Thursday, 12 April 2018

A Clove Harvest.

Who would have ever thought that a bud can be more fragrant than the flower itself!  And not just that – who would have ever thought that drying the bud could make it even more fragrant! 

Well, ages back when our civilisation was still toddling along,  some one apparently did, and thanks to that, today we have cloves (the aromatic dried flower buds of the Syzygium aromaticum tree) in our spice box, , in our tooth pastes,  in Gl├╝hwein,  in Christmassy Pomanders, in the Lavang Latika.......  and ....did someone just say ‘Chocolate?’  Oh no no no... I don’t think so.

So how exactly does the clove tree look?  How is it harvested?  Come along, lets walk out into the farm and take a look.

The Clove tree is a really tall slender tree  and if you look at its trunk near the base, you would almost mistake it for the slender Arecanut tree.  

But look up and you will see the lateral branches spreading out in all directions.  It is an evergreen tree with pale green leaves.  

The buds are borne in clusters at the very tip of the branches.  And like all delicate buds, one needs to hand pick them at harvest time. 

The pole-ladder balances delicately against the adjacent arecanut tree. You can climb up the ladder, holding your arm around the tree. Every few steps up, the ladder has a cord which you can tie securely around the tree , so if the tree sways in the gentle breeze, the ladder sways with it rather than toppling over.

 Now that you are at the very top of the ladder, hold one arm securely around the tree and then start plucking the buds. You can toss them into the basket that is strapped to your back.  Make sure you pluck only the bunches which have  a pinkish tint to it.  If many of the  flowers have already bloomed, then you know you have delayed the harvest. 

Uh-oh  these have already bloomed!

Pluck all that are within easy reach, do not lean too far.  Now that you are done, you can climb down carefully, undoing the cords that you tied on your way up.  On steady ground now?  Whats that whooshing sound I just heard?  – oh did I forgot to mention ‘Breathe while you are up there”...... did you really hold your breath all this while?

Ha ha –I think I need to look for a new volunteer for my next years clove harvest.

Now the easy part – separate the individual buds from the bunch, spread them on steel plates and let the benevolent sun do its job. 

We can go indoors for a glass of chilled starfruit  juice.

After a day of drying - see how the colour changes!

Finally Perfect Cloves!

Saturday, 3 March 2018


“Kokum...kokum...kokum,  she said, but not a word about us!” 

“Yes, not a word about us”......  “yes yes not a word about us”....a chorus of voices muttering the same thing over and over again came from  the store room. 

I opened the door cautiously to see a whole procession of Vatamba slices looking as though they were about to march out in protest. I could see them all looking accusingly at me.

‘Now What?!!!!”

“You have an entire blog post devoted to Kokum!! And even one for Bilimbi!  What about us? We too impart  a tangy flavour that too without ruining the colour(?) like kokum! And what about our medicinal properties?”   ..... the chorus was growing louder.

“Okay okay shush!  I promise I shall wax eloquent over Vatamba” I said trying to quieten  them.

Hubby called out from the other room “Whom are you talking to?”

“No one particular”  I replied........(Well you must agree that my answer was very truthful – I wasn’t talking to any one of them in particular. Thankfully hubby did not persist and quip back  “No one in particular?...Any one in general?”)

I quickly closed the store room door, it was silent again. I heaved a sigh of relief. Was I dreaming? Sure hope I was. But then I had made a promise, so here is my post on Vatamba. (Seriously I had no clue that they read my blog!)

Vatamba  -  The botanical name of this relatively unheard of  fruit is Artocarpus Lakoocha. Also known as Monkey Jack or locally called Kokum Phool by many.  It imparts a tangy flavour and is used in place of tamarind. It has anti-inflammatory properties and if one has been asked to avoid tamarind in the diet, then this is the perfect replacement.

I had no idea how this fruit looked or tasted until I saw it on the tree in our farm.  Green, uneven oddly shaped fruits hang at the tip of the branches of the huge trees.  

We have 4 fruit bearing trees on our farm, and quite a few young ones probably sprouted on their own from fallen seeds. Given the fact that seed viability is very low, we sure are glad to have these young trees on our farm, hoping that some day they too will grow into tall sturdy giants like their parents.

