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Raising a stink

By Mike Peters | China Daily | Updated: 2014-01-26 09:13

Raising a stink

The components of traditional Chinese "five spice" mix inspires one of Chris Cowell's creations. Photos by Mike Peters / China Daily

A young American's enthusiasm for vinegar has made him a new China hand quickly, he tells Mike Peters.

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For first-timers in China, coping with an alien culture is a challenge magnified by the language-barrier. But a young US horticulture graduate last year quickly found two common denominators. The first one: Snow. "Last winter, when I was first getting accustomed to living out here, we had some very memorable snowball fights," recalls Chris Cowell, laughing. "That led me to really meet and interact with a lot of my colleagues that I couldn't really speak to at the time due to the language barrier." The second connection he found with Chinese was vinegar, which Cowell has been brewing since his arrival in suburban Beijing.

He's working as an intern at The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu, a family-owned sustainable tourism business underneath the Great Wall. The complex includes a restaurant, lodging, a glass-blowing studio and an orchard - where Cowell has found his niche coaching the staff to make vinegars and liqueurs from the fruits of the field.

"During the first spring I spent here," he remembers, "we took a business-research trip to Taiyuan, which really opened my eyes to the impact of vinegar in China. We were able to see massive lines of people waiting to purchase their vinegar from what most likely is the oldest vinegar company still around today, Ninghua Fu vinegar, which claims to be more than 638 years old."

Growing up on Washington state's San Juan Islands in the US Northwest, Cowell says his love for the natural environment probably stems from having instant access to many remote, semi-undisturbed places. That passion, plus an interest in gardening and permaculture, made his ultimate major at the University of Washington a natural: environmental science and resource management.

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