Staying the course

Published: February 22, 2015 12:08:02 AM

La Villa Bethany, a homestay in Mussoorie, has made it to international ‘best stay’ lists with effortless ease. However, what sets it apart is its food

When hotelier couple Amarjeet and Sunita Kudle decided to give up on the rat race, move to the mountains and open their own homestay, it was a leap of faith. La Villa Bethany, a 100-year-old cottage, stood abandoned and was falling apart—it had not been a home for many years.

Nestled on the south-facing slant of a mountain with a view of the Doon valley, it needed rescuing. The young couple was up for the challenge and set out on the long process of restoration. Today, La Villa Bethany has made it to international and national ‘best stay’ lists with effortless ease. However, what has set it apart from its loftier competitors in the hill town of Mussoorie and the cantonment area of Landour is its food.

And this is no surprise. Amarjeet is a chef, having worked with The Oberoi group for over a decade, and his wife Sunita has her roots in the food and beverages service with the ITC group—a most unusual marriage of work cultures and persuasions, and the result speaks for itself.

This little lodging of eight rooms and a log cabin serves cuisines from around the country and the world on its dining table that seats 10 people.

In all my travels, I have never stayed at a homestay and was quite unprepared for the communal experience it would be—most eloquently articulated by the food and its consumption. Whilst the rooms are on a par with any fine accommodation facility, it is the approach to food and the culture behind eating that truly define a homestay. For one, no meals are consumed in isolation. Everyone must dine together on the long table in the dining room. There is no room service or cozy nook that you can carry your sandwich out to. Whilst you may eat in silence and not meet your fellow diners’ gaze (one guest preferred to eat that way), you quickly become friends over breakfast or dinner. No lunch is served because the Kudles do not want to take away business from the local players. They encourage guests to step out and experience the restaurants the hill town has to offer. Also, it gives them an opportunity to prepare dinner, which is the most elaborate meal of the day.

Everyday a new menu is planned, keeping a specific region in mind. During my three-night stay, we took a gastronomic journey through Maharashtra, Sindh and Gujarat, with a few Garhwali dishes introduced for some local flavour. One particularly entertaining find was the stinging nettle tea, said to be a great digestive and cleanser, with an aroma that takes getting used to although the flavour doesn’t sting. But I am getting ahead of myself!

The planning of the menu for the day is a complex procedure, done so only post consultation with guests. Since most are international travellers with dietary concerns, the food has to be planned accordingly. There are a multitude of challenges—once there was a guest who was lactose- and gluten-intolerant. But this is where Indian food scores, Sunita tells me. For example, during that stay, all the Indian breads that were served used indigenous grains, so there was bajra, mundwa (finger millet, a local grain), makki, among others. Grains a person who is gluten-intolerant can consume without any repercussions.

Furthermore, the small vegetable garden at Bethany ensures that the produce is organic. Also, being the only property in the hills to be entirely self-reliant on rainwater harvesting, as well as solar energy even for the cooking, the carbon footprint is negligible.

Focusing on various regions for the food of the day  serves another purpose: it is a great conversation-starter. Dining room chatter moves from the food to the region, providing a window into the rich culinary heritage of the country. Standout dishes during my stay came from all the courses: carrot koshambir (a Maharashtrian salad) had a crunchy freshness and revealed just the right amount of tart, and the Sindhi curry, which isn’t made with yogurt, was loaded with fresh seasonal vegetables and could pass for a healthy stew that would satisfy both Indian and western palates. It’s this marrying of flavours with comfort that is the real art behind the cooking at La Villa Bethany. Also, the inn keepers—an old-fashioned term, as it is—take the food very seriously, readily recognising that comfort comes not only from a warm bed on cold nights, but from the food that rests in your belly at the end of a long day in the mountains.

By Advaita Kala

Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani. She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad

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