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    The great escape
2005-06-20 06:45

To Claudio Bonfatti, China is a place to realize dreams.

"China is in the most beautiful period for development. As long as you believe in dreams, you always have opportunities to make them come true here," says the Italian restaurant owner in Beijing.

To be sure, he owns more than restaurants. The lover of country life is realizing his dream of being a farm owner, not in his homeland, but in China.

Agrilandia Italian Farm, which used to be the Bonfatti family's weekend retreat, has become a popular vacation site for Beijingers and foreigners. And Bonfatti is ready to make the idea of "Italian agritourism" take root in Beijing.

"I won't talk about the China market. Beijing is big enough for me to explore," Bonfatti says. He is referring to the 14-million-plus population of Beijing, and the large number of expatriates in the capital.

With their pockets bulging, more and more Beijingers are buying their own cars, which makes going out a lot easier than before.

If you drive to Beijing's suburbs on Saturday morning, you might get caught in traffic jams. Hundreds of Beijing residents, bored of the ever-crowded urban life, are driving to the suburbs to enjoy the beauty and serenity of the countryside.

Going to the parks on weekends? That's definitely out of date. If you ask anyone in those cars, a typical answer would be: "Parks are for 'waidiren,' not for the locals."

"I love to bring my boy to Agrilandia," says Li Ping. "A lot of Chinese children like Western food. But the most attractive part of Agrilandia is the environment. They can get closer to farm animals, plants and the soil."

As her 7-year-old son and two little girls laugh and play on the grasslands, Li says it is easy for her son to meet new friends here.

Covering about 17 hectares, Agrilandia is located to the east of Beijing Capital International Airport. It has more than 20,000 fruit trees, which have been imported from Italy. From May to October, the farm is a U-pick fruit farm.

In the greenhouse, Bonfatti grows some Italian vegetables and herbs. With them, Bonfatti's two restaurants in downtown and the restaurant on the farm have fresh seasonings for authentic Italian pizza.

The dining environment is rustic, but friendly. Thick wooden beams are exposed along the ceiling. Long tables are covered with red-and-white checked tablecloths.

The benches are made of plain wood. Logs are piled at the corner next to the fireplace, which is made of bricks. When the weather is nice, you may also choose to eat out on the grasslands.

The menu, classically Italian, is peppered with produce from the farm. Besides pizza, pasta, barbecued fish and chicken, the farm also serves home-made wine.

After the meal, there are recreation activities for all members of the family horse riding, fishing, mini golf, basketball, table tennis, feeding birds, or just daydreaming while sipping a cup of cappuccino under a tree.

Perfect partnership

Just like the old saying, "Behind every successful man stands a woman," a very important person who makes Bonfatti's dreams come true is his Chinese wife Lu Hongwei.

"I didn't come to a new place blindly ... For others, it must be difficult," Bonfatti says. "She's the boss who takes care of the money. I just put in my skills as a cook and my ideas to handle the restaurant. It's a good partnership."

After getting married at the end of 1995, the couple went back to Italy, where they ran a small restaurant, handed down from Bonfatti's father, near Milan. But, after two years, they decided to settle down in this booming Oriental country.

"The restaurant (in Italy) was very small and could just support our life. But here in Beijing, you have a lot of opportunities to expand your restaurant business if you want to," says Lu, who used to work in the textile trade.

The couple, in 1998, opened their first restaurant, "Peter Pan," near the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel, one of the major international residential communities in Beijing. Peter Pan is the capital's second Italian restaurant independent from hotels. The first is ADRIA. Bonfatti's small restaurant was a hit and started to make profit in less than one year.

More than recreation

"Claudio was born in the countryside and always has a special feeling towards land," Lu says. "So, with some money in hand, we started to look for a piece of land outside the city. The land we found is so big that we thought it might be a good idea to turn part of the farm into business."

That was in 1999, before land prices in Beijing's suburbs started to surge. The couple leased the land for 5,250 yuan (US$633) per hectare per year.

Liu Chen, the manager in charge of fruit-tree planting at Agrilandia, used to be the contractor of the land.

"I was broke at that time," Liu recalls. "Local farmers here vaguely know planting fruit is more profitable than planting crops. But we didn't study the market carefully. We only planted what sold best in the market, and we never thought about whether the fruit would sell well when so many people were planting it."

When Bonfatti and Lu took over the land, they imported fruit saplings from Italy that could not be found in the Chinese market. "You must be unique and sell something other people don't have," Lu says.

At first, the couple had to use the money earned from their downtown restaurants to make ends meet. Now, Agrilandia provides as much profit as its sibling restaurants in downtown.

Agrilandia has become a sample field for new fruit varieties, and the farm has been selling fruit saplings since last year. The main fruits are apricots, cherries, plums, peaches, apples, grapes and pears. For each kind of fruit, there are about 20 varieties.

New site

"The apricots this year are not as big as what we had last year," says Bonfatti, picking an apricot from the tree.

His voice sounds sad. "These days, we are too busy with the new site of Agrilandia, and we haven't done enough fruit thinning," he says.

Due to the expansion of the capital airport, the couple have been asked to move Agrilandia to a new site.

"I know the airport has to be expanded to get ready for the 2008 Olympic Games. But I care about my own business, as you care about your business," Bonfatti says. "We are negotiating. I hope we can find the right, and balanced, agreement."

The couple has already found a new site for their farm, east of the current location. The land price is six times the current price.

"Every coin has two sides," Lu says. "At least it is not so close to the airport and you won't hear the noise of airplanes."

More importantly, the couple is growing new plans for their farm.

"As we know more about the agri-tourism market in China we feel the need to upgrade our current services to meet new demand," Lu says. "It's an opportunity."

The new Agrilandia will provide accommodation and have 60 to 70 rooms. The dining area will be expanded to cater to large parties of companies.

"Many companies like to organize parties at our farm, and are often disappointed that we cannot provide accommodation," Bonfatti says.

The construction style and decor will also have more Italian flavour, he says.

"We hope to attract more customers who really like the Italian culture, not those who just want to join the fun and don't appreciate the true flavour of it," Lu says. "Sometimes we feel frustrated when many Chinese customers cannot appreciate the things that we are proud of."

She points to a fridge where some home-made preserves, jams, sauces and cheese are displayed and says: "Most Chinese customers won't even notice we sell these products."

"In Italy, people are pleased to buy these home-made products, produced locally at the farm. But here, there is no such culture," Bonfatti says.

An Italian cooking school is also on the couple's long list of new plans.

"I am sure there are a lot of Beijingers who have money and have enough leisure time to learn Italian cooking, which is one of the most well-known cuisines in the world," Lu says.

But Bonfatti is more interested in training professional cooks, who would possibly become the talent pool of his restaurants. Bonfatti plans to open his third Peter Pan restaurant in Beijing by the end of this year, and another four next year. "I must have enough qualified cooks," he says.

The name Peter Pan conjures up images of tiny fairies, pyjama-clad children and wicked pirates not Italian food. When asked why he picked that name, Bonfatti says: "It's my favourite fairy tale. There seems to be a young boy inside me who never wants to grow up.

"But more importantly, it is a fairy tale for everybody who believes in dreams."

(China Daily 06/20/2005 page3)


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