Maria cooks up a storm
Maria cooks up a storm

Maria Benjamin is one half of Guestroom, Ruth Hoflich being the other. Their website is http://www.guest-room.net/

Maria was brought up in Edinburgh by her hotelier father from Pakistan and her mum from Canada. An upbringing in which Scottish Country Dancing and chapatti making went hand in hand.

Maria’s projects evolved around photography, film making and cooking, looking at how re-presentation of village life could be utilised to enhance the value of village product and make people realise the richness and value of the traditional processes.

To a modernised eye the rurality of Wuzhishen can be easily over romanticised as agrarian fantasy, but it can also offer clear benefits that, whilst seen as archaic within rural China, fit well with the re-assessment of modernity that encompasses ecology, sustainable food supplies, organics and social development. To a resident of Nanling their existence is hand to mouth and they think of themselves as poor. To some observing from a perspective of European post-modern decline, there are aspects of Nanling’s farming, production and consumption which make a great deal of sense in relation to the over mechanised processes of a global distribution. The basic principles and techniques are being rediscovered.

As a starting point, cooking is always a good form of communication, and so Maria put her cooking skills to good use throughout the three week stay, introducing foods and cooking methods which could be picked up by the locals. There is nothing other than local food in Wuzhishen, whereas Maria has been brought up in a multicultural environment, and one that celebrates this in food.

Maria did fish and chips with a local restaurant owner, which developed into a cook-off with a flurry of live cooking exchanges over the best way to fry, season, marinade and present the local fish and potatoes. Potato cakes, gnocchi, bread making, cakes, flap jack, salads, curry, chapattis and various forms of flatbread all followed which encouraged a dialogue not just about food, but about the relationship it is possible to have with the world outside the village and visitors who come – an opening up of the village to new ideas: acclimatisation to globalisation.

In an extension of this Maria made a series of short films which convey the idea of the village producers as artisans and the potential high value of their produce. A case in point is the film made of the local house restaurant of their home chicken recipe, in which the whole pen to plate recipe is recorded, form selecting the chicken, killing, plucking and preparing in the kitchen. As people in the UK have become cut off from the process of producing food, such low food miles principles are now being rediscovered and even fetishised, or at least fashionablised.

This film and the others she made of eel gutting and tofu making can work in multiple ways, but ultimately promote the culture of the village as playing a pertinent and active role in contemporary society. These ‘old’ ways have reason and meaning which has a wider relevance. This is good food.

Additionally Maria and Grizedale Arts Deputy Director Alistair Hudson took some time to work with the owners of the organic farm just outside the village which is supported by the Zhongheng Development Company to supply the Orange Hotel restaurant with local organic vegetables. It is hoped that this farm will act as a catalyst, by example, to convert other farms in the region to organic.

It was suggested that the farm could expand its role, not just as an exemplar farm, but as a farm hotel, which they had considered already, but lacked the confidence and knowledge to take forward. It was suggested to them that the farm should not merely be a hotel, offering something close to an authentic rural life, but could work more to ensure a better understanding and better relationship between host and visitor – that the visitor would work on the farm to help in the running of the business and to gain a better understanding of the rural ecology. Examples of Woofing and Agri-tourismo were shown as well as showing how the Lake District had suffered socially and economically because of the lack of understanding between visitor and resident and had become over dependent on the tourist observer, rather than evolving its culture towards the tourist participant.

One of the spare rooms of the farm was dressed to show how easily and simply they could be converted to visitor accommodation and there was much discussion around how the farm could develop what it had to offer, to make for a more holistic and rewarding experience. Not just a hotel and more complex and more rewarding for everyone.

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