BANGALORE: When I was much younger, Coorg was a little squiggle on the map of Karnataka, its shadowy presence acknowledged by half-remembered geography lessons, coffee and by a certain gown-like drape of a certain Mrs Mundappa’s sari. The latter especially stood out eking out a visual cue for Coorg. Many years later in college, Coorg was one of the many places that people called home in the multicultural melting pot that was Delhi University. And almost all of them had an unbelievably high tolerance for fiery meat dishes. This naturally led to a conversation about the Pandi Curry or the famous spiced pork curry of the region. Some Coorgi folk actually believed that this dish was the sacred rite of passage for all meat lovers. Since a good Pandi Curry eluded me and those I sampled remained greasy blots in my food memory, just like the dish, with time, the place faded from the memory.
Five years later, as I crossed a bridge over the Cauvery, with the familiar highway markers announcing ‘Welcome to Kodagu District’ in, I felt a sudden rush of excitement as those half-remembered impressions flooded in.
In a few kilometres after the gateway town of Kushalnagar, the run-of-the-mill state highway suddenly transformed into a winding hilly road. Monsoon is not regarded as a favoured time to visit this region and yet, whenever I have travelled across South India, it has been under the aegis of the rain gods. Somehow, I have always enjoyed this off season experience which drives away the tourist hordes and returns the place to its quietude. The rain-washed land shorn of its summer dust has a fresh and dewy sheen. Coorg was no different and my first glimpse of the lush and wild forested tracts interspersed with the vast coffee plantations, was through a gap between passing rain clouds. As the sun cast its errant late afternoon beams across the road, the coffee bushes glistened, cementing this as a lasting snapshot of the place.
Coorg or the Kodagu district is the least populous of the 30 districts of Karnataka which make it one of the few places where the wilderness per square kilometre is far more than the human population around these parts. Also, since large tracts of this district are privately owned by the coffee planters (Coorg is India’s most important coffee-growing district), that ensures that the forest cover remains unspoilt and thus the region supports an extraordinary biodiversity. This also prevents any unnecessary development in an area which draws hundreds of holidaymakers. As a result there is the growth of a new hospitality industry—one which thrives on homestays and extremely luxurious boutique properties helmed by the plantation owners.
As we made our way through the bumpy non-roads a little above Suntikoppa into the Old Kent Estate, the Coorgi terrain enveloped us in her musky, squelchy and coffee-scented bosom. An idyll in the middle of 200 odd acres of coffee, cardamom and pepper crops, the Old Kent Estate is a renovated version of quintessentially English coffee bungalow. 21st century comforts are juxtaposed against coffee plantation walks and traditional Coorgi food. This is the template for most Coorgi homestays or resorts. We spent our days walking around misty hill roads. Like many other places, Coorg has also been more about the 'in between' journeys rather than the popular tourist spots. An initial sightseeing experience at the Abbey Falls left us a little scarred. Buffeted by the jet spray of the fairly impressive waterfall and trampled by nearly five score camera-happy tourists who braved precarious rocks and moss-sodden perches in order to get the perfect shot, we did a quick about turn just as we got a glimpse of the waterfall. The tourist legions had left in its wake reams of orange Haldiram bhujia packets, while the all-round wetness had led to a proliferation of leeches and you were lucky if you left Abbey Falls without a bloodsucker in tow. Thereafter we drove around aimlessly, tracking the natural beauty of the rolling hills and stopping where we pleased. Lured by ambling cows, little bridges over gurgling streams and picturesque sunsets, we were masters of our own itineraries.
A strange fact I discovered is that although this is the land of coffee with green beans hanging from every bush that you see by the highway, a good cuppa is not all that easy to come across. The best coffee of the region is actually packed off to the auction houses and sold off to foreign buyers. They return to India via the circuitous international coffee chain route with a 100 percent markup and are served in branded cups or as freeze-dried packs of Arabica and Robusta with esoteric descriptions on their labels.
Apart from the plantation homestays, it is rather unlikely that one will find Coorgi coffee at a roadside stall. A single ambitious shop in Madikeri has forward integrated into a cafe and this was where we had our first traditional Coorgi coffee, made with local beans and sweetened with jaggery—a perfectly heartwarming brew. However, we managed to wrangle many a cuppa from the kitchen in our estate. And while we took in the changing light across the coffee bushes, we drank deeply of the brew of the land.
While coffee is an integral aspect of Coorgi cuisine, a plentiful bounty of the land, so is meat. Traditionally the Kodavas (the indigenous locals who had settled in the region thousands of years ago) were fierce hunters who subsisted on game that they caught and the produce of the land. This included a limited number of vegetables and resulted in a largely meat-based diet. And it is the meat from the wild boar hunt that forms the region's greatest delicacy—the Pandi Curry. While we tasted our delightful Pandi Curry in a restaurant with a jaw-dropping view across a valley, most Pandi curries are best had in traditional homes accompanied by banter and snowy akki rotis.
I discovered that the true beauty of Coorg lies outside human settlement and in its fragrant coffee and delectable food. Everything is born of the soil, including its people. It rains as I walk under bulbous jackfruit, hanging from mossy branches. I pick an occasional green berry off a coffee plant and watch kingfishers create a sudden gash of blue across the green canvas. This is a Coorgi monsoon. And it is like no other that I have seen.