Thursday, 24 December 2015

Hisssssss............Hibernation Hassles!

The room is dark and cool.  It looks like no one has been in for quite some time. I make my way inside and look around for a decent place to snuggle into.  There seems to be none, the room is bare except for a cloth covered thing kept vertically in the corner. 

  I explore around and find a perfect opening for me to slide into. There is a large round smooth surface, beyond which there is a long bar with cold, thin metal strips across it.

But the metallic strips are smooth and I make my way to the top. Just as I wrap myself around the wooden bar for my snoozy, the whole thing tilts and tips over.

But I am too sleepy to bother and I snuggle into the perfectly comfortable position and a dull, lethargic feeling washes over me and soon I float away into dreamland.

I have no idea how many hours or days I have slept, but suddenly there are voices right in this very room. A harsh light is switched on, and footsteps approach me rapidly.

“Oh, no, the sitar has fallen...  how could it,.... this is not the way I had kept it,  oh no.....” a woman’s voice cries.

 The man replies “Oh I must have kept it down when I was fixing the light in this corner”

“But this is not the way to keep it,  no it has fallen over..” and gentle hands grasp the very bar on which I have wound myself and turn it over.

I jerk out of the way.

“Oops, there is something inside, looks like a frog has got in”.

 Oh woman!  Mistaking me, for my very own meal.

“Oh is it? I’ll  get him out” and the cover is being opened.

Oh what nerve!

 The light shines right thru and looks like I have no place to hide.

“Wait, don’t just open it, check whether it really is a frog”
“Yeah I’m doing just that”
“No, don’t!  Just feel it from outside” and the woman actually pats me!

Oh what cheek.

“Doesn’t feel like a frog”

Now the man walks over and pats around.  I hiss.

“Was that a hiss?”

Oh these humans!  How loud does one have to hiss for them to know that it is actually a hiss!

 And I am being patted again!  Now I hiss real loud.

“Oh yes there is a snake in there”  the man says. 

“Let it be, leave it alone, it must have been resting”...  Some sense finally!

“Wonder which one it is. May be if we wait, it might crawl out”........Oh really?

“It is already too late now, we’ve got to be up early tomorrow, and it is Ok if I don’t loosen the sitar strings for a week. We can check whether it is still inside after we return”.......Oh you bet!  

Thankfully they switch off the lights, and go away leaving me alone in the comfortable darkness. Looks like I have a whole week of peace and quiet, now. So I better get back to catching up on my glorious beauty sssssssleeeeeeep.

p.s.  When we returned after a week, Mr. Hisser was still hibernating inside the cloth cover of the sitar.  We carried the whole thing out into the bushes and gently opened the knot. The snake slid out and vanished into the greenery at an astonishing speed.    

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Jaggery Jaggery

After having heard umpteen stories from old-timers about a long gone era, when they used to walk all the way to our farm to spend an afternoon watching jaggery being made.

Jaggery being made on this farm.....?

The original owner used to grow  a patch of sugar cane exclusively for making jaggery.   This must have been some 40 years ago, the sugar cane juice would be extracted by bull-power  - two bullocks pulling the contraption in a circular path, the juice then being condensed on a wood fire to prepare jaggery.  No chemicals, no bleaching agents, no solidifiers, no preservatives – just pure sugarcane juice.  An astounding process!  I was very curious and wish I could go back in time to see this.  Was this method still followed anywhere?  – but all my queries met with the same answer – “No one does it any more here in this village.  If you are lucky you might find some one in the smaller remote villages who does it...but no idea where...”.

And as luck would have it, our farmer friend Sonnu, turned up the other day with a small gift for us. It was a ball of hand-made jaggery – yes the same kind that used to be made years ago on our farm!  He patiently answered our questions and offered to take us to the village if we wished. So a date was fixed and we met him at his farm which is about  7 kms away. The village was quite remote and had no motorable access to it so we would have to walk.  The route took us through a path quite similar to our Hudil trip although not as long. 

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen.......

A part of the route through an areca plantation

 We soon came upon a clearing under a huge tree where a group of villagers seemed to be having a picnic of sorts.  Laughter and merry chatter and a sweet smell wafted over the air as we made our way to the clearing. 
The Juice extraction press was placed on a wooden slab next to a small pit with a drum in it. Two placid looking bull-buffaloes were going around in circles pulling the shaft of the juicer while one young boy was expertly pushing the cane into the juicer. 

The juice flowed swiftly into the drum.  On the other side was a massive ‘choolah’ on which a giant copper vessel contained a bubbling liquid.

