Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Coffee, Tea and Me

 Hospet was our launchpad for expeditions into different parts of Northern  Karnataka. We stayed at an upmarket hotel cum lodge, which had a choice of air-conditioned  and  parabola edged  rooms with french windows that allowed you  to look  outside. There wasn't much to see; one large multistoreyed building  with a large tree  and stretches of concrete terraces and water tanks but the room was airy and comfortable and had colour TV.
What we struggled with were  the beverages! Of course I use the plural we here when the truth of the matter is that my friend has surmounted the challenges that the absence of beverages  can set up. So while I complained that the morning tea looked like all the kitchen cloths had been boiled in it and  shuddered whenever I broke through the ugly brown encrustation to  encounter a thick viscous over-sugared brew,  she stoically sipped  black coffee without sugar, without even so much as a murmur.
My objections of course have a long pre-history. Despite growing up in New Delhi in a fresh-filter-coffee-preparing- family  and  subsequently marrying into yet another coffee filter entrenched family, I had unashamedly succumbed to the delicate flavours of Darjeeling leaf tea and was completely besotted by Runglee Rungliot, Razia Begum, Orange Pekoe and  for want of an alternative, Lipton's Green Label, which if fresh can make for a pretty decent brew.
Each morning at Hospet brought on the attendant trauma of terrible tea and I had not  brought along with me any tea in instant teabags since it is my unswerving belief  that bagged leaf teas never rise to any occasion.
 So there was nothing much to do except gulp down the ghastly liquid that postured as tea and comfort oneself  with the knowledge that the morning breakfast was more than suited to the requirements of   a royal delegation. We partook of  fresh iddlis and hot vadais and chutney and sambaar and pongal or special fried rice with a pineapple kesari to boot; all this around 7.30 am in the morning, before we embarked on our day's journey.
We got back on the beverage route when we drank thin highly sugared tea, atop a hill temple at Jatinga Rameshwaram   which, the officiating hosts told us to treat  as prasadam. Tea is psychologically required at moments like this, especially if you have ascended 708 not so easy  steps to view an Ashokan edict,  so we sipped the  brown, warm liquid that could  have easily doubled up as charnamrit.  We dealt with the problem of not having good tea in the evenings eventually by not drinking the beverage after disappointing experiments at roadside tea stalls.
By which time  a wonderful idea took possession of me. This was after all coffee country! You couldnt blame anyone for bad chai. The Western Ghats did not grow leaf tea and possibly the coffee bushes had subdued every bit of  the fragrance in all extant  teacrops. So, I decided to quit complaining about the tea and  ambitiously embarked upon drinking filter coffee, because there is something very compelling about the aroma of   roasting Arabica  and Robusta seeds, especially if you are at your wits end.  I ventured gingerly into coffee territory hoping to savour  filter coffee. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you could not get filter coffee for love or money in most places.
Our hotel served instant coffee, so did the swankiest hotel in town. Local restaurants which swore by vegetarianism and filter coffee  provided  small tumbler davaras of thick chicory based brew that  had little to do with coffee grounds through which hot water had filtered.  At Lingsur, I ventured out at teatime to a nearby restaurant and ordered a coffee. What I got was ghastly frothy espresso, the kind that auditoriums in New Delhi have been serving since the 1970s, ( made with instant coffee powder) in the interval between two act plays.
 The young man at the counter told me that no filter coffee was available anywhere in Lingsur. When  I shared this insight with our guide Srinivas, who was subject to my daily  beverage anxieties, he averred that I could not hope to drink filter coffee anywhere in North Karnataka. This was a body blow! Now I knew who bought all the Bru coffee that was advertised on television channels! As an attempt to  reconcile myself to bad beverage days, I philosophically reminded myself of my grandmother who had her first cup of coffee at the age of thirty five because the only beverages she drank  until then were milk, buttermilk and   rice gruel or kanji.
 Expecting very little by way of beverage salvation, we travelled to Hirebenkal to view its spectacular megaliths.
At the end of a long day spent traipsing the  Hirebenkal valley, fortified with coconut water and bananas, we headed back along a circular route to our vehicle, marveling at the giant cacti bushes in bloom. One variety, often called the cowblinder cactus or the pear cactus was resplendent with yellow flowers and  pink lotus bud shaped fruit. One ASI official accompanying us, told us that the fruit were edible.  He broke off some fruit from  the cactus  with a stick and proceeded to beat all the thorns out of it, with his stick. I tried holding the fruit in  my bare hands and a shower of fine thorns  immediately attached themselves to my fingers. While I disengaged the almost invisible thorns, Khan sahib had divested the fruit of all its thorns and it was now ready for consumption. He lopped off the tip of the fruit and poured a crimson red liquid onto my outstretched palm. The liquid was sweet and had tart overtones, and  its rich colour was remniscent of the sweetened  syrup of the kokum fruit. Khan Sahib then squeezed out  an extremely delicious  deep crimson jelly  like substance with seeds that tasted rather like the passion fruit. The fruit of the cactus  was apparently a popularly consumed delicacy in the district.  The local name for this fruit was "Dabbagole Hannu" and  sweeter versions grew all over the place and  were a known  source of enriching  blood haemoglobin. We descended the hill accompanied by the lingering taste of the fruit.
As we moved past flat ground  our attention was drawn to a yellow flowering shrub that grew everywhere and  we are told  that its flowers were collected to make a drink  that was drunk in lieu of tea in the area. Khan sahibe didn't know its name and there was no means of finding out, so all I have is some pictures and much reduced tea and coffee cravings.

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