Now about the fruit.  I have faint memories of my granny mentioning wistfully that if only one could procure ‘Vatamba Sol’ and use it instead of tamarind,  her arthritic pain would not have bothered her as much.  But back in Bombay then, our regular grocer had not even heard the name.

The first year that we saw the fruit on the trees, our farm hand explained to us that it needs to be sliced  and then dried in the sun.  It is a very hard fruit and cutting it takes as much effort as cutting a raw jackfruit (kadgi).

Our farm hand had helped us cut most of it using a traditional cutter known as an ‘Adlee’, while we used what we are most used to -  a cutting board and a knife.  The cutting boards were thoroughly discoloured by the time we were through.  And this was the harvest from the first tree. 

Three more huge harvests followed.  The summer was at its peak and the slices dried beautifully.  

The next step was to remove the seeds from the slices. A systematic beating with a wooden mallet frees the  seeds and then they can be shaken out and separated. The last and most important task is to soak the dried slices in salt water for a couple of hours and then sun dry it again.  This makes them last the year through.

And how do we use these crisp beautiful slices?  Use them in place of tamarind in your dishes.  Put them in dal while cooking to make a delicious Sambar, add them to your Pulaos, Masale bhaat and Vaangi Bhaat.  The Goans love it in their Fish Curry, the Sindhis love it in their Sindhi Kadhi and we Amchis love it in our Bendi and Ghashhi.  And you can innovate and try it out in any other dishes.

Any one out there who loves this in some different unusual recipe, I would love to hear from you! 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

An Ode To a Grain of Rice

Oh what joy to behold,

this single grain of Rice!

Red, in all its beauty,

against this backdrop of green,

It tells a tale of struggle,

a will to survive.

Ravaging boars

in the dark of the night,

Fiesty peacocks

shimmering their feathers

in the brightness of the day,

Swarming bugs,

 at sundown,

It held its own against these,


 by just a home-made concoction

called Panchagavya,

It grew,

 unaided by chemicals,

drank on a nectar called Jeevamruth,

It survived the lashing rains

 and harsh winds,

A miracle of creation!

O what joy to behold

this single grain of our

Home grown Rice! 

You can read about our experience with Rice cultivation in the following articles  :

Part 1    A Fine Tilth

Part 2.  Rice Nursery

Part 3.  Rice Transplant.

Part 4.  Keeping Boars at Bay 

Part 5   Machan Musings

Part 6. Rice Harvest

Part 7. Rice - Post Harvest Processing

Saturday, 29 July 2017

A different perspective.

Naka-Bandi by the 'Brake - Inspectors'

Rush hour! Pushing their way to enter the gate first!
In Mumbai for a week, as I stepped out of our building, I could hear a loud commotion nearby.  It was the usual fight for parking space.  Oh what a way people bicker and squabble for a mere 2 square metres of space in the city.  Later, travelling by my favourite BEST bus, the squabbles were of a different hue. The passenger did not have the change and the war of words escalated above the din of traffic. 

Well coming back to our village life, what is it that gets these peoples ‘goat’? 

The other day there was a loud squabble in the empty plot of land close to our farm. The area only has some jungle trees on it and one woman was busy raking the fallen dried leaves and tying it into one massive bundle. Apparently the land did not belong to her, so when the owner happened to pass by it, there was a bitter argument because she ‘stole’ the dried leaves.  Well, I guess in some countries, people would be happy to have their dried leaves raked and cleared up for free.

Why?  Can't I help myself to a sackful of dry leaves!

Parking in the path of the traffic, halting your vehicle in the middle of the junction to carry on a conversation with a passing biker, stopping a bus in the middle of a narrow road while all the passengers embark at a leisurely pace -  which has us fuming when we are caught behind, none of these things ruffle the villagers. But let a neighbour's cow stray into their field, let a few hens escape their pens and scratch around on someone else’s land and you can see trouble brewing.

I think the grass is really greener on the other side of the fence!

