Life at a coffee plantation can be arduous, laid back, dangerous and at the same time fulfilling. I haven’t lived at a coffee plantation but we got an opportunity to glimpse at this slice of life by visiting and staying at plantations in Coorg, Chikmanglur and in Bali (Indonesia). Most coffee plantations are situated remotely with coffee shrubs interspersed by tall silver oak trees. It is not unusual for the plantation to be visited by elephants, tigers and wild boars. The coffee planter would ideally have his bungalow in the middle of the plantation with the next neighbor about 30 kms away.
But if you look carefully, a plantation is not just the coffee planter and his wife and kids its a micro community of sorts with staff at the bungalow, permanent workers at the plantation, drivers, people at the plant, migrant workers, coffee pickers, people working at processing. If it is a large enough plantation then there would also be schools, creches, co operative shops and a whole gamut of people and services that running a plantation involves.
The stories that the people whose life revolves around coffee tell is very interesting. Living at a plantation is a different experience entirely as you get to immerse yourself in their world for a short while and see the world from their eyes. You would hear stories of being scared when confronted by a lone tusker, stories of catching a majestic tiger, coffee flowers blooming early or about coffee planters awaiting spring showers.
Stories by migrant workers from Bengal who would leave after the harvesting season is over to some other part of the country where work would be available. Childhood memories of helping one’s mother at coffee picking as wages are determined by weight and then skipping off to play once snacks had been brought for the workers. About the rare bird sightings and the excitement of that conjures. Greetings from a post master from the nearby town who connects the people tucked away at the plantation to the rest of the world.
School going children who are accompanied by their parents going to work for coffee picking or any of the other tasks that forms the life line of coffee. Younger children running amok among the rows of coffee shrubs lined with tall trees with their parents on the look out for a wild boar or a herd of elephants crossing their paths. People always on the look out for each other as life is tough and a friendly greeting or a timely warning can make a big difference in an otherwise simple life.
The life at a plantation rises with the sun and sets with it and follows a lifestyle hidden to the city dweller . The conversations revolve around coffee amidst the fragrance of coffee blooms while sipping a cup of the heady brew. Visiting a plantation is great for the body and soul with the fresh mountain air, wholesome food and friendly faces and smiles that one can earn just by being present in the moment.
The taste of coffee is very personal and unique to each individual, it depends entirely on which family you were born to and what your tastes are like. In India coffee is synonymous with South India with most North Indians being inducted to coffee drinking only after spending a few years in cities like Bangalore or Chennai. It is said that the best way to disrupt the daily life of a South Indian family is to hide the coffee filter. South India prefers the chicory blend coffee which is part of the legacy that the French brought to this land below the Vindhyas.
I was born in a part of South India where the reach of coffee was not as strong and is populated mostly by tea drinkers who could say. ‘chetta oru chaya’ with flourish. But the anomaly here was my mother whose tastes were slightly more sophisticated than the rest. She is a coffee addict in a land of tea drinkers. The ritual of filter and chicory coffee is hence very familiar to me though we kids were given only milk which I despised for the entirety of my childhood. Occasionally my mother would add a tiny bit of coffee to the milk and make the white liquid palatable. Coffee like alcohol was for the adults only.
The problem with being the only coffee drinker in the midst of chaya drinking folks was that my mother’s favourite brew in the right proportions of decoction, milk and sugar was hard to come by especially when visiting relatives. Coffee excites interest as an exotic drink much like the story of the introduction of coffee to the Indian sub-continent. Coffee was sneaked into the country by a sufi saint Baba Budan in the form of seven seeds strapped to his chest on his return journey from Yemen to the hills of Chikmanglur.
Those seven seeds lead to India becoming one of the major exporters of coffee in Asia. Tata coffee is one of the exporters of coffee beans to Starbucks, hence if you order a tall cappuccino at Starbucks in the United States, chances are that you might be drinking coffee made from beans produced at Plantation Trails in Coorg. We had the opportunity wake up to freshly roasted coffee at one the Tata Coffee bungalows and we realized how a few beans from this plantation has the power of setting the tone of someone’s day from half way across the world.
Coffee is prepared in different ways all over the world. Cappuccino is one part coffee and two part milk, an expresso is black coffee and crema and an Affogato is coffee plus vanilla ice cream. Irish coffee I am told involves a dash of alcohol and coffee that you get high up on the Swizz Alps is black coffee with rum which I have had the opportunity to indulge in. Every different continent that we have visited, the one thing that I yearn for most is ‘my familiar cup of coffee’. Though each country has a unique preparation and taste, the cup I want to wake up with can only be found at home.
The most expensive coffee in the world is Kopi Luwak which comes from Indonesia. Luwak is a small cat like animal called a civet which is found in the forests of Indonesia. The civet eats the coffee berries and eventually poops out the coffee beans. The civet eats only the best coffee berries and the beans undergo some processing in the gut of the civet which makes it an expensive and elusive coffee. On our last trip to Bali we made sure that we brought home a small sample of this expensive coffee as a gift for my mother. Though she decided that the Indian chicory blend of coffee with two spoons of sugar and a dash of milk was the best concoction ever and I agree.
This is a performance by one of my favorite actors, performed at one of my new found favorite places in Mumbai- An Ode to The Death of Filter Coffee
The air gets thinner and the rich aroma of coffee mixed with chicory caresses my senses as I wait at the dusty little bus stop. A crowd of men patiently wait the next bus to take them into the neighbouring towns, the traffic is composed of jeeps which ferry to and fro from the mountains blanketed with coffee plantations.
The faint sun glints off the stainless steel utensils hung in the bazaar while a sweeper quietly sweeps the road adding to the dust circling around the road. Sounds of hymns and prayers arise from the temple nearby, a woman in a red saree hunches over making a ritualistic design with rice powder welcoming prosperity into her home.
The coffee grinder goes full throtle grinding up coffee beans and chicory into the perfect elixir of the south indian morning. The ground beans make it to the coffee filter a must for every home in the region, the bigger the filter the bigger the family. The coffee powder thus concocted is pressed, squeezed and mixed with milk and sugar only to be built into a froth with a practised art passed down through centuries. It is then pored into multiple steel pint glasses set inside tumblers, so that you can practice the frothing whooshing action that you witnessed for yourself before sipping the filter coffee which is a foriegn pleasure. The legend that any tour guide in the sleepy town of Chikmanglur will endorse tells a story of Baba Budan who smuggled the first beans of coffee from Arab merchants and planted it amongst the tall teak trees laced with pepper vines.
Since then the coffee was embraced as an integral part in the land of chai drinkers. The mountains which nurse the coffee beans have etheral feeling to it much like the heady sweet coffee. The tall trees punctuated with coffee plants where an occasional peacock flits through transports me to a prehistoric time which I have just dreamed about. The ride up to the coffee plantation in the back of an old jeep acted as the perfect time machine.
The plantation with the quaint guest house reeked of coffee as it got roasted and dried and packed. A gurgling stream which cut through the plantation imparted its earthy taste to the coffee beans and they swayed and danced among the leaves. All I could hear was the monkeys chattering in the trees, the brook babbling and the birds chirping. As I sat sipping my aromatic chicory coffee, they told me the story of coffee.