Of Coffee, Peppercorns and Spice

As I rolled down my window for the first time heading towards Coorg, the smell of wet earth assailed my senses. The cicadas were chirping away merrily creating a beautiful and intimidating cacophony. And you know you are in a forest when all you see for miles are towering trees, electric fencing and freshly pulled out trees leading into the  woods, telling you that yes, you are in elephant country.  There were coffee plantations on one side of the road and a distinct chill in the air. The air was not only cool, but wet, rainy, sunny and green. So much green.  Fresh green peppercorns were hanging off every vine on every tree lined on the narrow one lane road tempting me to take my hand out of the window and taste them (and I am not even some big fan of pepper. Or wasn’t – I’ll get to that). I am talking about what's called the 'Scotland' of India, our coffee growing land – Kodagu district in the state of Karnataka.

Trees in Coorg

Reaching the resort was a mystery in itself. The roads are only wide enough to accommodate one tiny car – let alone 2 huge SUV’s. The roads seem to go deeper into coffee heartland, with only a few signs of human habitation. Most resorts are nestled within coffee plantations, so unless you are a local, or have an amazing GPS, you need someone to guide you to your resort. It’s easy to get lost within (which is not so bad as long as you don’t stray into the forest and meet any wild elephants).

There's coffee!

Green and Red coffee beans

We all have to thank Baba Budan for bringing coffee to India, because really, how else would Filter Kapi have happened? Those seven smuggled beans probably changed the way people live and the way people socialize (because imagine your social life today without the big cuppa on the big sofa in coffee shop).

I had no idea what a coffee plantation would look like. Would they be similar to tea plantations I wondered - sprawling slopes covered with trees...would there be small pathways in between to walk within...? Turns out a coffee plantation is so much like and unlike a tree plantation.

So here's what it really was - there were more trees than rooms, more sky than buildings and more open spaces than conference halls. The cottages are dotted within - you wake up to the sound chirping birds instead of blaring horns, find cicadas humming outside your cottage door at night, have a Star fruit tree right outside your window and a veranda overlooking  paddy fields. The air is filled with fresh citrusy spicy smell of lemongrass (that no commercial room freshener can ever replicate)

View of Paddy fields

And then there is the Coffee. Caffeine. Kapi. CafĂ©. You live among the trees,  drink an unlimited supply, figure out the difference between Arabica and Robusta and realize that for all these years as a coffee drinker – you never appreciated the smell of real coffee. Real coffee - not the chicory blended versions. Not the bitter brew. Real coffee. Coffee that is sublime. Coffee that will not keep you awake. Coffee with no added flavours (why do you need to top something so delicious anyway?). I think Coffee needs the same status as wine. Not necessarily elite, but appreciated just the same.

All those pearly greens

Peppercorns grow in abundance – on every estate and on every tall tree. They adorn trees like you would drape pillars for an event, and from a distance, they seem to be in turn decked with strings of pearls.

Green peppercorns

Biting into fresh pepper was not something I ever thought I would do. There is a certain heat to it, one that’s not sharp, but makes its presence felt. Straight off the vine, the pepper is not as spicy as the dried spice, but the freshness of pepper hits those sensors on your tongue and awakens them like no other. It’s peppery –slightly bitter, slightly sweet and the heat of the spice is almost warm.  Tiny, green pearls hold an even tinier white core (which goes onto become white pepper).  I read in a fascinating and appropriately titled article - A spouse is nice, but spice is nicer - that our very own peppercorn, in some ways lead to the discovery of America – an almost unbelievable concept when you look at the tiny green fruit.  And as I tentatively took the tiniest bite out of the spice, I knew why the spice trade happened. Why explorers came from far and wide, braving rough seas, in search of India. The tiny, humble, beautiful pepper.  Which other thing can lay claim to the discovery of nations, to the origins of world trade?

It's not just about the spice...

...because there is fruit. The particular estate where I chose to stay had passion fruit vines, avocado trees, Tabasco chillies, sweet lime, paddy fields, jack fruit trees, cinnamon trees and Papaya.  Picking fruit on a morning walk is another one of life’s great pleasures, as I discovered one morning. In the city, you want fruit – you go to the fruit vendor. Here, you spot the fruit, pick it off the tree, and eat it right there under the shade of the very tree. Ambling on the paths inside the estate, I used to stop and look at every fruit tree, plant and vine I saw, over and over again. Before I left, I decided to go fruit picking – and quiet daringly hoped to bring back the fruit home (which of course did not happen – nobody wants to be handed an over ripe, speckled fruit that’s on the verge of fermenting. Even if you did hand pick it.) I did manage to pick lovely yellow passion fruit, star fruit and Avocados - but since I was picking already ripe fruit, they were not in their best condition - they were best consumed immediately.

Avocodo passion fruit

Also see -  
Coffee, Coorg and Me
What to Do and Where to Stay when you are in Coorg!


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