Those tiny little tea leaves

In the hills outside of Munnar. Yesterday was quite the travel day. We left hot steamy Madurai at 10AM and our nice young driver took us to a resort in the hills, unexpectedly a five-hour drive. We traveled only about 80 miles, but at least half of those miles and most of those hours were spent climbing at mountains, in a harrowing collection of very narrow lanes, multitudinous switchbacks, and a barrage of oncoming traffic, including buses and tuk-tuks.

Evidently, there were massive rock slides here recently, and now miles and miles are being cleared and enlarged for traffic. So we could add bulldozers and forklifts, along with other heavy machinery, to the traffic mix. And then, parts of the road were gravel, or just dirt. I don’t know how our poor driver did it. He will surely have sore muscles tomorrow, especially if he is planning to return to Madurai immediately. It was a brutal ride – the kind where you want to make sure you don’t have your tongue anywhere near your teeth, just in case.

So why come here? We are now in what is considered a resort area. The temperature is blessedly cool, and the views are spectacular. What are we looking at? Tea plantations! Yes, this is the tea-growing area of southern India, and it is surely a change from city life. Everywhere you look once you reach the summit you see beautiful tea bushes and wonderful vistas.

Our hotel here believes itself to be the height of luxury, but it’s the kind of luxury that equates gilded excess with elegance and (brown) vinyl Barcaloungers with comfort. (Apologies to anyone who may be currently sitting in one.) We were given a “special” room with two brown Barcaloungers!!! The better to see the spectacular views.

We managed, despite the usual lighting issues. As with most of our hotels so far, it requires an electrical engineer to figure out which combination of twenty different switches will achieve the desired effect, or extinguish the lights entirely.

The dawn came with a nice cool breeze, enhanced by the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer somewhere in the valley. This does feel very exotic.

We had a very polite young driver today, Murugan, who took us to several must-see locations. We started at the #1 Government-approved Spice Farm, which involved a jeep ride down a steep drive to a forest of spices, grown in small batches for our education. Everything from cardamom, cacao, coffee, pepper, pineapples, vanilla, and an apothecary’s worth of curative plants is grown in this area. What a find for the original Portuguese!

We have now learned that there is a cure for absolutely anything that ails you in Ayurvedic medicine, but that one must be patient to allow it to work. Good marketing.

We next stopped to admire a tea plantation up close. What a beautiful setting for such an important crop. Reminded us of the vineyards of France, with some ancient root stock that has an equivalent value.

When we were young, there was a TV commercial for Tetley Tea which had a cute little ditty about their “tiny little tea leaves,” picked at the height of perfection high in the hills somewhere. I have to admit to a certain degree of disdain for Tetley’s as an adult. If you could buy it in Ohio many decades ago, how special could it be? From a certain point on, it was Twinings for us!

But how strange to be served Tetley tea here. Are they just saving the good stuff for export? No, it turns out that all those plantations we are admiring are own by the Tata conglomerate – who makes Tetley tea. They control some 58,000 acres in and around Munnar. And all those tea leaves are picked by hand before being processed — and sent to Ohio. Hmmm. Have to rethink our tea prejudices.

We then went to the Tea Museum, where we saw some of the history of the development and commercialization of the region – a very British story – and a bit of the tea-making process. It involves a lot of cutting and drying and curing, and eventually one gets that most precious commodity.

Time to come home for a cuppa ourselves.

Later today: I happened upon a lounge in the hotel which must be where either those horrible overstuffed chairs go to die, or to procreate in private. Either way, frightening.

Don’s Food Corner

Yesterday when we finally arrived at the hotel we were drained and hungry. We barely made it to the restaurant before it closed for lunch at 3:30. The restaurant, like so many, promised food “of all cuisines.” I’m always hesitant to test that claim, so I try to focus on the regional specialties.

We are now in the Kerala region of India, which is both south and oriented to the ocean to the west. Even though Munnar is inland by some 130 kilometers, there were a lot of fish choices under the regional specialties section of the menu. I tried to convince our waiter that I wished to order from that section, but the fish I wanted “too many bones, you wouldn’t like it” or “too spicy.”

Finally he agreed to make something not on the menu “with only one small bone” with a butter sauce. OK, I said. Jo gave him no trouble. She ordered fish ‘n chips, which bore no resemblance to any fish ‘n chips we’ve ever seen. I think they able to sneak in a few hundred spices. Her apple, celery and shrimp salad was good, though drenched with a dressing she had to pick through. But her starter of cream of chicken soup was excellent.

Mine on the other hand was one of the blandest plates of food I’ve ever had. Here we are in the middle of a region that boasts of being one of the spice-growing centers of the world and not a flake of spice anywhere to be seen — not on the fish, not on the plain vegetables, not in the rice and certainly not on the French fries. I guess I gave out the wrong message about my diet interests or the restaurant had turned its back on their regional spice heritage.

Things picked up for breakfast. Then, however, because I was selecting things from the Indian section of the buffet, the waiters and, apparently, just stood by our table staring at us and what we were eating and asking us how we liked it. They seemed to watch every mouthful. Then, one of the waiters took me over to the buffet to show me other dishes that I hadn’t tried yet. I had a hard time getting out of there and, of course, I ate far more than I expected or wanted to.

Things calmed down at lunch today. I had a few pages from a guide book on Kerala food specialties and I went down the list with the waiter, who was the same guy from the day before. We settled on meen mulakittathu, a fish curry that used boneless kingfish. It was superb. There was a tangy sourness that I couldn’t distinguish. Lemon juice? I asked the waiter if the curry had lemon juice in it. He seemed rather offended. “Lemons don’t grow here,” he said. “We only use local ingredients. Only the local spices.” I guess it got that special zing from all the fresh curry leaves floating around.

Jo ordered chicken biriyani, a dish she really enjoys despite the regional differences in flavor and spiciness. Today’s version was particularly good.

So, finally, they came through with the spices that the region promised.

By the way, we noticed that the pepper being used on the table was white pepper. According to our guide at the spice demonstration site, Indians, at least in this region, prefer a mixture of white and green pepper ground very fine. They don’t use the black pepper that we are accustomed to and certainly not those coarse grinds that come out of those big pepper grinders at almost every restaurant on Columbus Avenue. Interestingly, that white/green fine ground pepper is what we saw everywhere in Portugal. Of course, the Portuguese were the first people to come to India to carry large quantities of pepper back to Europe. So, it looks like they adopted and kept the pepper preference — at least as it is in this region — to this day.

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