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Rollercoaster River – Our Summer Day Out

Rollercoaster River – Our Summer Day Out

At River Research we’re all about ‘immersion’, in and out of the office. Once a year, the whole team go out and do something – yes – ‘funtastic’. This July we decided to go fearless and take our summer day out to Alton Towers.

River Team Smaller

Alton Towers is of course famous for its ‘blockbuster’ rollercoaster rides – and has been famous for the wrong reasons recently. Some of us – including me – aren’t the first fans of rollercoasters and rarely very brave in general. (One of us was having nightmares about teacups weeks before the trip, so found solace in the gardens of the original park. He knows who he is. He studied the branding and communication architecture of the rides and, apparently, the more abstract the name of the ride, the more terrifying it is. ‘Only the brave’, as we say).

After some hesitation of my own, I found the courage to meet Rita – an easy rollercoaster, as the theme park describes it. Rita actually reaches speeds of 100 km per hour in just 2.5 seconds, which nobody told me when I was queuing up. I must confess that after wrestling with the urge to give up, I enjoyed this vastly more than I expected. I will definitely go back to you, Rita. Or alternatively, hide in the gardens.

Rita and Park

We also got wet. The sun came out and we all went for a splash on the rapids – and as champions of ‘diving in’, this ride was, frankly, borderline mandatory. The river rapids send rushing waters surging under you, sending you into a spin and forcing you to navigate through crashing waterfalls.

Water Ride Smaller

Not feeling quite wet enough, we moved on to bath time – ‘but not as you know it’. Once you’re in the bathtub, you fall through waterfalls, get a tepid power shower and brace yourself for the big submerge.

Log Flume Smaller

But don’t worry – if you pay £2, you can dry yourself off in a big drier machine designed up to 2 people at time.

Drying off Smaller

Our day out finished with a delicious dinner at the Blacksmith’s Arms (an old tithe barn), a short distance from Alton Towers – more rustic and cosy than we’d expected. All told, an exhilarating, exhausting day and a fine ‘crowd pleaser’. I would do it all again. Who says immersion can’t be fun?

Chinese Cooking: A Cultural Tapestry

Chinese Cooking: A Cultural Tapestry

In 2012, ‘A Bite of China’, a CCTV documentary series about Chinese food and cooking was aired and quickly became a national hit.

While there is a plethora of documentaries on food produced around the world every year, the vast majority adopting a ‘technical’ perspective, this documentary series almost seems ‘out of place’ – and surely there are not enough facts and figures in it. The series focuses instead on the history, the culture and the people behind the food. There is neither a Michelin-star chef nor an artisan kitchen – it’s all about the simple food that ordinary families cook and eat at home, the authentic local cuisine.

The audience loved it – in fact, it was such a success that the production team made a second season, aired in 2014. ‘A Bite of China’ tells a story that resonates with everyone in the country – experiences repeated and passions shared.

In China, love for food is universal. This love bonds people together. A traditional way of greeting your neighbour in Beijing is ‘Have you eaten?’ instead of ‘How are you?’, as ‘How are you’ sounds far too formal to Chinese ears. On second thoughts, it also actually makes sense – what could be more important than food in a world of foodies? Nothing, really. If you have eaten, you’ll be alright. The answer can vary between a simple ‘yes’ and more details, such as ‘not yet, I’m on my way to buy some spring onions.’ By replying to the greeting in a casual manner, the two of you feel instantly much closer, as if you have reached a secret consensus on not talking about grand ideas or outlooks on life. You perceive yourselves as part of the same group, and an imagined community is born.

To the Chinese, cooking is also an adventure happening in a small space. To cook a good meal, the chef needs to stay focused, as timing is everything for most Chinese dishes. The ingredients and seasonings have to be added in the right order, at the right moment and be cooked for the right duration; otherwise, the taste would be different. In fact, timing can have an impact on the three essential factors of Chinese cooking, known as ‘colour, aroma, and taste’ (se, xiang, wei). It is the precise coordination of a series of delicate tasks under time pressure that makes the chef’s job challenging. A Chinese cook can never dream about leaving the turkey in the oven and setting the timer as ‘job done’.

As much as a daily chore, cooking is more than just getting something edible onto the dinner table; it’s about experimenting within a framework, exploring all the opportunities and making the most of your ingredients. I remember when I was at school, there was one day when my mum was out of town and my dad was working late. I was sleepy but hadn’t had anything for dinner. When my dad came back, he searched the fridge inside out and only found a cucumber. He walked into the kitchen with the cucumber in his hand and then closed the door. He came out of the kitchen 20 minutes later, holding a plate. The cucumber was wriggling on the plate, almost like a fish swimming in a pond. ‘Try it,’ he said. I had my doubts (sorry, Dad) but with the first bite, my taste buds got a startling wake-up call. The flavours of sweet, sour and spicy blended harmoniously together, forming a complex and stimulating taste. I finished it all, and saw my dad smiling at me. He said it was a dish my grandmother used to cook for him in the past. He could easily have just made me a cucumber salad!

To this day, I still remember how the light was cast on the table that night, how I stretched out the cucumber with chopsticks, and how the aroma of the dish lingered in the house for a while. Memories about food don’t fade easily.

These days, if I dine out in Chinese restaurants, I will sometimes order the same cucumber dish my dad cooked, just to give it a go (it’s called suo yi huang gua). They all have slightly different presentations and tastes, some better, some worse, but I think I’ve acquired the spirit of the dish. The continuously fine-tuned flavours cultivate the love for food, reinforce the memories about family, and inspire a new journey for the next generation. This is how culture gets passed on. After all, people themselves are merely cultural artefacts.