The other thing I noticed here was how possessive people are about the large used-gunny-bags which are meant for 50 or 100 kgs of stuff. When we first came here we did not have any such bags, and we kept needing them – to bag the bananas to save them from the monkeys, to haul some farm produce on and so forth. So we had to source used ones from the hardware store. After we started getting the cow-feed in bulk, our collection of bags steadily increased.  And we noticed that people always return the bag if they borrow it. The arecanut dealer comes to collect the produce with a large bundle of empty bags, and should he need to borrow some from us, he turns up the very next day to return them. Whenever we take any of the farm produce to the local dealer, after weighing the stuff, he hands over the money along with the exact number of empty sacks. Now coming to think of it, I surely must have annoyed a lot of people here by not returning their bags until I realised how important it is to do so.

Years back, before mobile phones made their entry, I was working as a Computer programmer(in that era of Cobol programming, Batch processing of Data), and Vivek was working as a Sales Engineer.  I would sometimes call Vivek at his office and often get to hear ‘He is not in the office, he is out in the field’. Today, more often than not, he leaves his mobile  behind when he out working in the farm.  And to the calls that he gets sometimes, my answer is almost the same ‘He is out in the field’.....really! And yes I seriously do ‘Cloud Computing’ now – I can gaze for hours at the gathering and receding clouds and deduce an algorithm to figure out whether it will rain or not! 

So it is a learning experience all the way – a new way of life, a different perspective in every way!

Batch Processing - of Summer Surplus

Python (?) Programming! 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Aaarrghhh! When will I ever learn!!!

Each time some new affliction hits one of our bovine family members, I realise how little I know about the health problems that can ail our dairy animals!

I have seen no less than sixteen calves being born here and not once have I had any problems with the calves.  But this time it was different,  maybe because the calf was not born in the stable, but  outside in the rough terrain adjoining our farm.  The first two days went off well enough and I did not notice anything amiss.  On the third day we noticed blood on the sacking on which the calf was sleeping. On closer examination I noticed the umbilical area looked swollen.  A couple of frantic phone calls to the doctor, the verdict was an infection of the umbilical cord. “Did you not cleanse it with Tincture of Iodine immediately after it was born?” thundered the vet. “Wha......t ? “ I wailed, I had never done it before, for any of the other calves.  Anyway now the solution was to cleanse the wound deep , dress it well and hope for a quick recovery.

I carried the calf into the house,  as,  however hard you may try, there always are a couple of flies lurking around in the cow shed and I did not want any maggots in the wound.

But alas I was too late. As I cleaned the wound, I noticed them. My first reaction was to burst into tears .... how could I have not seen this earlier. could I not have been more careful....
 But then I pulled myself together and braced myself to clean the wound.  If someone had asked me to clean a maggot infested wound 5 years back I would not have been able to do it. But when it is your own helpless 3 day old calf, you have got to push all your squeamishness and repulsion away and get down to the task.  The little one  - I had named her Kasturi, barely struggled as I held her down with my  knee and cleaned the wound and poured the tincture of iodine into it.    As the day progressed she seemed to weaken and grew more listless. Every three hours I was taking her back to her mother to be nuzzled and to let her drink some milk. She would immediately perk up a bit after that. But as evening progressed, even that did not seem to help her. At around 9 pm she even refused to suckle, her head hanging limply down. And when her mother nuzzled her, she just toppled over and fell.  Another frantic call to the vet.  “Ah well looks like she is too weak to suckle.  You could try feeding her with a bottle” he explained.   Now that put me into a slight quandary. With Vivek out of town on work, there was no one I could send across to buy a baby bottle. Besides I knew that the chemist shops would have closed by the time I could get there, and wasn’t even sure whether there was any all night chemist in the next town.  “Don’t try pouring milk down her throat”, the vet had warned.
Oh heavens! What was I to do!

