Discovering China: Suzhou – Canals, Gardens, and the Silk Road

discovering china欢迎 (Huānyíng) !  I’m delighted you are following along with us as we tour China, city by city.  We recently returned from a three-week family holiday in China. This is the eighth of ten posts whereby I introduce you to the culture of China through our eyes.  Suzhou is a city of gardens, canals, and silk. Come along and I’ll share a few of our trip highlights.

The new high-speed rail system linking Shanghai to Suzhou now makes the trip to Suzhou so doable it’s now a day trip. At just under an hour, we arrived in the early morning and had the whole day to explore and still get back to Shanghai by dinner time. Suzhou is one of China’s most famous tourist destinations for domestic and foreign visitors alike.

This post contains affiliate links. 

suzhou gardens

While visiting Suzhou’s UNESCO-listed gardens may not at first seem like a fun kids’ activity, especially if your kids are as active as Buddy, there’s one garden you won’t want to miss, the Humble Administrator’s Garden. While adults can enjoy the aspects of a pristine classical Chinese garden, kids can explore, climb and play. The rockeries are especially fun for kids. They can climb up and through them – many are cave-like or have steps up to the top. You’ll have plenty of time to take the photos you want and you’ll probably end up having to drag your kids away!  We did. :)

The Silk Road

For me, our excursion to Suzhou was one of the highlights of our holiday in China.  This is because I have been fascinated with insects my entire life – I had even considered minoring in entomology when I was at the university.  The silk factory in Suzhou took us away from the usual tourist areas and we even began to wonder how far we’d have to travel (we went by taxi and the driver, in retrospect, seemed to meander all over the city).  The factory tour, however, was very interesting and there was no pressure to purchase anything.  I’m kicking myself for not bringing home a silk blanket, however.  Next time!

suzhou silk

Silk fabric was first developed in ancient China; legend gives credit for developing silk to a Chinese empress, Leizu, who discovered silkworms while having a midday tea, and a cocoon fell in her tea. Upon her discovery, she persuaded her husband to give her a grove of mulberry trees, where she could domesticate the worms that made these cocoons. Leizu is also attributed with inventing the silk reel, which joins fine filaments into a thread strong enough for weaving and with inventing the first silk loom.

Silks were originally reserved for the Emperors of China for their own use and gifts to others, but spread gradually through Chinese culture and trade both geographically and socially, and then to many regions of Asia. The first evidence of the silk trade is the finding of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy of the 21st dynasty, c.1070 BC. The silk trade reached as far as the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa. This trade was so extensive that the major set of trade routes between Europe and Asia came to be known as the Silk Road.

~ ~ ~

To learn more about the Silk Road, you may be interested in the following books for children:

Bonnie Christensen’s book,  A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road, is a delightful story of a little girl in 19th century China who sends a small jade pebble to travel with her father along the Silk Road. The pebble passes from his hand all the way to the Venice, the end of the Silk Road, where a boy cherishes it and sees the value of this gift from a girl at the end of the road.

Each page of The Silk Route: 7,000 Miles of History by John S. Major, reflects a different culture with different customs, architectural styles, and ethnicities, moving from China east to Constantinople. The illustrations are well-drawn and offer a lot of information in their own right; the text is a wonderful look at cultural communication and long-distance travel.

In her historical activity book, Marco Polo for KidsJanis Herbert chronicles the famous explorer’s travels along the “Silk Road” to the palace of the Kublai Khan and incorporates activities and projects for the various cultures that he experienced.

~ ~ ~

entomology previewTo learn more about insects, check out my Introductory Entomology unit study I developed earlier this year. It is full of engaging, hands-on activities and collaborative projects for the budding entomologist.   There are over 20 printable notebooking pages and handouts, links to exclusive video lessons, and illustrated instructions for constructing your own collection equipment.

~ ~ ~

We’re off to Yangshou tomorrow – certainly a highlight of our holiday for all of us.  Growing up in a rural area, it is no wonder that the dramatic scenery of the Karst Mountains and the confluence of the rivers here captivated our hearts.

Autumn-Hopscotch-2013This post is part of the iHomeschool Network’s Autumn Hopscotch, a 10 day series of posts by over 40 different homeschool bloggers. You can visit the hopscotch home page at iHN for ideas and inspiration in topics like Geek Projects: Narnia, Middle Earth, Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Beyond.

All 10 days of Discovering China will be linked to one landing page.  Bookmark it for reference!

