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The Exotic Way
Coorg is rather special. Some call it the Scotland of India thanks to its lush greenery, picturesque landscape and of course, the weather. But unlike its supposedly British counterpart, this one is not known for scotch whisky. Yes, there are local alcohols but this area in Karnataka is best known for its coffee. And spices.
Understandably our quest for finding secret ingredients in popular Indian things, as part of our series in association with Michelin, brought us to this heavenly place. Madikeri is the biggest town here. Big isn't how it is described best - it is like a typical hill station with snaking narrow roads lined with shops and bustling with tourists and laid-back locals who seek to be content with a pace of life that most urban people are slaves to.
Among one of the busiest streets here was the exotic coffee that was suggested by one of India's finest coffee connoisseurs, Ashish D'Abreo. Ashish is a master of many trades. While advertising was his main forte when he wasn't dabbling in theatre, he soon found that there was a whole new world to discover when it came to his favourite daily drink - coffee. As luck would have it, he found similar enthusiasm in one of his closest pals, Tej Thammaiah. Tej's family owns a sprawling coffee and spice plantation, not very far from Madikeri. Together they started working on unique new varieties of coffee that qualified as artisanal coffee under the brand name The Flying Squirrel.
'Before we started Flying Squirrel, there was not much choice for evolved coffee drinkers beyond mass-produced, roasted coffee,' recalls Ashish. 'So, we decided let’s do something, start with smaller batches of coffee.” Adds Tej: “So what are the different flavours we could induce into our coffee to make it artisanal or different than what is normally found.”
We were sure there would be varied terrain while heading into the plantations. Obviously, we took an SUV but made sure we shod it with the right rubber to make the most of the grip it would offer. Driving up and down mud and gravel paths was quite an exercise but we hardly realised all the hard work the car and the tyres were doing for us.
Tej ran us through the entire gamut of processes that eventually distinguishes artisanal coffee from the regular brew. The flavours come from the soil the coffee plants grow in, to the weather to even the various cleaning and filtering processes that these guys apply. Interestingly, the coffee cherry is sweet. The seed inside becomes the coffee bean which is then treated to make the brew we all crave for every morning or even through the day. And night.
Back at Tej's delightful bungalow that looked straight out of some movie set, Ashish brewed us some fresh artisanal coffee at a small makeshift cafe that was built right there. “Every variant of the bean, kind of processing, a method of roasting and even way of storing unlocks a certain flavour of the coffee,” he says. “It is about understanding these different nuances and that’s really hand-crafted coffee.”
While at it, he went on to mention about another rather famous or infamous form of artisanal coffee which obviously we had to check before leaving Coorg.
AinMane, which in local Coorg language means Ancestral Home, is a café plus coffee and condiments outlet in the heart of Madikeri. The owners of this enterprise are more into organic farming rather than coffee brewing but have made one kind of coffee almost exclusive to his outlet here - Civet coffee.
The idea isn’t new and has existed in some south-east Asian countries but has now reached Indian shores. To put it crudely, it is coffee made out of beans found in the excrement of a breed of Civet cat found in these parts. Sounds gross? Well, strangely there is science behind it. Civet cats are usually found in the wild and pick on the choicest coffee beans that it can find out there. That’s almost like a natural screening process for coffee that is at the right stage of ripe. While it binges on the flesh of the outer fruit, it ingests the whole coffee bean inside the fruit. Passing through the digestive system, the bean naturally absorbs some enzymes which is said to add the 'flavour'. The poop is much in demand as the coffee has great market value. Many locals walk around to gather the poop which when hardened looks like a granola bar. Of course, these go through a series of cleaning treatments without harming the coffee flavours unique to it. To describe the taste, the coffee itself is less bitter and a bit tangy if you have it black. Well, that is how it should be had according to the coffee experts we were dealing with. Adding milk to coffee actually robs it of the flavour anyway and that holds true for any coffee. Lesson learnt.
As we drove back to the city, the unique coffee flavours refused to leave our senses. Coffee is one of the most consumed energisers in the world. And most of them have a secret that goes behind it having caffeine. This journey was indeed an enlightening one.