai. In the end, Fortune dispatched more than 20,000 tea plants to India, a country that 40 years later was supplying 90 percent of Britain’s domestic market.
Today varieties including Mogan Yellow Bud and Ming Qian Long Jing are picked on site at by women from the local community during the short harvest season that lasts from the end of March to early May. Toyo takes every opportunity to incorporate tea into his cuisine. It’s subtle tones, unique to the plantation, are used to smoke a free range duck dish, while his foie gras likewise comes with an innovative and brilliant accompaniment of homemade tea jelly. Its versatility also shows in the world of patisserie, including the green tea biscuits and green tea mousse cheesecake that have proven immensely popular with Chinese and foreign guests alike. Toyo is ceaselessly thinking, innovating and finding inspiration from the produce of Le Passage’s enviable environment. As a result, his menus are doubtless set to feature tea in many more guises.