The Year of Italian – Chinese Culture and Tourism is the perfect time to fully appreciate the culture and beauty of China’s heritage, as well as its natural splendours, which is something to behold!
With the arrival of spring, we set off on a journey to explore the world of Chinese flowers and plants, many of which still ‘contaminate’, though in a delightful way, our meals, gardens and parks.
There is a reason China is called the “Mother of the Garden”.
Thanks to its geographic position and the size of its territory, China has always been a treasure trove of natural beauty.
Marco Polo was one of the first to tell of the fruits and the splendidly coloured flowers of the Chinese Empire, and he also brought them back to Italy. On more than one occasion, the explorer described the exotic fruits he had tasted while travelling along the Silk Route, including ginger, peaches, peppers, as well as many other fruits and flowers, taking particular note of their striking colours and size compared to the fruit then found in Italy.
From China to our Kitchens
You will doubtless be surprised to find out that, in centuries past, many of the items now found in our gardens and fruit baskets, and on our tables too, existed only in Asia.
This includes everything from the roses that fill today’s European gardens to the pears we find so delicious in fruit juices and as an ingredient of countless cakes and sweets. For example, western Asia and the great expanse of China were home to the same wild pear trees that we have since modified, learning to breed and grow them with great skill.
The same is true for tangerines, a crop not brought to Europe until the 19th century, as well as for lemons and other citrus fruit. In other words, many of the key flavours of our Mediterranean diet come from China.
Apart from citrus fruits that we already know well, a flavour imported more recently, an item that, in recent decades, has become increasingly popular on store shelves and at fruit stands, is the kumquat.
This small, odd-looking fruit also comes from our sister country to the east, where its name means “Golden Orange”.
Bright orange in colour, with a slender oval shape of no more than 3cm in length, the kumquat is a delicate, extremely juicy fruit whose tangy, subtly sweet taste resembles that of the tangerine.
In addition to tasting good, it is good for you, seeing that 5 small kumquats satisfy approximately 80% of the daily requirement of Vitamin C.
In southern China, where they are grown most frequently, kumquats are traditionally candied or preserved in the form of compotes or jams.
They are also widely found in Japan, in a kaleidoscopic array of intriguing varieties.
Chinese plants: are good for the spirit…and the wallet
Every fruit and flower in China has a precise symbolic meaning.
In Feng Shui, the ancient Taoist geomantic art, flowers are an important vehicle of positive energy. They contribute to good fortune, psycho-physical wellbeing and economic power.
Certain plants are famous for powers tied to prosperity and money, such as the Jade tree or the Pilea Peperomioides, also known as the “Chinese Money Plant”, of which we will say more in another article!
The Lotus Flower and the Peony: two imperial flowers worthy of admiration
The lotus flower, one of the world’s best-known, most admired flowers, comes from China, where it is closely tied to both its home territory and the history of the empire.
A frequent motif in paintings, tapestries and fabrics, the lotus flower is an extremely important symbol, combining the forces of nature, rebirth and female energy.
This is true not only in China, but in many other Asian countries too.
Then there are the colourful orchids and majestic peonies, a flower, this last one, considered the “Queen of the Garden” in China, or the imperial flower par excellence, in that it symbolises, in the language of flowers, authority, power and wealth.
Peonies have been widely found in our gardens for years now, as their flowers and shrubs are prized by those seeking to create a properly romantic English garden. Apart from their intense scent, they are also extremely easy to grow.
From pears to citrus fruit, even in the case of garden flowers, the Made in China brand is more authentic than you would think!
And China itself is closer than you would imagine.
These are only some of the plants and fruits brought to us by our great sister to the East, though without the daring, perhaps even the madness, of our explorers we never would have managed to “make them ours”, an integral part of the legacy of recipes and customs that tie us closer on a daily basis.
Goodbye until the next instalment!