An enduring staycation at Green Acres Orchard and Ecolodge in Balik Pulau
Mr. Eric Chong and I have known each other since we were seven years of age, both attending La Salle School in Standard One, then St. Xavier's Institution in Form Four. This humble beginning has fostered a close relationship between us that enables me to offer my personal insights into my dear friend's passion project of becoming an orchard grower, a farmer, an organic crusader, an avid student of mother nature and above all, a man who has an unquenchable curiosity to seek and learn. He is unfettered by hard work with perseverance deeply rooted in his being. Together with wife Kim and son Adric (as well as their pet beagle, Ciku), they are the family behind Green Acres.
In 2009 Eric, Kim and their extended family bought the 16-acre durian orchard, nested 250 metres above sea level in the emerald hills of Balik Pulau. They named it Green Acres.
First to be built on Green Acres was a 2,000 sq. ft. kampung house. They managed to locate a 70-year old kampung house for sale at Titi Serong in Perak. The floor was made of priced hardwood, chengal batu and its walls, chengal mas. The house was carefully dismantled, transported back to the orchard and reassembled to its full glory, this time with an entire floor added below. Fresh timber for this floor was from durian trees obtained from the orchard itself. Each wooden board or panel had to be set precisely in its place and fastened using traditional carpentry techniques, all without nails. Skilled Javanese carpenters were deployed for the task. Named Titi Serong Ecolodge, the house is imbued with the beauty and wisdom of traditional architecture and of living in harmony with nature. With a breathtaking vista of the surrounding hills, a 1,000 sq. ft. deck was added.
The traditional architecture provides good ventilation when windows are left open and blinds drawn. All three bedrooms are located on the first floor. Two rooms each has a queen-size bed and the other, two single beds. The partitions that separate the rooms can also be removed to render more sleeping space.
To lower the carbon footprint of the house, solar panels have been added on the roof to generate enough electricity to power lights and fans.
Fresh spring water is directed to the taps of the house, via a pump system that uses kinetic energy to push the flow uphill from the stream below. On each floor is a shared toilet complete with shower facilities.
When my ex sixth-formers from Han Chiang High School decided to have a mini staycation, I highly recommended Green Acres. It would be a peaceful getaway surrounded by nature where we could bond and enjoy each other's company.
Upon check-in, my friends and I were greeted by Eric and Kim. They were shown their rooms at Titi Serong Ecolodge while I headed to the kitchen of another house, UJ Hut named after Eric's uncle, Joe. This house was built in 2013 deploying a similar concept of salvaging a kampung house and giving it a new lease of life at the orchard. The house was actually a dewan (hall) located in front of the penghulu's (chieftain) house in Sungai Betul in Perak. The vast living room area must have been where meetings were held and resolutions obtained. Old stories such as these add charm to the living spaces at Green Acres.
Being passionate about food, I volunteered to cook that weekend. While Eric took my friends on an orchard tour, I stayed back to prepare a refreshing winter melon dessert with snow fungus, red dates, dried longan and wolf berries, sweetened with some rock sugarcane. With the help of Kim, we julienned the melon which was harvested that morning from the orchard. I only used half of the fruit for the dessert, keeping the other half for a soup later.
Snow fungus, also know as the "poor man's bird nest" has a good amount of plant collagen, iron, vitamin C, calcium and phosphorus. The use of snow fungus dates back as far as 200 AD and is well known in ancient Chinese cooking as well as traditional Chinese medicine. Winter melon is also loaded with nutrition – Vitamin B1, Vitamin B3 and Vitamin C, calcium, sodium, zinc, iron, phosphorus, manganese, copper, magnesium, selenium and potassium. Stewing over low heat, these ingredients were provided ample time to infuse and the collagen of the snow fungus to melt.
Eric's insightful and entertaining hour-long tour covered many aspects of sustainable farming and homes. The orchard has been kept chemical-free since it was farmed more than 60 years ago. Today, Green Acres has about 450 matured durian trees (some over a century old) with over 35 different varieties. Apart from durians, other seasonal fruit trees available on the orchard include cempedak, mangosteens, rambutans, pulasan, langsat and duku langsat. Non-seasonal fruits such as jackfruits, pineapples, starfruits, papayas, bananas, ciku, umbra, coconuts and calamansi lime are available throughout the year. Since 2014, Green Acres has conducted orchard as well as durian and other fruit tasting tours.
At the orchard, it was easy for me to prepare a kerabu bee hoon dish as wild herbs such as torch ginger, daun kaduk, ulam raja, daun kesum, keffir limes, cabai burung (bird's eye chillies), ginger, tumeric, nutmegs and cloves grow abundantly here.
On the tour, Eric introduced my friends to five basic tastes in nature – sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy. A surprising exercise on taste was from the fruit of the lembah pinang (weevil lily) plant. Without giving anything away, you have to join the tour to experience it first hand. Taste is something intriguing that should be indulged and not simply read of. On the tour, they harvested papayas and coconuts as well. Nothing beats drinking thirst-quenching coconut water straight from the fruit under the blazing tropical heat.
Although Eric is a corporate trainer and runs a team-building company, his wealth of knowledge on farming is obtained through first-hand experiences and research as well as having a good circle of friends who are farmers. Ah Pin, the previous owner of the orchard who helps Eric with its maintenance, is always at hand to impart his wisdom as well. Keeping the soil healthy is key for productivity (i.e., via aerobic composting as well as biodynamic farming practices).