Face Rock Creamery :: Cheese Factory

Growing up in Bandon, Oregon, I have many fond memories of walking down to the cheese factory with my brothers to sample the cheese curds.  Often, we would walk home with a giant scoop of delicious Umpqua Dairy ice cream dripping down the sides of the cone. One of the most memorable field trips I enjoyed as a student at Ocean Crest Elementary was to the cheese factory where we had a behind the scenes introduction to the science of cheese making.

Over the years, we have returned to Bandon often and the vacant lot in the center of town was more than a mere eyesore, it had been a bitter reminder of a loss the city and its former residents have continued to mourn.  The cheese factory, of course, was gone. It had been for years. Cheesemaking had been a tradition. It was history. In addition to cranberries, it was part of what Bandon was.

cheese factoryIn July, we visited the Bandon Historical Museum with my dad and according to a display in the museum, cheese making began in the area around 1880.  Swiss immigrants Fred and Ida Moser, opened their factory on the North Fork of the Coquille River in 1895 and by early 1900s as many 15 cheese factories operated in the Coquille Valley.  Bandon was incorporated in 1891.

In 1927, the original Bandon Cheese & Produce factory was founded. And so it went for more than seven decades. Then, in 2000, the Tillamook Cooperative Creamery bought the Bandon Cheese Factory and retail shop. Three years later, they closed the factory and one year after that the store was also gone. They demolished the building in 2005.

On May 8 of this year, the Bandon Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting ceremony for Face Rock Creamery, welcoming the return of a cheese factory right on the spot where the old factory once thrived.  Owner Greg Drobot even lured renowned cheesemaker Brad Sinko home from Seattle where he helped launch Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Sinko knew more than a little about Bandon cheese. His father was the former owner of the factory.

“I learned at the Bandon Cheese Factory,” said Sinko, who last year won the American Cheese Society’s Best of Show and in 2007 won best cheddar in the U.S. “I got taught the routine. I didn’t like it at first. But it turned out I have a knack for it.”

cheese factoryDuring our July visit, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to watch the cheese curds being made and we were given a short tutorial.  There are several steps that are needed in order to make cheese curds. The first step is getting a good load of quality milk. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. After the milk is put into the vat, a coagulant is added. This is a milk-clotting enzyme that helps turn the milk into solid pieces of cheese.

You can try this at home too if you have access to quality, un-pastuerized milk from a local dairy. 

After the coagulant is added, and cheese curds are formed, the cutting process begins. This process separates the liquid (the whey) and the curds from one another. Once the cutting is done, there is a stirring and heating process in the vat. The curd and the whey are stirred by a big stainless steal arm while being heated to a desired temperature in the vat. After this process, the whey is drained living the curd behind. Finally the curd is ready to eat!

cheese factoryWhen we visited again last week, we learned that Face Rock Creamery has earned unprecedented kudos in the cheese making world, winning first place at the annual American Cheese Society’s Judging & Competition held in Madison, Wisconsin. The winning recipe was my personal favorite, Vampire Slayer curds, under the “fresh, unripened cheeses with flavor added” category.

Vampire Slayer curds and cheese are some of the most popular items at the creamery. Sinko won’t list all the ingredients — trade secret — but did say the recipe is all-natural, uses lots of garlic, parsley and other herbs with no added salt.

Face Rock Creamery curds, including classic unflavored, jalapeño and garlic; plus fromage blanc, In Your Face Rock Cheddar, garlic cheddar and Monterey Jack will be available. The retail store also features a selection of Oregon-made artisan cheese and wine.  And of course, Umpqua Dairy ice cream by the scoop.

Lucero Olive Oil Company

After trying our hand at harvesting our own olives recently, What to Do With Fresh Olives, I wanted to give the kiddos a taste of the agricultural sciences. When I was browsing the recent edition of Edible Shasta-Butte magazine, an ad for Lucero Olive Oil caught my attention. The fact that the company is third-generation family owned and operated business resonated with me and I thereby made arrangements to visit their mill and store front in Corning, California, known as the Olive City, is home to the Bell Carter Olive Company, which is the world’s largest ripe olive cannery. Corning also has a significant agriculture industry centered around olives, olive oil, dried plums (prunes) including the “Sunsweet” label, walnuts, and almonds.

