Bean there, done that

By: | Published: December 13, 2015 12:06 AM

An outing in the woods, exploring a plantation trail in the lush coffee-growing regions of Coorg in Karnataka

COORG IS, strictly in touristy terms, not everyone’s cup of tea. There are the misty hills, mountain-fresh air, quaint villages and breathtaking landscapes, but there isn’t much to see or do in the way of a typical holiday. This was precisely the reason why I jumped on the idea of taking a leisurely break—and, at the same time, absorb what the destination had to offer—and go on a ‘plantation trail’ across the lush coffee-growing regions of Coorg in Karnataka.

If you’re motoring down from Bengaluru, which is about 230 km away, things don’t change till you take a detour from the Mysore highway (SH-17) at Hunsur. As the dual carriageway becomes one, the landscape dramatically changes. The bamboo forests and silver oak trees soon give way to acres and acres of coffee plantations. The air, too, turns chilly, as one makes deeper inroads into the heart of the Tithimathi forests.

The region is best visited, I was told, during monsoons. But this year’s extra rainfall—though not conducive for the harvesting season—ensured that the monsoon magic continued long after.

It was post-afternoon by the time I took the narrow, undulating road through the lush-green forests to reach the coffee country. After a six-hour drive from Bengaluru, it was exhilarating to be amidst the mountain-fresh greenery of Coorg. The area was mostly moist, owing to the previous night’s rain. For the first time, dark clouds hovering over me didn’t make me sad.

As it was lunch time, I hurriedly checked into Thaneerhulla Bungalow—the flagship property of Tata Coffee that organises ‘bean to cup’ tours under its ‘Plantation Trails’ banner—and went straight to the dining hall. Thaneerhulla Bungalow, reminiscent of the British Raj, is so known because of the beautiful water pond that’s just a short walk away. There’s a certain old-world charm about it, as it comes complete with antiquated wooden floors and cosy fireplaces, not to forget bedrooms so large that one could play cricket in their bathrooms.

When the hosts told me that I’d be treated to a traditional, home-cooked chicken preparation, I thought I’d also get to witness some actual chasing, killing, feathering and cutting up of a chicken before it lands on the frying pan. That was not to be, but what I got instead was a smooth, toothsome chicken curry called koli served piping hot with nool puttus (rice noodles).

It was that season of the year when ripe coffee beans were ready to be harvested. Unlike other coffee-growing regions of the world, Coorgi coffee is monsoon-fed and shade-grown—the required shade achieved through the canopy provided by the trees. Some of the world’s best coffee is grown here, and the slopes are redolent with the aroma of fine Arabicas and Robustas.

Without wasting any time, I decided to check out one of the estates where coffee-picking activity was in progress. Once at the estate, the manager in-charge was more than happy to show me some ripe coffee beans—plump and red.

Coffee picking is an art, he told me. Red coffee cherries must be picked without disturbing the unripe beans on the coffee branch. This, I was told, is a critical step for quality coffee production. Also, unlike other fruits, ripe coffee beans have to be pulped (removal of outer skin, the initial step in coffee processing) within 10 hours, lest they start deteriorating.

Pepper also abounds in Coorg and is grown along with coffee. Pepper vines are allowed to climb around the towering shade trees. In the process, they tend to look like ‘green pillars’ ‘supporting’ the sky. There is a high demand globally for this variant of ‘black treasure’.

Back at Thaneerhulla, I had to choose from a number of recreational activities that included a safari through coffee plantations, nature walks and bird-watching, among others. But all that was to happen the next day. For the time being, I settled down for a bonfire in the bungalow premises, making peace with the jungle life and far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Some of the local estate managers, too, joined me for the special dinner, and their daily-life stories (like a leopard they spotted in the vicinity a few days ago and, another, when they were attacked by wild elephants) made for a night to remember.

The following day, after a refreshing nature walk (for those who came in late, Coorg is home to over 300 different avian species) around the nine-hole golf course at Pollibetta owned by the Tatas (if you’re a golfing enthusiast, you will be confused whether to hit a shot or enjoy the scenic beauty of the course), I decided to take a safari of the coffee plantations along with a tour of other heritage bungalows in the region.

Once occupied by British coffee planters, these colonial-style bungalows are over 100 years old. They were built on an elevation, overlooking the mountains and the plantations, on purpose. The planters wanted to lead lives of perfect tranquility waited upon by butlers, cooks and gardeners. Later, managers of Tata group occupied these properties for a while till the management decided to throw them open to the public around the concept of ‘plantation trails’.

I first visited the Woshully estate bungalow, where I got spectacular views of the region. The guide wasted no time in telling me that a portion of the movie, Saat Khoon Maaf (featuring Priyanka Chopra and John Abraham), was shot here.

Next in line was the Cottabetta bungalow. The 110-year-old property is surrounded by sweeping vistas of the picturesque Kodagu hills. On the south is Kerala and to the north, Kushal Nagar and the Madikeri hills, I was informed. The dining hall has a rosewood table that is over 100 years old and is made out of a single log of wood.

Back at Thaneerhulla Bungalow, I finally got to taste pandhi curry—the rich, dark and unctuous pork delicacy from Coorg. Served hot with kadambuttus, or rice dumplings, it was the perfect way to end a beautiful outing in the woods.

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