Too weak to move, 

I decided to take a chance. With no fluids inside her the little calf would not pull through the night. I had kept the colstrum from the cow aside. I took about half an ounce in a tiny steel pail with a rim that would enable easy pouring out of the milk. I sat on the floor with my legs outstretched and took the calf’s head on my lap. With one finger inside the calf’s mouth I let a trickle of milk flow down my finger – just a few drops at a time. And then stroked the calf’s neck to ensure that she swallowed it right. Kept repeating it.  Sometimes the trickle of milk would flow out from the other side of the mouth. But I got quite a few spoonfuls through. I then let her rest for some time. After two hours I repeated the whole thing. Late into the night I kept vigil over the calf. All animals respond to human touch. So I kept stroking it, massaging the limp neck  and belly, rubbing her ears and whispering into her ears “You are going to be alright by morning”.  At around 3.00  am I gave her one last feed and decided to rest for sometime myself. You never know what new challenges the day will bring and a sleep-deprived state is not the best way to face them. So leaving a dim light on in the room, I finally slept, with my alarm set to 5.30 am.
I woke up with a start even before the alarm went off. I first warmed a little bit of the milk to room temperature and went to check on Kasturi. She did not resist when I fed her the trickle of milk. She definitely seemed better.  I could catch another half an hour of shut eye.
When I woke up again at 6.30, dawn  had broken and at the sound of my footsteps, Kasturi opened her eyes, and with a little effort lifted her head. she looked around with a puzzled look as if  saying “Why am I here in this strange place”.  I threw my arms around her and hugged her close. She made an effort and stood up! This was a miracle indeed. She had pulled through the night! I carried her to the cowshed where her mother greeted her with a loud bellow. I supported her as she weakly nuzzled around the udder and could barely hold back my tears of joy as she caught on and started suckling on her own! 
From then on it was a quick recovery.  I had to subject her to a painful cleaning and dressing of the wound three times a day, but not once did she cry out aloud. Her beautiful large eyes showed a total submission to what must have been a very torturous procedure. 

On the way to recovery!

Today Kasturi runs and plays around and shows no sign of what she has gone through. But we share a special bond and when I rub her head and hold it in my palms she has a special look for me in her soulful eyes. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Krazy about Kokum!!!

There seems to be strange new craze over kokum.......Would you believe it....Kokum is supposed to have anti-obesity, anti-inflammatory,anti-bacterial and anti-carcinogenic, anti-oxidant, cholesterol lowering properties and what not.  And Kokum – butter, the funny looking waxy stuff which granny used to advise us to rub over cracked heels has been elevated to a new star for its anti-wrinkle properties and is the new beauty aid in some Hollywood kits!

Ha! And we Indians have been using this stuff for ages. But frankly, when we were in Mumbai (and I was unaware of all the medicinal benefits of kokum) I hardly ever used the stuff. An occasional Sol-kadhi, or a dark dry lassoon chatni... or if I run out of Tamarind, these were the only occasions that I used Kokum. 

In our first year at the farm, in fact our first week, I had asked our farm-hand to ‘introduce’ us to all the trees, or rather introduce the trees to us because apart from identifying a few common fruit trees, we were clueless about the biodiversity on our farm. He had mentioned the name ‘Birund’ (the Konkani word for Kokum) as he pointed out to a clump of nondescript looking trees in an overgrown corner of the farm. There were no fruits on the tree.

Look I spotted the Kokum tree in this clump of Bamboo

About half a year later, the trees started bearing fruit. Green plum shaped fruits started appearing along the slender branches and soon started turning a brilliant red.

Our first harvest was a couple of huge buckets full. And I had no idea what to do with it!

So I called up a couple of friends who had farms in the Konkan region, got a detailed description of the traditional method of processing and got down to work.

Cut open the fruit, scoop out the pulp and seeds into one tub, rind into another, throw the stalks away.

Squeeze the seeds and pulp through a colander to extract all the juice.

Spread the outer rinds of the fruit onto clean plates to sun dry.

Keep the juice aside.  When the sun goes down, put all the semi-dried rind back into this juice and let it soak overnight.

In the morning drain the juice out from this mixture and spread the rinds out to dry again.

Repeat this process for 4 days. The juice keeps getting absorbed into the rind, which gets darker and drier and finally on the fourth day, there is no juice left to be drained out.

