Mangaluru: While most of you on Republic Day were glued to your couches watching US President Obama gracing the R-Day celebrations in Delhi, and while rest of you had other plans for the holiday, me and four of my friends namely Loy D’souza, Naresh Kumar, Sujith Kumar and IP Ajeethran decided to explore the beauty of coffee plantations and picturesque scenes of Gonikoppal- a small tranquil town in Kodagu District. And I think that was a perfect outing to be in the green and eco-friendly natural woods, away from the hustle and bustle of a polluted and noisy Mangaluru City- and I loved every minute of my stay in Gonikoppal. The purpose of me drafting this article is to narrate my experience in this part of the “Coffee Country” so that someday you may also decide to take a pleasure trip here.
Packing up our bags and goodies, and loading them into Ajeeth’s SUV, we all took the road on a pleasure trip to explore the beauty of coffee plantations and beyond. It wasn’t a bad journey at all, other than a small stretch of bumpy and dilapidated road on Sampagi ghat section, which is under construction. Reaching Mercara around afternoon, we decided to stop by at Hotel Maurya for a break and to “quench” our taste?. Our next destination was Gonikoppal, which took us through the narrow roads surrounded on both sides with coffee plants, pepper vines, arecanut/coconut trees, and other plantations.
Since I was craving to have a pure blended coffee in a “Coffee World”, we all stopped at a cozy coffee shack in Virajpet. “Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love.” read a quote on the wall of the coffee shack and I bet that it is a sentiment felt all through India’s coffee-growing South. After enjoying a “Arabica” flavor of coffee, we headed towards Gonikoppal where we reached late in the evening- a perfect time to have a few chilled ones and cocktails.
Yes, now I am in the small city of Gonikoppal in Kodagu district. I guess every family in this place, surrounded by deep valleys and green hills, is connected to coffee; they are growers, buyers, sellers, roasters, drinkers and they even run a coffee resorts . We were whole-heartedely welcomed by Spen Chengappa, (a college buddy of Sujith and Loy at St Aloysius College, Mangaluru during 90’s) and his mother Sumi Subbaiah, a housewife, a energetic, dedicated and active member of Rotary, Lions and JCI clubs- and who was the first lady entrepreneur to open a business in Gonikoppal, for which she was awarded by Rotary Club and State government.
When it comes to offering good hospitality to their guests/friends, Coorgi folks are the best- and I have experienced that hospitality in the past when I was one of the executive member in State Jaycees Committee, and we had many meetings at various Jaycees members homes in Madikeri, Virajpet, Chikmagalur and so on. And for that matter, the hospitality/food etc offered by Spen and his mother was tremendous and unbelievable. At night we dined/wined by the side of a small lake in their property till the wee hours- and when Spen started to narrate to us stories about snakes and poisonous creatures moving around that area, fear started to crawl into my veins- and I suggested that we move our party inside the house. All agreed, since they too were in fear!
Talk about Kodava food, me and my friends had the best Kodava cuisine meticulously prepared by Spen’s mom, Sumi aunty. For dinner we had Pandi curry (traditional Kodava pork curry)- which is made using black vinegar called Kachampuli, which has high degree of pungency with medicinal values. Kachampuli is concocted from a sour fruit called kodampuli (looks like a small tangerine/orange). Spen had made us a drink out of Kodampuli the next day morning, which he said will get rid of our hangover-OMG, trust me, it really did! Aunty Sumi had also prepared Akki Rotti aka Pathri, which is prepared by mashing left over cooked rice, mixed with rice flour, roasting the rotti on flame without oil. She also made Kadambuttu (rice dumplings), which also went good with Pandi curry. Plus there was mixed green salad, Kodava style pork chilly, Paputtu (looked like rice semige to me), and to top it off, there was fruit salad.
For next day morning breakfast, we had most of the left over goodies of dinner time, and Aunty Sumi had also prepared some vegetable egg curry- something that I had for the first time. The breakfast coffee was good to its last sip. All I can say is that the Kodava cuisine cooked very authentically and to its tradition was one of the best food that I had savoured in my lifetime. Absolutely tasty and finger lickin’ good! I only wish that I lived close by to Aunty Sumi’s house, I would have signed up as a paying guest, just for food.
