Field Caterers presents a holiday of a different kind in Kotagiri and Coonoor, with ploughing, planting and some putting too
There’s something about being on holiday that makes everything look romantic. I’ve done several trips to Ooty during my four-year stint in Coimbatore, but never has passing through Mettupalayam made me want to stop and soak in the small town. From the famous toy train’s engine bellowing steam in preparation for its five-hour-long climb up hill, to vegetable vendors setting up shop along the roads — there’s a lot happening here at 5 am. But I can’t stay. I’m just under an hour away from my destination — Kotagiri — where my host, Field Caterers (an offshoot of the Oriental Cuisines group, whose founder, M Mahadevan, is the brain behind this idea), has organised a preview of the agricultural tourism they intend to promote in these hills.
Patches of green
With just a few rooms and plenty of outdoor space to breathe (or sit out with a book in hand), our base for this trip is the cozy cottage, Hotel Premier Inn. Chef Elang Kumaran is briefing me about our schedule over a delicious South Indian breakfast, but my mind is on one critical question — ‘will it rain?’ It is after all the onset of the monsoon and I don’t think being caught unawares in an open field, will encourage me to break into a rain dance.
So, with everything left to chance, we set out to find the many green patches that belong to Green Earth, a popular producer of English vegetables like broccoli, lettuce and pak choi. It is, I’m told, one of the major distributors to a popular, global fast food chain. Located within 10 minutes from each other are the nursery and farms where we find said vegetables in varying stages of growth. It can be a little too much to take in at first — the duration of these crops, the fertilisers that need to be administered and knowing how and when to water them. But by noon, I’m able to identify several varieties of lettuce, at first glance!
Next up is the nursery, where I learn to mix coir pith and casing soil before filling them in trays and dropping the seeds in. Did you know that iceberg lettuce seeds cost `8,000 for a mere 100 gms? Anyway, in four weeks the saplings will emerge, ready to relocate to the field where now, chef Kumaran is steaming fish under a tree, while I learn about drip irrigation and the real meaning of manual labour. Before long, lunch begins with a salad made from ingredients we personally gathered just hours ago. As we scrape up the final morsels of our farm-fresh meal, the sky cracks and we scamper to the shelter of our car, bidding the folks at Green Earth goodbye.
While you will probably get to return to base for an afternoon siesta, my tight schedule takes me to the High Field tea plantation and factory in Coonoor. Under a still overcast sky, I learn to pluck tea leaves. And no, it’s not just tugging at leaves and throwing them in a basket. The quality of tea that comes out of a factory depends entirely on the quality of the leaves plucked. Inside the factory, there’s several sights and sounds, but just one smell — tea. We pass withering troughs, rollers and sieves where the leaves are processed, dried and packed. After more than an hour of trying to understand the intricacies of the CTC and Orthodox methods of manufacturing tea, a game of golf at the nine-hole, High Field golf course (also the backdrop for a tea tasting session), can be very welcoming.
This pitch-and-putt course is also an academy with trainers qualified from the National Golf Academy of India. Open to walk-in golfers and first timers, they give you a crash course that will take up no more than an hour. But the sun’s going down and I have to make my last stop of the day — the restaurant Odae, located in a private gated community near Kotagiri. Picture a wooden log house, separated from the foot of a hill by a man-made lake filled with carp — Odae is a truly romantic sight when the sun goes down. Inside, a feast of local Badaga cuisine awaits us. And as I load up on kalli (raggi balls) and Badaga chicken curry, I can only wish I had time for one more day in this altitude.
— Ryan Peppin
The writer was in Kotagiri on invitation by Field Caterers