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China's Entrepreneurs Target Gourmet Food Market

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China's Entrepreneurs Target Gourmet Food Market

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China's Entrepreneurs Target Gourmet Food Market

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

There is some very high-quality food coming out of China too. In fact, Chinese foie gras and truffle producers are taking aim at the world's gourmet food markets with some success, as NPR's Louisa Lim reports from southwestern China.

LOUISA LIM: I'm now trudging through the forest on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Kuming. And I'm following in the footsteps of Li Yongbin, who for five months of the year is a truffle hunter. It's a little-known fact that China is the world's top truffle producer - producing more truffles than France and Italy put together. And Mr. Li is taking me to show me where and how he collects his truffles.

Mr. LI YONGBIN (Truffle Exporter): (Chinese spoken)

LIM: We don't use pigs or dogs, he says. We just depend on our experience. On a good day, he can gather 40 pounds of truffles single-handedly. This potato-shaped fungus - much prized by connoisseurs - is a relatively new commodity here. Around 20 years ago they were eaten only by wild animals, but times and markets changed.

(Soundbite of machinery)

LIM: Wow, so I just stepped into the refrigerated vault of this truffle company. It's extremely cold in here. There's ice above the door and ice on all the walls. It's minus-18 degrees Centigrade. And the truffles are kept locked in this vault, as if they were an extremely precious, valuable commodity.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

LIM: For all the (unintelligible) security, China's truffles are relatively cheap - a mere tenth or less the cost of French truffles. According to those in the know, they're far inferior in taste.

But Wu Jianming, who exports a third of China's truffles, disagrees.

Mr. WU JIANMING (Truffle Exporter): (Through translator) There's no big difference in taste. The smell is slightly different, but the feel of the truffles in the mouth is the same.

LIM: He's planning on cultivating truffles, a move bound to ruffle European purists even further. He concedes that Europe's truffle markets are threatened by Chinese products, but says European suppliers must learn to adapt.

Mr. WU: (Through translator) In the past they had a monopoly and now they are threatened, so they are trying to undermine our product. Black French truffles used to be a status symbol. Now they're cheaper and more people can afford them. That has to be a good thing.

LIM: Whether or not they are democratizing the gourmet food market, China's businessmen realize there's big money in gastronomy. Last year a sturgeon breeding farm in central China exported its first batch of caviar - a thousand pounds of it. It boasts the largest collection of sturgeon species in the world - including breeds which are extinct in the wild. My request to visit was turned down.

And now Chinese businessmen are also tackling the final part of the trinity of epicurean delights - foie gras, or fatty goose liver, made by force-feeding geese to enlarge their livers.

(Soundbite of geese)

LIM: (Unintelligible) chirping. China is now the world's third-largest foie gras producer, after France and Israel.

(Soundbite of geese being forced-fed)

LIM: So this is the noise of geese being forced-fed. Basically, the woman (unintelligible) grabs each goose, one by one by the neck, and she sticks a foot-long iron pipe down their gullet.

(Soundbite of goose)

LIM: That sound you just heard is the sound of corn being fed directly into the bird's stomach. Here geese are forced-fed corn four times a day for the last three weeks of their lives. The farm is run by Jing Songhe, who raises half a million geese a year. He denies the practice is cruel.

Mr. JING SONGHE (Goose Farmer): (Through translator) It makes no difference whether you force-feed birds or kill them directly. The final result is the same.

LIM: Outside China, an anti-foie gras movement is gaining momentum. The city of Chicago banned the sale of foie gras last year and it will be outlawed in California in five years' time. The European Union has set a 15-year grace period to phase out the practice of force-feeding.

But China has no regulations regarding force-feeding animals. Indeed, the local government even has a 10 percent stake in Mr. Jing's business, and he's not worried about the influence of animal rights campaigners.

Mr. JING: (Through translator) Because they're opposing foie gras, their countries stop producing it. But the citizens of their countries still want to eat foie gras, so it can only mean my prospects are improving.

LIM: Tucking into a big slice of foie gras, he boasts his product is tastier than French goose liver, as the force-feeding here is done manually, not by machine, as it is overseas. With labor, feed and production costing just a fraction of what they would overseas, he believes China is set to be the world's top foie gras producer in just five years.

China's businessmen really believe they can dominate the peaks of gastronomy. But do their products measure up?

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Hunan.

YDSTIE: Tomorrow, we put China's gourmet products to the taste test, enlisting the help of Shanghai's top chefs.

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