What comes first to your mind when you think about India? I’m pretty sure that it isn’t a coffee!
I thought the same until I visited a coffee plantation during my luxury train trip across the south of India. I must confess, it was the last place I expected to see in India. And it was pretty amazing! I bet that even those of you who are not coffee addicts like me, would find this place very interesting.
We decided to visit the coffee plantation by a complete accident. One of the stops in the schedule of The Golden Chariot train became unavailable. That’s why the hosts decided to replace it with a few hours on the coffee plantation. It turned out to be a great idea, so refreshing after sightseeing the temples :) We reached the plantation by noon, accompanied by an energetic drummers performance at the entrance.
Next, we were traditionally welcomed with flowers and had our foreheads marked with a red dot “bindi”. By the way, “bindi” is one of the most intriguing body decorations. Indians pay a great attention to this ornamental mark on the forehead between the brow bones, because since the ancient times it’s the paramount point of the body.
The area between the eyebrows is said to be the sixth chakra, “ajna”, the seat of concealed wisdom. According to religious culture of Tantras, during the meditation, a concealed energy (Kundalini) awakens at the end of the spine and moves toward the head. The “ajna” is the outlet of this energy.
The red mark also controls different levels of concentration and it’s the central point of self-creation – the symbol of well-being and prosperity.
We were also offered some coffee. It was served in the Indian style, with milk and a lot of sugar. It was actually more like a coffee drink, but we enjoyed it anyway :)
Within the area of the plantation there was a beautiful, modern hotel & spa – The Serai. I must say, I wouldn’t mind if we could stop there for a longer. The views on juicy greenery were out of this world :)
Without wasting even a minute, we started off to the plantation field, which surprisingly wasn’t in the open space but in the middle of the forest. On our way there, we admired a picturesque bamboo forest, which was also pretty strange for the image of India in my head. Everything there was surrounded by the aura of peace, relax and silence.
Sightseeing the plantation was actually a pleasant walk among the trees and shrubs, while listening to the guide telling us about coffee production.
Coffee smuggled in the beard
Growing coffee has a long history. The earliest written sources mentioning coffee date back to 875 and refer to Ethiopia. Coffee was brought from there to Arabia in the 15th century.
When it comes to India, the history of coffee started around the beginning of XVII century. The Muslim pilgrim Baba Budan, during his travel back from Mecca, smuggled seven coffee beans (hidden in his beard) from Yemen to Mysore in India. He planted them on Chandragiri Hill, that’s how the hill got its present name – Baba Budan Giri (“giri” means a hill).
It was the beginning of the coffee industry in India, especially in Mysore region, which now is a part of Karnataka state. What’s more, the number 7 is meaningful in this story, because in many beliefs it’s considered a magic number. Karnataka has become an extraordinary cultural and culinary heritage of India.
More than 200 years of waiting for its time
The story I’ve just told you seems to be a pretty good start for a coffee expansion. However, the truth is, a long time has passed until it really exploded.
It was 1840 when the first plantation was set up around Baba Budan Giri and nearby hills in Karnataka state. The reason was British activity, who founded the first mountain plantations in the south of the country. They expanded them also to the territory of Wayanad (now it’s a part of Kerala), Shevaroys and Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.
Currently, India is the seventh biggest coffee producer in the world, just after Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Columbia, Ethiopia and Honduras. Specialized suppliers usually prefer mild, sophisticated aromas of Indian Arabica coffees, although India are famous for producing one of the best coffees in the world – Robusta.
Almost 80% of Indian coffee is exported, 70% of which goes to Germany, Russia, Spain, Belgium, Slovenia, USA, Japan, Greece, The Netherlands and France. As much as 29% of coffee is exported to Italy! You know, just in case you have ever wondered where does this delicious cappuccino you were sipping on Rome’s piazza come from ;)
The taste of monsoon in a cup
The thing I like the most is the way Indian coffee gains its flavor – it’s truly poetic. Some coffee beans undergo so-called “monsooning” process. During the era of sea navigation, the voyage from India to Europe took many months. Initially green coffee beans were stored under the deck, below the sea level, in moist conditions. During all those months of sailing, such conditions changed the flavor and color of coffee beans. By the time they reached Europe, coffee beans were actually yellow.
Coffee lovers got used to such coffee so much, that when faster steamboats appeared on the seas, making the transport shorter, they still demanded coffee of the aroma they already knew, resulting from the long sea passage. As we know, the client is always right, so coffee producers in pursue of meeting all the clients’ expectations began the process of “monsooning” the coffee.
“Monsooning” refers to the process when the coffee beans are exposed to a very humid air during the monsoon period, from May to June. There are special roofed buildings where the beans are stored and regularly raked. Next, they are put into sacks and exposed to monsoon. Within seven weeks the beans gain the characteristic color and flavor.
The microcosm of aromas
The flavor and aroma of Indian coffee is also a consequence of growing it. Indian coffee plantations include about 50 various plant species shadowing the coffee trees!
Pepper, vanilla, cardamom, oranges or bananas growing just by the coffee trees protect them from seasonal temperature variations and prevent the soil erosion on the slopes. All around the world, coffee plantations are directly exposed to sun, however in India almost all the plantations are in the shadow, sheltered by the trees. That’s why visiting the Indian coffee plantation is like a walk in the forest.
Fruits and spices growing by the coffee trees influence the coffee aroma, giving it a delicate sweetness, fruitiness and distinct spicy notes. Tasting Indian coffee is like tasting the whole microcosm of oriental aromas.
How to bring taste of India to your home?
I miss the flavor of Indian coffee every day. That’s why I will share with you a recipe for bringing India back to your home. Nothing helps more than a cup of oriental coffee.
Take a small pot and put inside 2 spoons of sugar (date or palm sugar).
In a mortar, carefully crush 2 cloves, 2 green cardamom seeds, 1 black cardamom seed.
Add crushed spices to sugar, add a little bit of powdered cinnamon and ginger, 3 slices of fresh root ginger and freshly grated nutmeg.
Put the pot on the low heat and wait until the sugar caramelizes, remember to stir the ingredients all the time.
Next, pour a ½ glass of milk into the pot and boil it.
Then add coffee brewed earlier and boil it. Finally pour in a 1/2 glass of water and boil again.
It’s ready! Close your eyes and feel the magic of India…
*Photo credits: Ministry of Tourism, Govt of India / Jinson Abraham