  Two young men wielded giant copper spatulas with which they swirled the frothy liquid, continuously, not giving it a chance to stick to the pan. This batch of jaggery was almost near completion and we were lucky, we could see the last and the trickiest part of the process. When   the precise consistency was reached, the men put a stout bamboo through the two handles of the huge pan and hoisted it over their shoulders like a palanquin, carefully making their way around the choolah, placed the pan with its still bubbling contents on the ground.


The copper spatula cleaned and kept up on this natural shelf

The copper spatulas were kept aside and a wooden device -  a long handle attached to a  flat bar of wood was used to stir the fast thickening contents. The movements of the two men who were stirring the contents were so brisk and swift, the jaggery which would start crystallising around the edges was whisked into the middle in a flash.  I tried my hand at it – don’t we do a very similar thing when making mysore-pak at home?  But the sheer volume and size dwarfed my efforts and I found the jaggery crystallising on the edges faster than I could handle. I quickly handed over the wooden device back, lest the texture of the jaggery get ruined.  Finally the mixture started lumping in the centre and the gleaming copper vessel shone through.

 By now one group had gathered around the copper vessel with containers of cold water. Two huge coconuts with husk intact were used to smoothen out the hardened lumps.

 This hot, fast hardening lump needed to be shaped into even sized balls.  Everyone got busy, dipping their hands into the cold water and taking a lump of the smoothened mixture  expertly shaping  it into balls

 Another group had assembled around a clean sheet at the head of which one man was sitting with a small weighing scale. Each ball was weighed, adjusted and reshaped to make   it the perfect size and then placed neatly on the cloth.

   Soon all the balls were made ready and it was time to re-ignite the choolah and place the giant vessel back on to it. 

By now a sizable quantity of cane had been pressed and the drum was full of freshly extracted juice. Some of it was poured out into glasses and passed around for us to drink, and then the rest was emptied into the copper vessel. Approximately a whopping hundred and forty litres of juice was poured into it.

The fire was blazing away and the mixture soon started bubbling.  It would not need so much attention now, so most of them wended their way down to the sugarcane field to cut down enough cane for yet another batch of jaggery.

Yet another batch of sugarcane waiting to be harvested

It was also time for us to get back to the farm, so we left the little clearing and retraced our way back to return home, carrying with us a load of freshly made pure organic jaggery.

And yes, it is a new addition to our online store as well

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Bhairav falls into a well.

It’s been two days since Bhairav has not returned home with the rest of the gang.  He is still too young to play truant like his older ‘cousin’ Balaram who is now two and half years and already a young bull. So whilst we are not unduly worried when Balaram does not return home for a day or two, we were concerned about Bhairav.

  Manjunath searched for him on both the days with no luck.  On the third day, he arrived looking rather tense – “Bhairav has fallen into a well”  he said.  Oh no! What kind of well – fully or partially dug? Was there no embankment? How deep?  How much water is there?  My questions tumbled out before he could answer even the first.  “It is a dry well and not too deep” he answered.  Oh no!  A fall onto hard ground could mean broken bones.  I was almost in tears, but Manjunath assured us that he wasn’t hurt.

 We rushed to get a good length of strong rope from the boot of our car, Manjunath hauled the ladder onto his shoulders and led the way across the fields which were now dry post the rice harvest.  Some  had the rice stubble in them and some of them had been ploughed for a second crop.  From a distance, the fields look so perfectly level, you feel you can run over them, but the stubble, the upturned clods, the narrow embankments made it impossible to even keep pace with Manjunath and Revathi who had joined in to lend a hand.   They walked briskly – it is a similar path that they walk every day from their home to our farm.
Manjunath and Revathi leading the way.  

We soon came to a clump of bushes and Manjunath set the ladder down. I was looking all around for a well when I realised that the clump of bushes itself was growing out of the well.  A perfectly camouflaged natural ‘trap’! 

Would you believe this clump of shrubs is concealing a well?

  I could not see anything in the dark depths, but when I called out to Bhairav, his plaintive voice echoed out and I could see his eyes gleam as he raised his head to look up at us. 

Manjunath got busy wielding his sickle and cleared out a place so that the ladder could be lowered and he could climb down.   

Our 20 feet folding ladder was luckily long enough to just reach the bottom of the well. That meant Bhairav had fallen to a depth of 20 feet!! It was just the dense growth of shrubs in the well that had saved him.  But I couldn’t be sure he was perfectly okay till I could see him properly.


By now Manjunath had climbed down and Vivek had lowered the rope into the well.  Mahaveer, who was working in his field nearby came to assist us.

 Manjunath tied the rope around Bhairav’s belly like a harness and Bhairav panicked. He had never had a harness around his middle ever and this was too much for a frightened, starving guy to bear!  He went crazily in circles in the closed confines of the well, the ladder started toppling over and we were worried about Manjunath. 

