Our last “foodie” stop on our trip was in another mountain area, north west of Coonoor and back in Karnataka state but right on the Kerela border, referred to as “Coorg” although that seems to be a colonial era term and is not found on any maps. Significantly we would be entering a dense chunk of the Tata Empire as guests of their hospitality division surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of their agricultural division which they proudly announced that they sold most of their coffee production to Starbucks.
The Tata Group is an enormous Indian multinational conglomerate holding company founded in 1868(!) that seems to touch almost every aspect of Indian life in some way. When I landed in Bangalore I fell in love with their ubiquitous mini-trucks which seemed to perfectly match form and function in the crowded megacity. I was already aware that Tata had recently purchased the Jaguar and Range Rover automotive brands, so it also made sense that Tata would manufacture trucks of all size, as well as be advertised around Bangalore as a major defense contractor for India. But their business goes far beyond vehicles — the analogy might be if General Motors, General Electric, General Foods, US Steel, Dow Chemical, United Airlines, Resorts International, and IBM had all merged in the 1960s and then managed this Group into the present day. Sure there are other businesses that compete in each sector but I did not see another single name entity that appeared to compete EVERYWHERE inside the Indian economy.
We faced another 5 1/2 to 6 hour drive (212 Km according to The Google), but only part of it traced back on our arrival route, and most of that was through two different wildlife preserves (I know, major highways through wildlife preserves? That’s another discussion…), after which we took a left and cut directly west to the Coorg highlands. Along the way our driver Dineshan found us a simple and non-tourist roadside restaurant where we could get a nice biryani lunch.
Biryani is a simple spiced rice dish very similar to “pilaf” and probably closely related on the culinary tree. Wikipedia guesses that the term comes from the Persian word for rice, where “pilaf” is from the Sanskrit word for “ball of rice” and follows this dish beyond the Himalayas into Xinjiang where it is pronounced “pulluh.” Actually I was more interested in the dish of sides that came with our meal — simple, straight-forward, but powerful: cucumber, onion, and/or the special South Indian lime called Nimbu which is a little less sour and a little more sweet than the limes we get in the US. ALSO, the picture above echoes the very common use of stainless-steel serving dishes that we saw in Melkote and beyond. Unbreakable (although in a land of elephants maybe that’s NOT true?), easy to clean, and last forever. Historically it appears that the South Indian culinary practices never evolved a dependence on ceramics? They jumped straight from banana leaves to stainless steel plates? Another fascinating detail that probably deserves much more research…
In any case we arrived at our “bungalow” situated far from the main road, down a long driveway, surrounded entirely by a coffee (as well as other crops) plantation. Since the coffee bushes (which can live over 100 years) do the best growing in the shade of an open forest there are big trees scattered among them providing partial shade to the thick plantings of coffee shrubs below. Climbing up most of those trees’ trunks (up to 10m high) are pepper vines producing another of their cash crops: black pepper. And down below the coffee shrubs in some of the wetter areas are cardamom plants producing another spice for export.
According to the Plantation Trails brochure the bungalow we arrived at — Woshully — is the oldest of a group of “heritage bungalows” that date far back into colonial times. Our bungalow apparently served as “The Bamboo Club” for socializing among the elite who escaped up into the cooler hills in the summer season where they grew export crops.
The huge porch certainly suggested large cocktail parties spilling out of the stuffy interior where guests could sip their drinks at twilight listening to and watching the jungle-like coffee plantation come alive after dark. And during certain parts of the year you would be able to smell the unbelievable sweet aromas of the coffee flowers, spectacular white puffs strung all the way down the coffee bushes long fruiting branches like iridescent party bunting.
And just like in the film and TV portrayals of colonial India, the arriving Sahibs were met on the porch by the staff and offered a glass of cool watermelon juice in glasses on a silver tray. “Welcome to Woshully bungalow!” My goodness!
