Monday 28 September 2015

The Journey of an Apple from the Tree to your Kitchen!

A heavily laden apple tree
Actually, apple isn't my favourite fruit. But the very thought of climbing apple trees and plucking apples seemed very romantic, so I set out looking for volunteering options for this year’s apple harvesting season. I found a Banjara Orchards in Thanedar, whose family has been into apple cultivation for many generations. But they were taking volunteers for taking care of guests who come during the apple season and not for apple harvesting itself. Luckily, I enquired with a friend whose family owns apple orchards in Himachal Pradesh and he graciously invited me to be a guest and volunteer in apple harvesting.
A fully laden golden apple tree.
For the uninitiated, did you know that apples are not native to India? An American called Samuel aka Satyanand Stokes started apple cultivation in Thanedar in the early 1900’s and it is from there that apple cultivation spread to other areas in India.
The apple harvesting season begins from early June until early November depending on the altitude of the region. Higher the altitude, later will be the harvesting. The same goes for apple flowering too. Flowering begins in April until June depending on the altitude. By May, the petals fall and June onwards the fruiting season begins. The flowering as well as the fruiting happens first on the tree tops which is more exposed to sunlight and then proceeds downwards. Bees are the pollinators for apples. In some orchards which are sprawling, swarms of bees are released to increase the chances of pollination. In some others bees naturally thrive and pollinate.
Sai Orchards overlooking the mountains.
In Sai Orchards, Ruhil Dhar, where I volunteered, apple harvesting begins around August 15th and ends by October 20th. Sai Orchards is a sprawling orchard spread over 100 bighas. The owner, Mr. Shiv Kumar Sharma, an engineer by education, saw the potential in being an orchardist and returned to his home-town, Ruhil-Dhar, after his studies instead of taking up a regular job, to improvise and modernize the operations of the orchard started by his equally visionary father, Shri Roshanlal Sharma. The senior Sharma ran a grocery store in nearby Sawra and hearing about the new business of apple cultivation in Thanedar, decided to start the same in Ruhil-dhar around 57 years ago. Ruhil, with its location at a height of 7000 feet above sea level and rich soil seemed perfect for apple cultivation. Now, Mr. Shiv Kumar along with his brother Mr. Pawan, oversee the operations in the orchard.
The orchard has a one kilometre road cutting across it to reduce time and increase efficiency in loading the trucks after harvesting. So now, trucks drive up to the cluster of trees from where apples have been plucked, so loading is easier and faster. It’s a great deal given the fact that apples are a perishable commodity and the price of apples fluctuates like stock prices in wholesale markets, so time is precious. This is one of the many innovations that Mr. Shiv Kumar has introduced in the orchard.
Apple varieties- clockwise from top Left- Rich Red, Red Gold, Royal and Red Royal
The varieties that are grown here are Royal, Rich Red, Golden, Red Gold. And the newer varieties recently introduced are Super Chief, Top Red, Jeromine, Red Velox, etc.  
Apples being packed.
Every year, workers from Nepal are hired for the harvesting season. Work includes plucking, loading crates into trucks, lugging crates uphill or downhill for loading, sorting and grading of apples, etc. The workers are sturdy and very hard working. I was almost stunned to see them carry 2 or 3 crates, totally weighing 30- 50 kgs strapped to their backs and walking uphill for a kilometre to load the trucks! Sai Orchards has permanent workers who reside on the orchard and work throughout the year. During off-season, there is other work like cutting the grass, pruning the trees, grafting and other miscellaneous work. On the other smaller orchards, workers migrate to the apple growing areas in July and stay for 3-4 months often moving from one orchard to another, for a daily wage of Rs 300. I was happy to see that in Sai Orchards, Mr. Shiv Kumar has provided basic amenities for sanitation, drinking water and food even to the daily wage workers, which is not the case in many other orchards.
Apples come in all sizes, hence need to be graded and sorted. 
Once the apples are plucked from the trees, they are put into crates and then taken for grading and sorting. On any tree you will find apples of all sizes and varying shapes too. So they need to be sorted based on their size, before they come to the markets because profits are based on uniformity of size like any other fruit. 
A crate of apples being emptied on to the conveyor belt.
In the bigger orchards like Sai Orchards and another orchard in Kharapathar, called Sai Rattan Orchard, where I assisted in grading and sorting, this process is mechanized. Crates of apples are emptied onto a conveyor belt which carries it on a bed rolling brushes to brush off dust and other particles and then a bed of velvety rollers to give it a mild shine. 
The roller and polishing brushes on the machine
This lot then passes through an outlet with an opening that increases gradually along the sides, from where apples starting with the smallest to the biggest roll out onto the trays along the sides of the outlet. These apples are then collected and sorted and packed. 
Bite sized apples like these are cute to look at but don't have a market so are sold to juice factories.
Apples which are out of shape, too small, or with dents from hail stones, birds and any such are collected separately. It is these fruits that are sold to the juice and jam factories.
Apples on the grading machine
The grading is based on 6 sizes, XL, L, M, S, XS and a size smaller than XS. The first 5 sizes are packed in 5 layers in carton boxes and the last one in 6 layers. So typically if you buy a whole carton box at the wholesale, this will be the arrangement.
Layers in a box
No. of apples