But luckily he paused for a while and Manjunath untangled the rope from around the ladder and swiftly climbed out. The ladder was hauled out before Bhairav decided to run a few more crazy circles. Now the need for brute strength!    Four pairs of hands hauled the ropes up and a kicking, protesting Bhairav was dragged out of the well. 

We had to hold him down to undo the makeshift harness of ropes and barely was the last one removed when he broke free and tried to run. 

  In all the excitement I just realised that he was perfectly fine – no broken bones – just a terribly hungry, thirsty young bull with a mightily bruised ego! He almost ran all the way back home, back to the safety of the cow shed where an extra large bucket of feed and a pile of freshly cut fodder  awaited him.  

Back home finally!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Green & Red...Black & White

Green and Red! 

Black and White!

...... Guess what I am talking about? 

Traffic signals and newspapers....?

Pshychedelic lights and Old photographs......?

Ha ha, none of the above.  This post is about the world’s most traded spice, the king of spices – Black Pepper.  Once known as ‘Black Gold’ , pepper was used as currency  during the Roman Empire.  The elite Romans had acquired a taste for this tongue-tingling spice and ships laden with pepper would sail the seas from the Malabar coast of India, traverse some part of the route by land and finally reach the great Empire of Rome.

Apparently the Roman Philospher ‘Pliny the Elder’ has been documented to have complained that there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces!  WOW That must have been  a lot of money in those days!

The first pepper season after we moved to the  farm was indeed very exciting for us.  We watched with awe as the pepper plants flowered – thin, delicate looking white flowers that ultimately grow into the beautiful green berries.  
Delicate Pepper Inflorescence
Tender green pepper
We feasted on tender green pepper in brine and waited eagerly for ‘Harvest day’.  How do you decide when exactly is the pepper ready for harvest?  Well the green berries actually start ripening on the vine and turn a brilliant attractive red.  And when a few of them on each plant start ripening, you know it is time to harvest them. The berries are clumped around a central stem and the entire clump is called a ‘Spike’.  Each pepper vine bears anything between 10 to probably a 500 spikes depending on the age and health of the plant. Each spike of pepper is hand plucked into a basket. A precise tug in the right direction is what is needed. I ended up breaking parts of the vine initially, got my nails all dirtied trying to snip it off with my thumbnail, wasted a lot of time trying to use a cutter, while Vivek and our farm hand  steadily worked their way up their ladders, their baskets filling up with green and red spikes of pepper. 

So each day in the second fortnight of January, our front yard has heaps of the pepper berries. The next task is separating the berries from the central stem. The traditional method of stamping them with bare feet somehow did not seem a nice way to do it, so we opted to separate it by hand. The berries fall off quite easily and it is also easier to separate out the red berries. 
Those berries that have turned red, are squishy soft, but with a hard centre seed. This hard centre seed is the exotic ‘White pepper’   used in French and other continental cuisine. So we need to separate out the reds, soak them in water, rub them around, wash them several times over and then sun-dry to get the good quality white pepper. So that is how the reds turn to white!
White Pepper

   As for the rest of the green berries, a hot water soak for a few minutes, drain and sun-dry, turns them into the wrinkled ‘black pepper of commerce’.  And that is how green turns to black!

The hot water soaking also  helps to remove any impurities, bits of the stem etc. So then, the  last task is to separate the very small pepper – from the regular sized ones. We do this with a sieve, and the small ones, small they may be, but they sure pack a punch, are stored separately to turn into fragrant pepper powder whenever we need.

And the medicinal benefits of pepper are surely worth a mention.  It aids digestion, has anti-inflammatory properties, contains anti-oxidants and helps clear a runny nose and sore throat.

Here is a simple recipe for a herbal tea (Kashaya) which works wonders on a runny nose and sore throat –

One small onion (preferably white) sliced lengthwise.

3-4 Tulsi leaves.

2-3 Ova leaves.

A small piece of ginger crushed.

A pinch of turmeric.

3-4 Black peppercorns freshly crushed

A small lump of jaggery.

Boil all the above ingredients in a cup of  water until reduced to 3/4th cup. Drink it hot.

And remember the active ingredient – the health benefitting essential oil – piperine is volatile, so store your peppers in airtight bottles and as far as possible, use freshly ground pepper.

So the next time you reach out for pepper to add to your cooking, remember the myriad benefits of this little seed!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Perfect Rake

Tall, lean, good-looking,  and super efficient.......
I am not talking about Rhett Butler in 'Gone with the Wind' here, just a lowly, common Garden rake.
The one with which you can rake piles of leaves with just a flick of the wrist!
I had been searching for one since a long time...

