The view from the upper bungalow at Acres Wild Farmstay, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
Our journey after Melkote began with being picked up by a driver and his car as we said our goodbyes to the Kouragi family and thanked them for hosting us. We had arranged through a travel agent that specialized in culinary focused travel to visit a cheese maker, and to visit a coffee plantation before we had to leave India. We had four nights left, and two of them would be spent at Acres Wild, a “22 acre, family-run organic cheesemaking farm and farmstay” according to their website. First we had to get there.
According to The Google the best driving route between Melkote and Coonoor is 200 Km. That is a touch shorter than the driving distance between Bangor, Maine and Portland — the route I took after dropping Corky at his kennel in Bangor to pick up the bus which would take me to Logan for my flight to India. That drive took me almost exactly two hours, an average of 100 kph (62 kph) mostly on I-95 which bends a bit west to head through Waterville and Augusta before heading south to Portland.
The recommended driving route between Melkote and Coonoor is almost a straight line due south, and The Google recommends allowing FIVE hours for that trip. Our experience is that The Google knows Indian roads.
Why did this trip (and all other auto travel we did in India) average 40 kph (25 mpg)??? YES, their roads are paved — even the small lanes in Melkote we walked on were paved. My theory about the slow car travel is: stop signs and traffic signal lights are VERY rare. Huh? Shouldn’t that mean fewer stops and faster travel? No. Instead of stop signals all roads employ SPEED BUMPS at every intersection, even on the major multi-lane highways (though in a few cases, instead of bumps, there are permanent folding steel gates that force three lanes, for example, into one lane before an intersection — same result). That means that it is rare to travel more than five miles, even way out in the rural areas, without having to slow down to hump over a speed bump. The speed bumps allow vehicles to more safely enter the traffic because it is forced to slow down in front of you. But that means that EVERY vehicle slows down to almost a stop at EVERY intersection, regardless of whether someone is waiting to enter or not.
Combine constant speed bumps with SERIOUS traffic in urban areas and no by-passes around the cities (we went right through the center of Mysore twice, a city of over 1 million people) and zero lane discipline (the faster the vehicle the more it weaves all over the road through the slower vehicles). Traffic flow is roughly by the British System (drive on the left), but if there is an ox cart in the left lane all faster vehicles will hop into the right lane to get by them…and visa versa, so ox carts passing in opposite directions can cause a serious back-up. Also, the design of the roads we traveled on seemed to follow this rule: if 20m is the *best* width for a two-lane road, then 10m is half the cost and probably adequate…
As we experienced in China, since everyone drives everywhere on the road, all the drivers expect this behavior, anticipate on-coming traffic weaving towards them around slower traffic, and therefore drivers adjust their position based on the expected speed and size of vehicles beside, behind, and in front of them. In addition vehicles range from ox carts to bicycles (though not as many as we would have thought), scooters, motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, small cars, standard cars, small trucks, and big trucks.
There are about 50% more traffic accidents and deaths per capita in India than in the US (though the US has 3x as many as the UK!), but we never saw an incident, or post-accident scene in our three days of driving around southern Karnataka state. Things seemed to work pretty well, but it did take us much more than twice the time we expected to drive somewhat modest distances.
We were very lucky to have been given an outstanding driver. Dineshan, who owns an immaculate Toyota sedan, which crucially includes AC (most vehicles in India do NOT), and he was the perfect mix of aggressive and smooth as he navigated the crazy traffic. We never felt unsafe. He spoke English well enough, but he did not need to talk while he drove. He was game to identify any plant or animal we saw out the window, and we had to discourage him from pulling over so we could take pictures each time we asked him about something we saw. He even bought us some roadside Jackfruit when he heard we had never tasted it! I would highly recommend hiring Dineshan to drive you anywhere around South India if you are in need. He lives in Kerala on an island in the coastal city of Cochin, picked us up in Melkote, and after he woke up at 3AM to take us to the airport in Bangalore he headed farther east to the city of Chennai to pick up another guest for a South Indian tour. He was THE BEST. Ganesha made up for my initial driver in a BIG way…
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We left Melkote at 9:00AM on Tuesday and we arrived at Acres Wild Farmstay around 3:00pm (we ran into some traffic, and we also stopped for a brief tea break). It is perched on the steep side of a bit of the Nilgiri “Hills” over looking a deep valley across to another steep sided “Hill” covered in tea plantation plots. Acres Wild used to be a tea plantation just like their neighbors until it was purchased by a Bollywood director who wanted to escape City Life with some cows and grow their own food. The cow part turned into a serious European Style cheese making business for his wife; and the farm became a Farmstay with several bungalows scattered up and down their patch of the mountain slope that they rent out. Meals can be taken in the common dining room — breakfast is included. They are a short drive to the town of Coonoor, which is perched at the top of their particular mountain, the back-side of which faced our slope, practically hanging in the sky like Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City. It’s a beautiful setting, and very quiet* since it’s a good distance away from the main road.