After the tour, a warm bowl of nourishing winter melon dessert was awaiting them. A tall glass decanter of nutmeg drink was also served to quench their thirst.
Kim makes the nutmeg syrup from scratch as well as delicious nutmeg jam. Eric brews nutmeg ciders and when fruits are abundant, cuts and air dries fruit slices. Alongside cloves, mace and nutmeg seeds, these items are sold at the orchard and in some Penang organic shops and restaurants.
To relax in cool spring water, we headed for the dipping pool to soak in it. The orchard has its own pure spring water source and a brook running through the land. Natural spring water is formed entirely naturally and found in a complete state of its own natural purity. (I can almost hear an editor suggesting alternative words for "natural".) But "natural" is such an important word here. You have to admit, when you pause for a moment and think about it, something as simple as natural spring water which runs through Green Acres is quite a novelty in this modern age. When the water passes through earth, it undergoes extensive filtration and the beneficial mineral content is significantly enhanced. This makes natural springs a fantastic source of delicious-tasting water. Guinness brewers in Ireland and tofu makers in Kyoto will attest that water makes all the difference in delivering quality products.
Eric has also made the effort to send the spring water from the orchard for testing. As an ordinary laboratory would not be able to "test" the water accurately, he acquired the services of the Penang Forensic Science Analysis Centre. Results were positively pleasing, revealing the water to be with no traces of mercury or any other chemicals. A clean bill to drink away.
The spring water at Green Acres has a 6.4pH that is magical. To illustrate my point, do you know that the ideal pH of urine and saliva in our bodies should be 6.4pH? At this level, our bodies are able to absorb all minerals. As we move away from this level, we start being unable to absorb some of the minerals. With this in mind, if I were given a choice of alkaline water, heavily processed tap water or Green Acres' spring water, my crystal clear answer has to be that from Green Acres.
Now what actually happens when you soak in a spacious dipping pool filled with natural spring water? Being an art director, I will not be able to offer you any scientific data, only how it makes me feel. The cool water is indeed refreshing and somehow, I feel cleaner as well as rejuvenated, even happier at times.
After about an hour in the pool, it was time for a quick shower as I headed back to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Claypot chicken rice has to be one of the quickest and easiest one-pot wonder to prepare. Instead of a claypot, I used a typical electric rice cooker. When the rice was half cooked, I added a few slices of ginger, the marinated chicken, thinly sliced lap cheong (Chinese sausages) and fresh shitake mushrooms. The premium lap cheong I used were from Hong Kong, perfumed with rose dew. When the rice was cooked, I topped it with aromatic sesame seed oil, Chinese wine and sautéed salt fish. On the side, a platter of raw cabbage, kacang botol (four angled beans) and cucumber slices was served. Calamansi juice (of course from the orchard) was added to the sambal belacan that complimented the raw vegetables and rice well. A bowl of winter melon soup each was also brought to the dining table.
I am glad that everyone enjoyed the meal, leaving a little room for dessert. I made a chilled fruit cocktail with pearl sago, sun melon balls, longans, sliced bananas and papayas, enriched with a creamy evaporated milk base.
After dinner, we sat around and somehow, love became the centre of our conversation – tales of how love first blossomed in our hearts that led to a union, which eventually resulted in the family we have been blessed with today. It was delightful to rekindle such fond memories where hearts went aflutter. Surrounded by hills with no tall buildings in sight, light pollution was at its minimal exposing the starry sky in all its splendour. I had a peaceful slumber, tugged cozily under a mosquito net canopy. I was awakened by heavy downpour in the wee hours of the morning. The air was cool and perfect to sleep in, a luxury I could then afford.
When dawn broke, I arose, brushed my teeth and “mozzied” down to the kitchen. First, I boiled water to brew a fresh batch of coffee with beans roasted locally. The sky started to clear as the sun shone, promising a beautiful morning.
For breakfast, I made poached eggs with smoked salmon on toast, topped with a homemade hollandaise sauce and toasted sliced almonds. On the side, I stir-fried spinach with garlic and sautéed fresh shitake mushrooms. Everyone chipped in to help prepare breakfast. Eric handled the egg station while Kim buttered the crusty loaf slices and another friend grilled them till golden. Kim also prepared sausages that went well with her nutmeg jam. The eggs used that morning were all from free-range hens reared at the orchard.
After a satisfying breakfast, I noticed a friend, armed with a stool in hand, looking for a spot on the deck to do her routine chanting ritual. She found time for herself, time to look within and reflect, time to be grateful and time to appreciate the beauty of silence. Looking at her humble routine, I somehow caught a glimpse of Eric, being the best version of himself he could possibly be. To make life count, one has to really listen, look within and grow – the tiny seed that was planted in all La Sallians to "seek the truth" (our school motto) at a tender age being a solid foundation stone for all our endeavours. Eric is where he is today simply because of this one truth, to seek!
Eric and his family have created a peaceful oasis, an environmentally-sensitive getaway for those seeking to nourish the body, mind and soul. The sounds of the rustling leaves, the gentle running brook below, the scent of flowering fruit trees, the sunlight dancing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air – somehow they all resemble nature's healing remedy to restore vitality. This staycation has done just that. We left Green Acres that afternoon with a bag full of cherished moments and a renewed spirit.
PS: There is no TV on Green Acres. Unplug and be happy. Also on the orchard is a loft treehouse nestled between two durian trees. Tarzan and Jane would have approved the accommodation.
Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
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9 October 2018
Green Acres Orchard & Ecolodge
Batu Itam, Balik Pulau, Penang