We had been returning from one of our equipment installations in Calicut.  Calicut (now Kozhikode) being my birth-place holds many wonderful memories for me.  My grandfather’s lush green paddy fields, the heavenly aroma of Chakkavarti ( a jackfruit preserve) made so lovingly by my grandmother over a wood-fire and the languid summer holidays that we spent there. So is it any wonder that I try to prolong our visits to this place? 
Hubby accepts my quirks, but once we are on the road, he is loathe to stop. 
 We were driving thru small towns with huge names. Try pronouncing Karimbanappalam, Payyambalam, Thaliparamba,Pulimparamba, Muzhappilangad and Cheruthazham  in one breath. That all the signboards are in Malayalam don’t help either. And typical of NH 17, the towns are all clustered around the highway.  It was slow progress and I was enjoying the sights of the little shops laden with tapioca, coconuts and the Nendra-bananas. 
 “Stop! Stop!” I yelled to hubby......something I would never dare to do unless it was an emergency. He pulled over to the side of the road and turned to me with a warning ‘this better be very important’ look. I jumped out of the car and ran back to one of the shops. When you jump out a car with a MH number plate in one of the small un-pronounceable villages in kerala, you sure do attract attention.  The shop keeper beamed at me as he slightly nudged the tray of assorted imported chocolates in my direction.  But that wasn’t what I wanted. What had caught my eye was a couple of dusty rakes hanging outside the shop.  He rolled his eyes and handed me one of them. So light! I made sweeping movements with it, tossed it from one hand to the other and nodded my head. How much? Rs 150 he replied gruffly. I paid and turned around to see a gaggle of amused onlookers behind me. I ran back to the car, tossed it into the boot and got in. Vivek was catching a shut-eye and asked “What did you get”, probably expecting some nice goodies to munch on.   “A rake” I answered. He rolled his eyes and said “Hmmphffff”  rather gruffly and started the car.

Well, back on the farm, the rake is a beauty.  It really makes it easy to rake the leaves, no more sore arms and tennis-elbows, and the compost pit is filling faster than it did before.   


The Raked

and the UnRaked


Thursday, 30 April 2015

Cobra Kingdom.

Pure, pulsating energy!  What supreme might and power packed into one long body no thicker than your fore-arm.  No arms to wield mighty weapons, no legs to deliver a well aimed kick, no horns to butt, no weight to crush you underfoot!  Just a sliver of a forked tongue and a strike at the speed of lightening!  Just one strike and you could bid adieu to this world!

What is in a Cobra that invokes such awe that you could stand spell-bound and watch it forever ?  Oh the beauty of its rippling scales, its sharp eyes that watch your every move, its total supremacy over the entire world! 
And if you are lucky enough to watch it with its hood spread out .... you can consider yourself Very Lucky indeed. Because it is such a rare sight.

We see scores of snakes around the farm.  Most of them are the non-poisonous rat snakes (Pytas Mucosa / Deevad in Konkani ).  And I guess if it wasn't for them, we would have had rats around the house.
A couple of Russell’s vipers are sighted but mostly at night -  with their beautiful patterned scales – you bet the pochampalli silk design is a copy of the pattern on the Russels viper! 

See this painting depicting a girl wearing a Pochampalli sari and you will know what I mean.
A painting by German Artist Hermann Linde (c 1895)
An ocassioanl Sand boa has made an appearance – in fact once during the time when we had to sleep in the tent near the rice fields to keepboars at bay, we came home in the morning to find Posha our cat doing what we call a snake dance in front of the fridge. He puffs up like a Kathakali dancer, perches on his toes (okay, call them claws) and lowering his head, moves it – left to right, right to left peering ahead.  It is a soundless dance sometimes, and sometimes he makes a growling sound. We shone the torch below the fridge and sure enough could see some shiny, rippling thing below. It was extremely sluggish and slow, and even when we moved the fridge, it did not try to run away.  Vivek  managed to put it into a large gunny bag and released it in the forest.  We managed to keep the boars away, but came home to face a Boa!

 The dogs are unperturbed by most of them.  Johnny, with his inherent farm skills, knows exactly which snake is poisonous and stays away, but takes pleasure in chasing the Rat snakes.  The rest of our canine brigade, city-bred as they are, think they can chase and play with any snake.  Johnny has a special bark for poisonous snakes and just recently we realised that he has an extra special bark for the Cobra! 
 It sounds like a low gruff warning “GRUFFFFFFFFF”  and he does not run out, but stands still watching it.  You can follow his line of sight to speed up else you will not even notice the slithering soundless movement that barely even moves a blade of grass.  And this is how we caught sight of this royal visitor who deigned to  give us a rare sighting! 

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