Apples packed and marked ready to be transported.
The packed boxes are now ready to be sold. Wholesale buyers come directly to the orchards where they negotiate the price and arrange for the transport or orchardists load trucks and take the apples for auctioning in huge ‘mandis’ where wholesalers bid the price and then it is sold to the highest bidder. 
An apple before and after it goes through the grading and polishing machine. Notice the shine?
Good quality apples are sold anywhere in the range of Rs 1000 –Rs 1500 per box, and a box contains 25 kgs of apples. On the way to Shimla, I saw many trucks from distant states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which had come to directly transport apples to their respective states.
Golden apples being hand graded and sorted.
The process differs a bit for the golden apples (green apples) which I found to be juicier and crunchier than the red ones. The skin of the golden apples is given more to getting damaged easily and even while plucking a lot of care is taken to see that it is placed very carefully into bags after plucking. A temporary shelter is created near the cluster of the golden apple trees and the apples once plucked are got in crates to this shelter. A group of people then grade and sort it by hand and then pack it. The golden apples are not graded on machines as that may create blemishes on its skin. I was surprised to learn that golden apples are sold much cheaper than the red ones at the orchards, between Rs 500-Rs 700.
From the wholesale markets it is then bought by distributors and then the retailers, from whom you and me buy apples at Rs 250 a kilo and 10 days after the apples have been plucked from trees!!
So next time you bite into that apple, if you've read this post, you’ll hopefully eat it with more awareness of the whole business of apple harvesting!

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Thursday 24 September 2015

A Taste of Pahari/Himachali Cuisine.

Local food, according to me is not just food, but a glimpse into the culture, tradition and lifestyle of a community. During this trip to Himachal Pradesh where I volunteered for apple harvesting, I was fortunate to get a taste of traditional Pahari/Himachali food. I stayed in two different homes and gorged on finger licking food in both and overate each time!! In some cases after gobbling up on half the food on my plate, it occurred to me that I should have taken a picture. So here are some of the dishes I ate. Please make sure you eat something before reading this post or keep something ready to eat immediately after, for the pictures may set your gastric juices flowing!!

Aloo Paratha served with curd, butter and pickle.
I had visited Kharapathar and Ruhil Dhar, at an altitude of 8000 and 6500 feet above sea level respectively. The cold climate there makes ghee and butter a very important food item. I saw that ghee is liberally poured over most dishes like dal, parathas, puris, rice, and kheer and butter is served with parathas and puris. All homes in the villages own cows so milk and milk products are fresh and home made.
Delicious Puris and chole
Other high protein food items that are commonly made is Chole, Rajma, chana dal and paneer dishes.
This kettle is used for serving ghee, not tea!!
Parathas are the most common breakfast item. The varieties that I got to taste were ajwain paratha, aloo and paneer paratha, all served with curd, and dollops of butter. Eating those parathas served hot and fresh with the butter melting on them, and with the view of the mountains was an enhanced sensory experience.
Sweet siddu served with ghee and butter
One of the dishes I relished the most was siddu. It’s a steamed dish in which the outer covering is of wheat dough which is allowed to rise after adding yeast and the stuffing is of roasted banjeera/banjeeri powder. 
Siddus ready for being steamed
I couldn’t find the English word for banjira, but here are some pictures of the plant and the seeds. 