As we toured the facilities and tasted the multitudes of award winning oils and balsamic vinegars, it was evident their knowledge and experience have elevated the science to an art.  The Lucero Olive Oil companhas won more acclaim for it’s Extra Virgin Olive Oils than any other producer in North America with over 100 awards.

The Lucero family owns about 500 acres of olive trees and purchases additional olives from other growers to meet their production demands. The mill is certified organic though the growers have no need to spray their crops for pesticides as there is no need (few pests feed on the evergreen tree) and the arid soils and climate in the northern Sacramento valley are perfect for the tree native to the Mediterranean and thus they require no fertilizers.

Two types of trees are used in the production of the the olive oils produced here … Seviano trees, which require hand picking to harvest the fruit, or alternatively, laying a tarp below the tree and shaking the fruit loose and Arbequina trees which can be harvested mechanically as the limbs are more flexible.  The harvesting machine essentially drives over the top of the trees and with rubber fingers extracts the fruit from the branches and drops it to a conveyor belt. Extra Virgin Olive Oil by definition is pressed only once, heated no higher than 78 degrees, and with an acidity less than 0.5.  Proudly, Lucero’s oil has never been higher than 0.2, surpassing even imported olive oils.

After our tour of the facilities, we sat down to enjoy a tasting of the many varieties and blends of olive oils and balsamic vinegars.  We learned to first warm the oil by cupping it in our hands.  We then brought it to our nose to smell the various fruity and nutty aromas. We then sampled by sipping and slurping – the kids got a kick out of that!

Upon the conclusion of our tour, we enjoyed sampling additional blends and foods available only at the store or by mail-order including mustards, olive tapenades, and to our delight vanilla ice cream served with chocolate infused extra virgin olive oil and strawberry white balsamic vinegar.  I can not wait to share our local discovery with my friends and family and to try out some of their delicious recipes.

Lovejoys :: Field Trip

On Monday, we visited our local grocer … a locally owned IGA store called CE Lovejoy’s.  Lovejoy’s is locally-owned and operated. The full-service market offers high-quality fresh produce, a complete meat department, freshly baked goods, local dairy products, and specialty cheeses, a full-service gourmet deli, and a wide selection of assorted beers and wines.  They opened about a year ago and quickly became our favorite store for all our grocery needs.  

Co-owner and General Manager Troy Wolfe met us upon our arrival with a warm greeting.  He then immediately led us to the produce department where we were introduced to Diana.  She described how they purchase their produce as members of an IGA, Independent Grocers Alliance.  IGAs bring together independent grocers across the United States to ensure that the trusted, family-owned local grocery store remained strong in the face of growing chain competition.  Surprisingly, we were also given samples of the delicious strawberries. We asked a few questions, primarily regarding organics, and learned that bananas are the biggest selling item in the department.

We then went to the back room where we were showed the receiving area for deliveries.  The kids were most intrigued by the cardboard compactor, however.  We watched it squash numerous boxes under 2 minutes and they all wanted to give it a try .. “Uhm, no. Let’s move along.”  😉

We then meandered to the meat and seafood department where we met Luke, the department manager.  We were particularly amused to learn that Luke, as well as Diana in Produce, were former employees at Safeway when Troy worked there.  “Safeway lost their best employees,” he remarked.  As a former Safeway employee myself when I was in high school, I couldn’t help but smile.  It is a long story, but I must admit, my husband and I met working at Safeway … I can credit them with that.

We were given a tour behind the scenes … allowing us to walk into the freezer and refrigerator.  We learned that the biggest selling item in the meat department was ground beef and in the grocery department it was milk.  It was a delight to see how the dairy shelves are stocked directly from the refrigerated storage area.  The kids got a kick out of being able to say hello to their moms through the sliding doors.  We were also happy to learn that the strongest selling dairy products was Eberhard’s.  Yay for the local cow!! :)

The last department we visited was the Deli/Bakery where we were met by Kris.  [ MeiLi and Kris are both students of Taekwondo together, though with the new store, we haven’t seen Kris or her son much lately.  We miss you both! ]  Kris shared with us how the signature items are made here in house.  The kids were impressed with the speedy washing machine and some wished aloud they had one like that so they wouldn’t have to wash dishes.  We also learned that the best selling item in the department was their signature garlic parmesan bread ring.

Kris is a great cook and to assure that CE Lovejoy’s stands out from its competitors, she offers occasional cooking classes at the store.  Some past events have also included wine tastings, local brewery tastings, health fair, a BBQ, and live music!  We Lovejoy’s!