Plated from the farm
The Idler’s Farm cafe at Mahabalipuram offers a sustainable menu using the produce from the neighbourhood to bolster local economy
CHENNAI: Ask for anything but carrots at Ann David’s Idler’s Farm cafe in Thirukazhukundram — not more than seven km away from Mahabalipuram. The biennial vegetable has been ruled out of the cafe’s sustainable menu as they aren’t grown locally.
Not just carrots, but other veggies, too, are outlawed not on mythological grounds but on the principles of neighbourhood and subsistence. “Our menu comprises what the local economy delivers only,” says Ann, to whom the volitional restraint, indubitably, is an excuse to flaunt the local produce to those bikers and townies, who, on their way to the high road to Puducherry, have chance on this farm-to-fork experiment.
Ann weeds out carrots, assorting the celebrated seasonal farm platter with vegetables freshly plucked from the garden beyond the cafe kitchen.
Vegetables such as carrots and lettuce are sourced from Ooty or elsewhere, and they do not serve up to Ann’s vision of self-sufficiency in rural agriculture. The local economy itself has the potential for sustenance, says Ann, who runs the risk of losing out on essential ingredients to uphold a sustainable philosophy made popular by the counterculture currents in the 70s and the 80s in the West.
It is viable, not profitable. Yet, it held its ground, withstanding environmental issues and processed food. About three years ago, the social movement gained a foothold in Mahabalipuram through a cafe with low-sloped roofs practising environmental sustainability about 15 km off the coast.
Just another five or six similar joints in the vicinity of Thirukazhukundram suffice to dilute the farmers’ plight here, Ann fathoms.
Week after week, vegetable farmers in nearby villages await the arrival of trucks from Koyambedu market — over 70 km away — to sell their produce to fetch returns of Rs 15 to Rs 20 per kilogram of brinjal, lady’s finger, and the like. Local markets offer even lesser prices. Moreover, transportation costs and the hours-long travel between Koyambedu and Mahabalipuram add to the farmers’ woes.
Direct procurement and proximity to farmlands rule out transportation mayhem and interference by middlemen. The vegetables are as fresh as ever since they are produced in-house instead of outsourcing the ingredients.
A sustainable menu is a balancing act between health and the local economy. It is said that “if you buy organic, you care about your own body; if you buy local you care about your body and the environment.” “Our sustainable menu is not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s why we do not promote it widely. Visitors to the cafe are mostly the ones persuaded by word-of-mouth recommendations. They know the concept behind the preparation,” says Ann.
Some native combinations served at the cafe include Mapilai Samba Puttu — made out of hand-pounded red rice indigenous to the land — and Kadala Curry flanked by bananas and jaggery. Then there is the Ragi Galette stuffed with local seasonal vegetables, including pumpkin, raw papaya, sweet potato, aubergine, and karamani.
On days off, the idlers of the cafe indulge in community farming and while away the time by organising organic farming workshops on soil health and vegetable diversity. Educational visits to the farm by school students are another opportunity to languidly simmer in community discussions on climate change. Local is viable here at the countryside cafe reserved for those wanting to consume all that is economical.