You may like my post on 'Life in a Himachali farm'.
Banjeera/Banjeeri plant

Banjeera seeds
It tasted a bit like flaxseeds. I had both the savory siddu as well as the sweet siddu where banjira powder is mixed with jaggery to make the stuffing. I liked the sweet version better.
Pakore and chai on a rainy day with the view of the mountains
One of the days I was there, a festival dedicated to the Nature Gods was celebrated, as a token of thanksgiving for an abundant crop produce. A 'chira', a structure of wood and earth on which dry grass and flowers are offered, is worshipped in the belief that it will destroy pests that come after the Monsoon. This is followed by ‘Jagra’ where people in a cluster of villages gather to sing, dance and feast. A few special dishes are made during this period.
Sooji ka halwa
After worshipping the chira, halwa puri is distributed amongst family members. The halwa was made of made of sooji/semolina with a generous amount of ghee and it was absolutely delectable. As soon as I was served this, I gobbled up one portion and didn’t have the space in my stomach for another puri, so check the picture of the halwa.
One of the days lunch was rajma, chawal, dhindhe, karela fry and buttermilk.
Another dish was Pathroru or dhindhe, in which colocasia leaves are coated with gram flour, rolled, steamed and then fried. The same dish is also made in Maharashtra and Gujarat and is called aloowadi or patra. Sometimes instead of gram flour , the paste of soaked and ground black gram, called 'maash', is used and both were equally tasty.
Nashasta in the bowl, maash ke vade, dhindhe and tea
Nashashta, was another halwa made of wheat flour, sugar and ghee. It’s a long process where the wheat is soaked for several days in water till it becomes very soft. It is then crushed and strained to remove impurities. The semi-liquid is then cooked with sugar and ghee to make this lovely dish. I ate it with puris to balance the sweetness.

Babru, maash ke vade served with ghee, butter and pickle
An interesting variation of the stuffed puri was Babru, in which is stuffing is of maash. This was served with butter, ghee and pickle and one puri was enough to fill my stomach. ‘Maash’ is used in a variety of other dishes too. One such was the mash ke vade, in which the paste is made into small flat circles and deep fried. This too is served with butter and ghee.

Ghainda served with ghee
On the last day before I left from Kharapathar, I was served another kind of halwa called ‘ghainda’. It's usually made for auspicious occasions like a birth in the family, where every visitor who comes to see the new born baby is served this. It’s made of roasted wheat flour and ghee. It was also served in an interesting manner. A dollop of the halwa is served of a plate and then a depression is made in the centre and ghee is poured into the well and you eat it by scooping out the outer portion, dipping it in ghee and then proceed towards the centre. I don’t remember the last time I must have consumed so much butter and ghee over a period of 10 days.
Maas ki kadhi, rice, and aloo gobi sunbi
While kadhi chawal and rajma chawal is quite common, I found that the Pahari rajma is much bigger in size than what one gets in the cities. Also one variation of the kadhi was made with maash rather than besan. I don’t know if it was the location or the way it was prepared but wherever I ate rajma chawal in Himachal, it was out of the world. And last but not the least, my special gratitude to the lovely, adorable granny in Ruhil-dhar, who prepared these delectable dishes with so much love and made sure I ate well..:-)
Even the kheer was served with ghee!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Kaas Plateau- Maharashtra's own 'Valley of Flowers'.

When I read about the damage that hordes of tourists have done to the Kaas Plateau, I thank my stars that I went there 5 years ago, in September 2010, when there weren’t many visitors there, (at least when I visited) and when there were no entry fees or fencing around the flowers. For the uninitiated, Kaas plateau is in Satara district of Maharashtra, India and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every year towards the end of the Monsoon season, in September and October, for around 6 weeks, the plateau transforms itself into a carpet of flowers of various hues. No wonder it is called Maharashtra’s own ‘Valley of Flowers’.
Image taken from Naturelyrics
I had travelled with a team which is into environment conservation, called Sprouts Environment Trust.  So that is what made the trip entirely pleasurable. To know why the plateau blooms only during this period, to know that some flowers bloom once in 8 years, to understand the flora and fauna of the region and marvel at Nature’s infinite intelligence and beauty. If people go as regular tourists without knowing the background of the place, like most do, they may end plucking the flowers there, sitting and lying on the flowers, in the process, trampling them, to get the best photo-op, and so on and so forth.

This has happened, and that’s why the government has restricted the number of visitors to 2000 per day and imposed an entry fees of Rs 10 and put up a fencing all along the main areas.