We were informed that our driver should be prepared to pick us up at 5pm to take us to meet the Tata naturalist for a Nature Walk at sunset. We were taken to our room — air conditioning at last! — and given an honest to goodness skeleton key to the room.
At 5pm Dineshan punctually pulled onto the turn-around in front of the bungalow and we headed off to find “the golf course” where we would meet our Naturalist. This turned out to be a little longer than it sounded, but we found our man in a Tata golf shirt and a big pair of binoculars hanging from his neck. We were joined by a couple with a small girl who were also staying with us in the Woshully bugalow. I *wish* I had written his name down because now I don’t remember it, but he was an excellent guide to the wonders of the Coorg biota straining at the edges of the golf course to take over the minute the greens-keepers let down their guard.
Right off the bat (the cricket bat! we walked past a cricket match in progress…) we learned about epiphytes and hemiparasites and special lichen that is ground up and used in some masala spice mixtures. We learned that during the annual bird counts the Tata naturalists will count more than 300 bird species around the plantation. We learned that all of the rosewood trees in India are the property of of the Government. Vietnamese coriander is a perennial that looks very much like and mixes well within the grass in the fairways of the golf course and smells just like regular coriander. We saw jackfruit seeds in a pile of fresh elephant dung. We cracked the stem of a “biofuel tree” and blew bubbles with the soapy sap. We spotted the Memory Plant whose leaves are used in the regional cuisine. We asked him to identify the beautiful and unusual bird we saw outside our Acres Wild bungalow each morning with what looked like a second beak poking out of its forehead: Red Whiskered Bulbul. He pointed out flocks of parakeets in the trees above us: “those are the same birds people keep in cages in their homes.” He pointed out Birds Eye Chili plants that, although not native to India originally, now grow wild throughout the South.
About half-way through our walk-around the mother of the six year-old girl with us suddenly asked: “What about snakes?” The naturalist smiled and said, “yes, snakes!” She said, “there are snakes around?” “Of course,” he responded, “but they are as afraid of us as we are of them. We will not see any of them because they will run away long before we arrive.”
Obviously our Nature Walk was one of our highlights. Unfortunately, for many different reasons, our dinner at the Woshully bungalow was not…AND the promising AC stopped working a few hours after we arrived, and in fear of the giant flying insects whacking into our windows when our lights were on we did not want to open them (they had no screens!) so it was a stuffy and warm night.
The next morning we managed to check-in for our flights the following morning on their intermittent and balky Internet, enjoyed a cup of coffee out on the big porch, and then everyone loaded into a special “jeep” with stadium seating for a driving tour of the plantation.
The same Naturalist from the night before was our guide, and he was just as informative and helpful as we drove narrow dirt tracks between the coffee bushes, down into gulleys, and then up onto ridges. We saw where they processed the coffee beans (between September and December depending on the variety), we saw workers harvesting green peppercorns (which would turn black after about a week of drying) using very long bamboo poles with cross-bars hammered through for climbing up. We saw coconut plantings, betel nut plantings, cardamom plants, wild honeycomb hanging high up in some of the shade trees, among them jackfruit trees heavy with fruit.
Pepper vines climbing up a shade tree over coffee bushes.
After the jeep tour Dineshan picked us up and we were off to Bangalore for our final night near the airport before we boarded our 7:00am flight to Boston via London. The long drive was still interesting to see the changing agriculture, the different settlement on our route leading into Mysore, and then out and on the new highway linking Mysore to Bangalore. We did not have to go through Bangalore to get to the airport (we approached from the southwest and the airport is quite a bit north of the city) but we had to swing close enough to see a good bit of the non-tourist parts of the city, still growing quickly, on the outskirts. The hotel AC worked a *little* better than in Coorg, but the food was more National / International and carried less of the local flavor that we had been experiencing. Alison and I talked a lot over dinner that night, and then early in the morning after Dineshan dropped us at the airport for our flight, about everything we had seen in India and what it all meant. I’m sure we’ll be talking about it for a long time.