Spen took us around his coffee estate, and explained to us in details about coffee plantation, picking of beans, curing, packing etc. His estate grows Robusta and Arabica kind of coffee. While he fed the variety of fishes in the lake, he also narrated stories of snakes, frogs and other creatures that haunt that area. Although I felt scary for a while listening to his stories, I kept both my eyes and ears wide open to see and listen to any wild creatures moving closer to me. Luckily I survived the attack of any wild creatures, so did my friends. Spen’s house which is over 100 years old built by his grandparents features varieties of antiques from glassware to olden furniture to kitchen utensils.
It is different in the South, though; the high altitudes and heavy rainfall around the tongue-tied town of Madikeri/Virajpet/Gonikoppal are perfect for Robusta and Arabica coffee beans and this area has a reputation for some of the best “monsoon malabar” coffee, which was discovered when the beans were exposed to seawater and humidity on a voyage to Europe during World War II, giving it a mellow character and a reputation as one of the best coffees on Earth. They take coffee very seriously here in these places and I read one plaque that displays the health benefits of coffee : it aids alertness and ease of breath with asthma, lowers gall stone and colon cancer risks, increases antioxidants, reduces the severity of Parkinson’s disease and is even said to help prevent suicide. I learnt a few stories about coffee and its plantation from Spen. Amazing and Wow!
Few months ago, when I was in Chikmagalur I learned different stories of coffee. The origin of coffee in India is the stuff of legend. As we drove up through the hills outside Chikmagalur, that in the year 1600 (or thereabouts – the story changes each time I hear about it) Saint Babu Budan travelled to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. He returned home via Yemen and smuggled seven coffee beans inside his belt before planting them in the hills that are now named in his honour. We drove up to the top of the Babu Budangiri hill, which at 1600 metres provides an unimpeded view out across the state. The taxi driver and I hike to the top of the ridge past pilgrims paying their respects and we stop to appreciate the vista of the blue mountains of Karnataka. It is quiet and everything is calm up here – a rare commodity in India. I wanted to spend more time, but the driver was getting jumpy, though. I see him tapping his leg up and down and I suggest we head back down for a coffee in town. That was a bit of my experience/story in Chikmagalur.
Coming back to our Gonikoppal coffee estate, Spen and I wander through the plantation, watching the women scour the plants for ripe red coffee berries (men are not deemed careful or delicate enough when picking the berries, mostly women are hired). The plantation is full of fruit trees (you name it- Chikku, mango, fig, jack fruit, lichee, grapefruit, etc etc, to keep the resident monkeys away from the coffee, and the towering areca/coconut trees, teaks and silver oaks are thick with pepper vines, which they use as a supplementary crop in the off-season. This quite a large plantation around the Spen’s home produces large quantity of coffee a year of both arabica and robusta. They all looked the same to me, though Spen tells me Robusta has bigger clusters of coffee berries and Arabica has the fruit all along the stem. Robusta also has double the caffeine of Arabica. We pick coffee berries from the bushes and nibble on the sweet fruits as we walk through the trees. This shade-grown, high-elevation coffee is India’s speciality.
With the aroma wafting through the plantation and the quiet lanes around the estate, I felt that I was really in “coffee country”. The emergence of coffee has much to do with India’s rising middle class, where people equate coffee drinking with rising living standards. Even if people just sniff it … the potential is huge with India’s population. Yes Coffee: The most important thing in your shopping list. You are in coffee country and you just can’t leave the place without carrying a few packets of the rich brew. Did you know that Coorg/Kodagu areas produces the largest amount of coffee in the country?
As we drove around the city’s market area, our olfactory senses were pleasantly assailed by the heady aroma of strong coffee. Finally, we could not take it anymore and decided to begin our quest for the perfect coffee shop. And herein lay the problem – there were scores of shops selling coffee (powder) and each one looked to be the ‘One’. We peeked into each shop, stood irresolutely on the door-step and moved on. And then we came to a little establishment in a non-description lane – and since everyone in that area said the shop sells good coffee, we all opted to buy coffee there. It looked quite ordinary and at the same time, fairly charming. The aroma of freshly ground coffee emanating from the shop engulfed the entire lane and enticed us to enter its premises.