Image taken from Nature Lyrics

The flora of the kaas plateau is very unique to the area. And here’s why. The plateau is largely formed of porous basalt rock which is covered by a thin cover of soil (about an inch) formed due to erosion. Most of the water gets drained off due to the porosity of the rock. That is why there is no vegetation all-round the year. At certain places where water gets accumulated because of the uneven surface is where the flowering plants grow. At the end of the 6 weeks, when the flowers and the plants wither, they decompose and form manure for the next year’s plants and flowers to grow and bloom. That is why extensive plucking of flowers by tourists has damaged the eco-system. Each flower is important even after it withers, for it holds the life for the next season’s bloom.

Surreal sunset
It is said that there are around 850 species of flowering plants in Kaas, including many medicinal varieties, with many in the endangered category. The rich biodiversity of the place includes butterflies and moths, migratory birds, reptiles and mammals. The laterite rock layer allows a rich variety of fungi, lichen, ferns and mosses to thrive.

Image taken from TOI 
We were lucky to see the Karvy flowers (Carvia callosa) in bloom that year, as it blooms only once in 8 years. We saw different patches of the plateau bathed in different hues. Some areas were an endless purple, some glowed with yellow, and some other patches were pink and white. Around late afternoons and evenings, the entire landscape acquires a surreal look with the mellow golden sunlight lighting up the existing riot of colors.

The windmill project at Chalkewadi

Some tips if you are visiting Kaas:
1.    It is advisable to go with a group/team of environmentalists/ botanists/ conservationists/ or people who can help identify the flora and fauna of the region. Trust me, it enhances and enriches your trip manifold.
2.    Do not pluck flowers and be careful not to trample flowers in the process of getting a good photo-op.
3.    Please do not litter and carry a bag in which you can throw trash and bring it back with you.
4.    Use a camera with a good macro function to capture the splendid flowers in close-up.
5.    Carry a light jacket or shawl as it gets a bit chill in the evenings.
6.    Wear good walking shoes as you will have a walk around a lot.
7.    If you are travelling solo, carry a book on the flowers of Kaas which will help you identify the plants and flowers.
8.    The flowering season starts from September to mid-October so plan your trip accordingly.
9.    Go on a weekday if possible to avoid the crowds.
10.  Last but not the least, feast your eyes and soul on Nature’s beauty.

If you plan to go:
-          If you plan on staying overnight you will have to stay in Satara as there is no accommodation up on the Kaas plateau
-          Other nearby places to visit are the Thosegar waterfalls and the Chalkewadi windmill project around 24 kms from Satara.

Friday 4 September 2015

A Day in Mysore

In 2014, during my trip to the Rainforest Retreat near Madikeri, where I went as a volunteer, I decided to stop over for a day in Mysore to explore the city. I was there only for 24 hours, but tried my best to squeeze in as much of the culinary and cultural delights the city has to offer. So in case you visit Mysore, here's a rough guide you can use to get your way around. 

Sagu dosa at Vinayaka Mylari
8.30 am- Head out for some lip-smacking traditional breakfast at Vinayaka Mylari at Nazarbad road. I had sagu dosa served with coconut chutney served on banana leaf and washed it down with delicious filter coffee. Things had started on a great note. Before arriving in the city in the morning, I had got in touch with Royal MysoreWalks, a team that conducts guided heritage, food and cultural walks and tours in Mysore. 

The softest idlis from Vinayaka Mylari. 
Thaali from Dasaprakash.

9.30 am : Ananth, a very cheerful and interesting guide with the Royal Mysore Walks, enlightened me on how various important world events are connected to Mysore, and little known aspects of Mysore's history that includes the Tamil Nadu CM, Jayalalitha's grandmother being the first woman graduate in Mysore, and how upon losing a war, the British took Tipu Sultan's young sons , aged 9 and 7 as war hostages!! He had also carried vintage photos from Mysore's past. It was interesting, when at the 125 yr old market, he held up a 100 yr old photo so that we could compare the past and present.  The sight of the Free Mason's (Secret Societies) building piqued my curiosity! Also the RMW requires a minimum of 2 people for the tour in which case the fees would be Rs 600. I travelled solo and there was no one else who had booked, so I paid double.

Haalbai- a sweet made with rice flour, coconut and cardamom. 

