We are at the stunning Pepper Trail retreat, a 200 acre coffee, tea and spice plantation in northern Kerala. From the moment you drive through the retreat’s gates one is enveloped in a cacophonous hush. Days begin with the sounds of morning dew crashing into leaves, and end with songs of a thousand birds. Time stands still, even as the plantation breathes new life into each day.
Anand Jayan is a third generation plantation owner and welcomes each visitor as if we were guests to his home. From personalising every single meal and guided tours of his gardens, to offers of coracle rides in their private reservoir – he spoilt us rotten. No request was too outrageous and we were especially looking forward to a cooking class arranged with the plantation’s cook. Mani has been with the family for over two decades and is now the keeper of their several culinary secrets.
I was chopping smoked kodampuli for Mani’s fish curry when WhatsApp pinged his message of rejection. Decades of being turned down doesn’t seem to be practice enough and my eyes pricked with an all too familiar emotion… or perhaps it was the red chilli tadka being prepared for our jackfruit thoran. I was grateful to be standing in a kitchen full of distractions – Mani’s Malayalam cooking class translated into English by Anand’s mother, the vague recollection that kodampuli is often mistaken for kokum, and the desperate need not to cry in front of my younger sister.
The irony of being rejected whilst at one of the most romantic hotels I’ve been to was not lost on me. And so, as I walked up to our treehouse, balancing myself on a ramp that meandered through the tops of enormous jackfruit trees, I swore not to succumb to the seduction of self-pity.
We spent languid days not turning a single page of the several books we thought we would need, only sitting up for the delicious meals that arrived at regular intervals. We feasted on heavenly breakfasts of idiappams and stew, puttu, kadala kari and fried bananas; lunches and dinners of kodampuli fish curry, olan, mezhukkupuratti, and appams and curry; and tea time always included banana fritters and surprisingly awful filter coffee. And needless to say, everything featured coconut. (See end of the post for descriptions of these meals.)
We only managed to drag ourselves away from the plantation’s serenity and steaming plates of food for a few hours. And only to buy some smoked kodampuli and mountains of banana chips. Anand drove us into Sultan Bathery, the erstwhile dumping ground for Tipu Sultan’s artillery. It’s a small town by any standards – we were told that stores began selling ice cream only a few years ago – but large-hearted enough to string new year decorations between temples and mosques. And tolerant enough for the morning azaan to give way to temple bells even as traffic quietened around the churches.
It was only on the drive back to Calicut airport did I allow myself the luxury of self-reflection. About the kind of pain I was willing to accept in my life. None, you say? Then surely the only alternative is an even more painful ‘what if’. Like not turning the page of a book because I may not like how it ends? As always the Dalai Lama comes to my rescue – seek passionately, let go lightly he says. And let’s keep turning those pages.
We ate very well…
Idiappam: also called string hoppers in Sri Lanka is a breakfast favourite and a snack. Noodles made from rice flour, and served with sweetened coconut milk or meat/chicken stew. The earliest mention of this food was in the 5th century Perumpanuru as a snack sold on the seashore.
Puttu and kadala kari: A traditional breakfast item for the original warrior class of Kerala, the Nairs. Bamboo-steamed rice and coconut served with a curry of black chickpeas.
Olan: A Nair dish of white pumpkin and dried beans cooked in coconut milk.
Mezhukkupuratti: a delicious vegetable stir fry, always cooked in coconut oil. Ours was a mix of plantains and green beans.
Appam: rice pancake traditionally eaten with meat stew by Syrians and the mixed vegetable dish, aviyal, by the Nairs and Nampoothiris.
(Source for all historical food facts: KT Achaya)