There was a huge bowl of coffee beans at the counter while an interesting coffee grinding contraption fiercely worked out to produce fine coffee powder. The floor of the shop had wooden boards and we could feel the powerful reverberations of the machine underneath our feet. There were also several remarkable paper clippings pinned to a soft-board on the wall, one of them extolling the goodness of chicory.
It was plain that the shop was an old timer and probably popular with the local populace for their coffee requirements. I inferred this from the number of customers who visited the place in the short span of time that we were there. Most of them lingered around for some chit-chat with the manager (owner?) of the shop, reflecting typical small town behavior where people treated every acquaintance as a part of their extended family. The business at the Coffee Shop was simple. You take your pick out of the four varieties offered, specify the amount you require, make payment. I opted to buy 1 kilo each of the Robusta and Chicory Mix variety. The packets are still lying at home unopened though, waiting for the right opportunity to spread coffee-induced happiness! So, coffee is done. Let’s move on.
So, finally when we saw these golden, gleaming bottles of honey, stacked in rows in Madikeri/Gonikoppal and Virajpet- I just had to buy them. I love spreading a gossamer coat of honey on my toast once in a while. Although Spen had told me to be careful while buying honey, like stories of how honey is ‘artificially’ produced, I still went ahead and bought a medium size bottle. Gonikoppal and surrounding areas are treasure houses of myriad spices, ranging from pepper, cloves, cardamom to kokum and cinchona. While I am not aware of how the other spice plants look like, there was plenty of evidence regarding pepper. Pepper is grown along with coffee around here on large shady trees. We could see pepper vines entwining these trees and lending them a rather decorative look. For some reason, I was reminded of my ‘money plant’ at home, clinging around a moss covered stump.
Madikeri/Virajpet/Gonikoppal are dotted with shops selling spices. We entered a ‘nice looking’ shop named “Coorg Greens” in Virajpet, its shelves stacked high with goodies and decided to make our purchases there. There were spices packed in various combinations – some in large jars and some in small packets. I bought some cardamom, cloves, a bottle of home-made mixed pickle, and a bag of cherries. Since I have a ‘sweet tooth’ I opted to purchase some home-made chocolates at the adjacent Although I heard that the quality of these chocolates were not as high as the ones you get abroad, but it did not matter to me. A chocolate by any name remains a chocolate to addicts such as me.
At long last, our shopping expedition came to an end. By that time, we were starved to the core. Loy and Naresh knew about a restaurant that serves typical Kodava food- Coorg Cuisine located in Madikeri. We located the restaurant quite easily and clambered up the steps to it. It was a quite a modest but neat and spacious place. Various arms and weapons signifying the Kodava coat-of-arms were aligned on the walls, each depicting the courage and fighting spirit of the people of Coorg. However, like all small towns, the waiter (I could see only one) was languid and we had to wait for some time before he came to take our order. Thankfully, the chef turned out to be more active.
I am not good in remembering names, especially of traditional cuisine, but every dish turned out to be delicious. Since we all had got addicted to Pandi curry, Akki Rotti, Kadambuttu and other Kodava cuisine prepared for us by Spen’s mom, we all ordered the famed pandi curry, the spicy porcine delight of the region, kadambuttu and other delicacies of that region at the Coorg Cuisine restaurant. The food was awesome, but not to beat the authentic and traditional cooking of Sumi aunty! We were so busy gulping on the food, sadly, I forgot to click any picture of our lunch.
A satisfying and hearty meal was what Coorg Cuisine was all about. It was a perfect ending to our Madikeri/ Virahpet/Gonikoppal jaunts. I am sure there is more to Madikeri/ Gonikoppal and other areas besides what we witnessed that day. We had tackled just couple facet of it – the fun side and the retail side. But there are bound to be many more. We shall keep those to another day, another visit. And when I take one more trip to such kind of naturalistic places, I will keep you posting what I experienced. Finally, a big thank you on behalf of Loy, Naresh, Ajeeth and Sujith to my new friend Spen, and his mom Sumi for inviting and hosting us, and for making our pleasure trip a memorable one. Bye, until then.