Beixinqiao veteran Cafe de la Poste has shown a growing focus on organic foods over the past six months, whether that means using them in dishes or establishing a retail space or planting a rooftop garden. I asked co-owner Tristan Macquet about these projects and more.
What inspired this focus on organic products?
I was already involved with Café de la Poste when I graduated from Tsinghua University Environmental School and I sought to reconcile my studies in environmental engineering with my new vocation in the food and beverage industry. The notion of the environment as a whole is still an abstract one in China but people here are sensitive to what they ingest in terms of air, water and, of course, food.
I started studying the existing organic supply and demand in Beijing. With my partner Benjamin Denjean, I’ve been visiting more than 50 farms around the city and talking with farmers, organizers of farmers markets, managers of online retail platforms, store owners, agricultural experts, and people in consumer associations. There are already a lot of initiatives sprouting in Beijing but sometimes they are not so easy to find or join.
Buying organic products as an individual or business helps support small-scale farms striving for better practices all around Beijing and China. These farms have a very low impact on the environment and can serve as examples for others who would like to start transitioning from conventional to organic agriculture. A small act can thus lead to a very big impact.
Your first step was selling organic products on site, right?
We realized there was no real organic store inside the Third Ring Road. There are online platforms but many of us don’t find it convenient to order 25o kuai worth of vegetables at once, especially as you have to wait at home for delivery and you might eventually waste half of it if you don’t have time to cook..
We have rather limited space but we used a portion of it to sell basic products such as seasonal vegetables and fruits as well as rice, noodles, flour, bread, jam and even eggs and meat. We work directly with farmers we know and craft producers we trust. For instance, the sausages we retail are made by our friend Drew from Balmain Gourmet but we have the organic pork meat we chose directly delivered from Hebei to his shop in Shunyi. These are among our best sellers as people buy them for weekend barbecues or their daily breakfast.
You guys also recently took things a step further, or rather higher, by starting a rooftop garden. Could you talk a bit about that?
We decided we wanted to do more. For ten years, the owners of Café de la Poste have dreamed of opening a rooftop terrace but regulations in Yonghegong haven’t allowed us to do so, but we were authorized to use the rooftop to grow vegetables and herbs. We only started a few weeks ago and are currently dealing with accessing the roof in a way that doesn’t bother our neighbors when we need to water the plants.
We are focusing on growing herbs for our kitchen, such as different varieties of basil, rosemary, thyme and marjolaine (marjoram), and products that are still extremely difficult to find in Beijing, such as Coeur de Boeuf or Noire de Crimée tomatoes. We won’t be able to grow everything we need but it will be a nice addition to our menu and specials. We also exchange seeds and sprouts with farmers and discuss better methods for growing them.
This project allows us to think about future developments, such as composting our food waste or even reusing kitchen heat lost through the extractor to warm up a small greenhouse during Beijing’s cold winter. We also offer some vegetable baskets to neighbors in the hutongs and help them to set up their own urban agricultural systems in order to be a real part of this community and have it grow bigger and bigger.
What are some ways you incorporate these organic products into the food menu?
Organic jams pair nicely with our cheese platters. We had bangers ‘n’ mash and even hot dogs using our organic sausages. We’re also designing a weekend organic brunch that would change depending on product availability.
We can’t do it all at once as the cost of organic products is still high and we don’t think a 200 percent price increased is the way to go. But all those partnerships with farmers give us hope that organic products can take a bigger place in our menu in the near future.
The high price of organic goods is often linked to the absence of reliable distributors—farmers need a buffer against harsher times. By reassuring farmers of our long-term commitment to their products, we can discuss a price that is fair for them and allows us to be affordable for our customers.
I know your focus is not just organic food. You are also adding more wines, too.
Café de la Poste has always had some organic wine options but now we are giving them much more importance in our menu and events. What is amazing is that focusing on these wines with our old and new suppliers has given us the chance of unexpected discoveries.
We push for wines with a rather unique personality and some backstory, such as Forcalla from the south of Spain, which is made with a forgotten grape variety that was reintroduced in its natal region because it is so well adapted to the harsh conditions there. There are only 20 hectares in the world but it has a beautiful flavor and it is a shout out against mainstream wine.
Our motto in Café de la Poste is that “small is beautiful“. We don’t aim to transform the world right away—we’re nothing but a friendly neighborhood bistro—but we want to bring a contribution to the table, better our practices, inspire others the way we sometimes have been inspired, and walk toward a real democratization of products in Beijing that is safer for us and more sustainable for the environment. We’re far from perfect and there is a long way to go but we truly feel we are on the right path.
(For more info about Cafe de la Poste and its organic initiatives, contact Tristan Macquet via tristan.macquet (at) gmail.com or stop by the cafe and talk to him or manager Justin Barthélémy at 58 Yonghegong Street / 雍和宫大街58号 / 6402-7047.)