by Kaveri Ponnapa
It isn’t very often that I get to meet people who follow The Coorg Table™. Part of the reason is the busy lives we all seem to lead these days, and part of it is the very quiet sort of routine I have worked out for myself in an attempt to enjoy, just a little bit better, the ordinary pleasures that a day offers. So when a regular reader of my blog fixed a date to visit, I was excited. Time was short, and I wanted to spend all of it with my visitor, rather than in the kitchen, so I decided to ask my good friends, Prasanth Shadakshari and Venkatesh Raghu of the delightful Amandé Patisserie, to make some of their signature creations that would go perfectly with a mid-morning cup of tea. A few calls to Venkatesh, I had several suggestions for my table. Of course, I had to resist ordering every single exquisite confection that he named, because that’s what you are always tempted to do at Amandé!
All the excitement of planning also made me wonder, whatever happened to the little social activity that our aunts and grandmothers referred to simply as “visiting”. The bustle of the early morning household would settle down to a peaceful hum, and every day, at the same time, there was a perceptible pause before the next burst of activity. Taking advantage of this break, women could ‘drop-in’, unannounced, on neighbours and friends, to spend time catching up on whatever needed some catching up with, whiling away a pleasant hour or two nibbling, inevitably, on some delicious home made snacks.
Mercara was a small, clean, quiet town not so long ago, crisscrossed by long back lanes that cut right across its length and breadth, sometimes plunging down steep flights of stairs. Down these narrow lanes, overhung in parts with flowering shrubs and creepers, you always saw elegant ladies, dressed in their Coorg saris, with impeccable posture, parasols over their heads, walking across to visit someone. Sunshine or rain, the visits never stopped. During the monsoon months, when every home was marooned by heavy downpours, the ladies would keep a sharp eye out for a break in the weather, and make a quick dash for the nearest friend’s home for a refreshing round of tea and company. My Grandmother’s Mercara house had a cupboard full of lace edged linen for just such occasions, and I have lost count of the number of times I have stood and stared longingly at a gigantic glass-fronted cupboard full of the prettiest, gold rimmed plates and tea cups –reserved for visitors. Visits began with a flurry of excited greetings and exchanges, followed by activity in the kitchen. A tray set out with fragile china and trellised lace, with arrangements of pale pink, garnet or chocolate brown toffees and fudges, slices of fresh cake or chakkalis, all home made, would appear, and the ladies would arrange themselves on sofas, to chat. I guess it’s what we call hanging out with our girlfriends now. Prompted by memories and a generous helping of nostalgia, I decided to re-create something like that mid-morning break for Shanthala Medappa when she came to visit.
Petite and pretty, Shanthala arrived with gifts of fig compote, peanut butter and honey tucked into her bag. For a while, we were distracted by the photography in progress, but once it was out of the way, we settled down, helping ourselves to the delicate, rose flavoured French macarons –an Amandé special – neat, old fashioned madeleines and sandwiches. Shanthala drank tea, while I sipped a glassful of the latest batch of kaipuli squash that I had made, and followed the story of this diminutive, energetic young woman, who balances her life as a yoga instructor in Chennai with her food business.
Shanthala makes exotically flavoured ice creams that are quite the rage in Chennai: refreshing lime; Coorg coffee; apricot brandy; fig & honey; coffee liqueur and more, to order. She also makes fig compote and peanut butter, and supplies fresh fruit squashes, jams, jellies and honey sourced from Coorg, all this marketed under the evocative label, Old Mercara, named after the longtime capital of Coorg. Old Mercara grew straight out of her kitchen, where she was always turning out something delicious for her husband’s friends and her own. The fresh fruit ice cream she made met with such an enthusiastic reception she decided to start selling it. Before long, she found herself moving into jams and squashes that she, like so many of us from Coorg, had consumed in quantities while growing up, made by our grandmothers. (Mid-story, I sneak a taste of her fig compote spooned, unconventionally, onto a chocolate muffin, and quickly plan a second helping for later, this time with vanilla ice cream). With a little help from her yoga students, word spread, and Old Mercara was soon a brand. Shanthala makes her products using raw materials sourced from small, family-owned orchards and gardens that are pesticide free. Even the mangoes, she explains, are pulped in Coorg, and then sent to Chennai.
The name Old Mercara catches an echo from the colonial period of Coorg history, when much looked-forward to dinners, dances and riding picnics were held at the capital during the summer months, a relief from the quiet and monotony of plantation life. A hint of that period lingers in a legacy of baking and jam-making, and a fondness for pretty china and hand-embroidered linen amongst the Coorg ladies in planting circles and beyond, most often on display at these mid-morning breaks, or at the High-Teas that they loved to host. Every home had – and still has –its jars of preserves, jams, squashes and jellies, presented proudly at the table everyday, perfect gifts for guests who came by.
There’s a satisfyingly ring to this whole story that I love: Shanthala is part of a long line of capable, enterprising Coorg women who have turned their jam and squash making skills to profit. You just have to look at the quantities of home made produce that line the shelves of small stores around Coorg to see how women make use of all the seasonal fruit available in their gardens, or on their estates. Endearingly forthright and lively, with her heart planted firmly in Coorg, Shanthala tries to go back as often as she can, she says. She champions the place so enthusiastically that her friends tease her –“you can take the girl out of Coorg, but you can’t take Coorg out of her!”
We talk endlessly about everything under the sun; she tells me how her Grandmother still makes banana jam and sends a bottle of it to everyone in her family. Shanthala loves vintage china and hand-embroidered table linen and, in Old Mercara, she tries to capture the spirit of a slower paced, gentler way of life, when you had time in the kitchen, time to stop with a friend or neighbour just because you felt like it. The morning was special, spent in good company, and at the end of it, I had a bottle of my homemade marmalade that I could share with this lovely, hardworking young woman –you could almost say it was a bit of Old Mercara. I’m so glad you came to visit, Shanthala. I’m sure this is going to be the beginning of a happy friendship.
Shanthala Medappa can be contacted at: 98403-39189. In Bangalore, Old Mercara products are available with Geeta Nanjappa : 99026-99012
Old Mercara sells Coffee powder, honey, fruit squashes, jams and jellies from Coorg, as well as fig compote and peanut butter. Made-to order ice-creams include: Apricot Brandy; Coorg Coffee; Humble Vanilla: Chocolate Oreo Cookie; Rum & Raisin; Fig & Honey; Coffee Liqueur; Sweet & Salty Peanut Butter; Refreshing Lime; Tender Coconut; Strawberry; Kiwi; Mango; Cinnamon; Fig & Rum Hangover.
Amandé Patisserie, is the first of its kind in Bangalore and is inspired by the Macaron. The Boutique & Cafe at UB City can be contacted at 080 2676 1080.
Image Credits: Nithin Sagi
All Food Styling: Kaveri Ponnapa
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