The market, then and now. 
11.30 am – You could visit the Mysore zoo, which is one of the oldest zoos in India. Entry charges are Rs 50. Although I hate the idea of animals being kept in the zoo, I was a bit relieved to see that all the animals and birds looked healthy and had ample space to move around unlike some other zoos I’ve been to where animals look depressed and almost famished. I saw giraffes, rhinos, white tigers and a host of other animal and bird species.

Endless cups of frothing filter coffee. 

Chow chow bhath- a serving of Upma and sheera- a staple Karnataka breakfast. 

1 pm - Mysore has some lovely eateries which offer traditional Mysore food. Check my post on what to eat in Mysore. I headed to Dasaprakash for their thali. I wanted to sample the food for which the late Wodeyar Maharaja is said to have visited this restaurant sometimes. The thali comprised chapatis, rice, rasam, brinjal curry with gravy, masala rice and another non-descript vegetable. It wasn’t that remarkable but I loved the kheer/payasam was which was made with rice, coconut milk and jaggery.

The Mysore Palace from outside. Photography is not allowed inside. 
Dahi vada.

Vanilla ice cream from Brahmin's Soda factory. 
2.30 pm - Head to the famed Mysore palace and be charmed by the royalty and also escape the afternoon sun outside. It’s a sprawling palace so leisurely stroll inside the three storied structure designed by the English Architect, Henry Irwin. You’ll get to see sculpted pillars, a golden throne embedded with jewels, paintings and shrines. Photography is prohibited inside the palace premises. The palace is illuminated on Sundays, Public Holidays as well as during the Dasara Celebrations with 97,000 electric bulbs.

4 pm- if you are an art aficionado, a visit to the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery will be worth your time. On display are original paintings of the legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma. Did you know he was the first artist to give a popular face to Indian Gods and Goddesses through his paintings? Prior to that people worshipped statues, sculptures and miniature paintings. And he also designed the sari as we know it today and the way women almost throughout the country drape the sari today is fashioned on how he draped the Goddesses and women in his paintings. The museum also displays possessions and souvenirs of the Mysore royal family such as rare musical instruments, Japanese art, and other memorabilia.

The Sarasaparilla soda
5.30 pm - For a quick refreshment head to the Brahmin Soda Factory for ice creams or fruit salads. It’s a small place which gets cramped with people seated facing each other like in a train coach. I had the ice cream and also Sarasaparilla juice which is an extract of the roots of a plant by the same name and is believed to have health benefits. It was very refreshing and more like flavored water.

The flower lane at the market.

6.00 pm - You could explore the 125 yrs old Mysore market with different lanes dedicated to different items like fruit, vegetables, flowers, etc. Nothing gives you a taste of the pulse of a place than its old markets abuzz with people, flies, aromas, colors and textures. In the corner facing the main road you’ll see Guru Sweet Mart. Ever wondered the origins of the famed sweet Mysore pak?. This is your answer. This shop was started by the descendants of Kakasura Madappa, the royal chef, who made the Mysore pak for the then king in the early 1900's. The fifth generation of the inventor of the Mysore pak still runs this shop. For a place which has such a legend attached to it the shop is ridiculously small, just 5 x 5 feet. The Mysore pak itself didn't taste great and was a let down. So please do taste before you buy 2 kilos, which I happily did assuming it would be great.

The fifth generation of the inventor of the Mysore pak. Great great grandson of Kakasura Madappa who made the Mysore pak for the then king.

The original Mysore pak shop.

And entire lane dedicated to bananas in the market. 

A special Mysore banana called nanjangud rasabale. It was buttery and melt in the mouth and delicious. I bought half a dozen for my husband too.

7 pm- Either head out for the light and sound show at the Mysore Palace which lasts for 40 minutes and narrates the history of Mysore Kingdom, the rule of Wodeyars, etc through the combination of sound and light. Or else head to the Cauvery Handicrafts Emporium, which is run by the government and has many branches across the city to take home gifts and souvenirs. I bought some lovely bookmarks made of and carved on sandalwood and some Mysore Sandal soaps and sandal scented incense sticks. You are in the sandalwood capital after all!!
Set Dosa at Hotel Siddhartha.
8.30- Head out for sumptuous dinner at Hotel Siddhartha. I ordered a set dosa which was spongy and came with coconut chutney, coriander chutney and sambar. Never the one to say ‘no’ to filter coffee, I ended my meal and my trip to Mysore with a frothing cup of steaming coffee. It was time to head to my hotel and leave for home the next day. 

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