The goals for Acres Wild are “to shape an eco-friendly, holistic and self-sustaining life style, grow our own food organically and share this experience with visitors” and it appears that they are succeeding. As you might imagine I was very excited to visit a cheese maker in India because I very much wanted to learn about Indian cheese and dairy. Imagine my surprise when I found an operation almost identical to the many small creameries I work with every week in Maine!
It is VERY unusual, and certainly not traditional, for anyone to make European style cheeses in India. Mostly these are imported for the enjoyment of wealthy Indians who mostly live in the Mega Cities. Traditionally milk in South India (a very warm place year-round with little access to refrigeration even today) is liberally added to tea or coffee all day long, made into yogurt (by default milk will begin culturing immediately!), made paneer cheese (a solid cheese made by adding acid to heated milk), or many milky desserts. Because it is likely to spoil so rapidly in their climate milk is either heated or fermented before being consumed. Paneer cheese is not salted and is not meant to be aged, or even kept on hand for more than a day or two…often it is used in place of meat in a variety of curry-type dishes. Most milk has had it’s cream skimmed off because a primary cooking oil is ghee, a clarified butter that keeps well at room temperature.
Cheesemaker Tina describes the bio-gas system
I learned that the herd of about 10 milking cows (all either Holstein or Jersey cross breeds with the local cattle breed) are part of the restoration effort for them to turn a former tea plantation with poor soil into a productive organic farm. In addition to milk, and to trimming back the brush around the property, the cows give their manure over to a “Bio Gas” generator system that produces all of the fuel for making cheese and cooking meals, plus the resulting organic compost is used to bring back their farm’s soil fertility, leached out by years of tea harvest.
The cheese facility is very cleverly built, and a nice size for the size of the herd, creating up to 10 Kg of cheese a day. It even has a generously sized cheese cave below the make room that is built into the ground for keeping things cool! They make many different western cheese styles: Soft Cheese, Gouda, Colby, Monterey Jack, Havarti, Cheddar, Gruyere, Parmesan, Feta, Haloumi, Mozarella. That’s quite a range of cheeses for any cheese maker, let alone one of the few in the entire country of India making aged European cheeses! It was quite impressive, especially when I learned that Tina basically taught herself everything from books and trial and error, and sourcing quality cheese cultures and supplies can be difficult.
When filled to capacity Acres Wild can accommodate only three families, perhaps ten people at a time. The owners, Tina and Mansoor, live next to the common building (their children, pictured on their web site, must be at school or living on their own). And then there are several families of staff living on-site to help with the cooking, cleaning, milking, gardening, and cheese making. Still it could not possibly feel crowded, and the amazing view and situation of the Farmstay is always captivating. Granted, the Wi-Fi is intermittent (it was off as often as it was on) and available only down in the common house where meals are served, and it was a STEEP climb up to our cottage and down to the common house, but the food was good and the opportunity to see how this Back-To-The-Land experiment was progressing was worth the rough edges. We both really enjoyed our two night stay, and would also recommend a visit if you’re ever in the Nilgiri “Hills” area of South India.
* “Quiet” is a subjective term. Most of the day and night it was delightfully peaceful at Acres Wild where the sound of birds is almost the only sound around you. The activities of the farm around you, primarily during the milking, occasionally tap in the distance. However, at 6:00AM each morning we were there the sound of music and chanting floats on the air across the valley from the “Cloud City” nearby — one of the temples welcomes the sun to the new day with a large set of loudspeakers set on its roof and an amplifier turned up to eleven… Its not exactly loud in your bungalow, and as a tourist it was a charming “note” of a foreign land to us. But it was loud enough to distract from the birdsong, and it did go on for two hours both of our mornings. I could imagine that not all of their neighbors (especially near the temple!) might welcome it every morning. When we asked our other guests about the phenomenon they confirmed that it was not special to Coonoor or even Tamil Nadu. Temples all over India apparently enjoy playing live and/or recorded music very loud EVERY morning for their city’s benefit, and some residents refer to it as “noise pollution.” In addition to the morning “song” on our second evening a drum troop marched somewhere just uphill from Acres Wild and played vigorously and boisterously long past sunset — it was past 9:00PM and we were in bed when it started. The next morning I thought for sure the owners might express surprise about the late drum session, or even consternation, and tell us that this was an unusual event. Nothing was mentioned, which seems to indicate that very loud marching drum sessions are just another example of the religious celebrations that seem to bloom in the streets every few hours in India…