Another day in the sun and the rind gets the characteristic colour and texture of the kokum that most of us are familiar with.  This is the traditional way of processing and the only way to ensure that all the goodness of the juice is retained in the rind. 

The seeds are sun dried separately until their shell, becomes crisp and breaks open easily. The seed kernel needs to be removed and collected. These kernels contain the precious kokum butter. The seeds are ground to a fine paste with water and then this milky liquid is boiled. The fat floats on the surface  and when cooled can be skimmed off  - and this, is the wonderful kokum butter. Delicately coloured and melts on touching, it can replace your moisturisers and lotions if you wish!

Our front yard is turned into a kokum processing unit and our drying tables are laden with the richly coloured fruits in varying shades of red.

And a new favourite accompaniment to our meal is a warm Kokum clear soup with just a dash of  our home grown pepper!

Monday, 2 January 2017

Have you named it yet?

I love to assign names!

And so does everyone else in the family.  So the scrawny looking crow who came each morning to eat out of Divya’s or Dipika’s hand  when they were young was called Albert (named after none other than the one with the famous frizzy hairstyle who revolutionized science with  a simple formula e=mC2).   

The cute walking stick that we got on one of our trips to some hilly region was named Moses, and so on.

Let me think.................!

When we moved to the farm, we were quite appalled by the fact that no one bothers to name their bovine families. So we got down to naming all of them, beginning with Bheem and Balaram and now our extended family includes the perky Kalavati, Saraswati and Purna. Madhubala’s calf Madhuwanti and the latest addition to our buffalo family Madhukauns.

Madhubala and Madhuwanti enjoying their weekly wallow
Madhukauns - enjoying the sunshine.

A few days back during the end of the rains, a huge frog had decided that the best place to rest during the night was in my rather shabby looking farm floaters. Each morning when I want to wear them to walk into the farm I have to shake that reluctant guy out of my footwear. And he would get back into it unfailingly when I left them out again.

Then in the course of our post-rain cleaning and sprucing up, I decided to paint the ledges on the porch as they had turned dull. I had barely completed the first coat of paint, when all of a sudden, the frog decided to abandon the shabby floaters for a new perch and plonked down in the corner of the freshly painted ledge.
Leaving the floaters for a better perch!  Phoenix is unperturbed by froggy!

He looked so handsome with his grey-green skin perfectly offset by the terracotta paint of the ledge that  I could not help but exclaim to Vivek who just walked in from the farm “ Look at this guy, I should call him “Raajnandak”   (Nandak being the Sanskrit term for frog).

Hence forth, you will be called Raajnandak!
Now I guess this pleased him mightily because the next morning, there was not only our Raajnandak on the ledge, but he had a pretty companion in tow.  They both presided over the application of the second coat of paint without moving from their perch, watching me with a glazed look.

Any guesses as to what I named her?...........Rani Roopmati ofcourse!


Monday, 10 October 2016

Machan Musings

It is that time of the year again! The time when the lush green rice fields start flowering.....

........ and the wild boars start their nocturnal visits.  

So it is time for our ‘Watch-duty’ to guard the fields from the boars.  This time we are better prepared. Unlike last year when we pitched a tent under the arecanut  trees, this year we have constructed a proper ‘Machan’ in the centre of the fields. Our paddy area is divided into 4 sections with a narrow ridge and the machan is built right in the centre. So you can walk on the ridge and climb onto the machan.

The machan is constructed in a very simple manner. Four pillars holding up  a cement sheet, a set of slightly flexible bamboos on the top making a curved ‘tunnel-roof’.  A tarpaulin sheet tied securely over it to prevent the rain – but the sides are open and am really not sure how it will hold up if the rain gets really heavy. So far we have got good weather and clear skies.  

It is a precarious climb on the ladder and don’t you dare to drop your torch or anything else, for it will fall directly into 6 inches of slush. 

We carried a heap of blankets one on the cement sheet and the rest to layer on top as the weather gets really chill at night.  The tent used to be much warmer, but here we are more open to the elements.  And is it noisy here!  Whether it is the standing water in the fields that attract different kind of crickets or cicadas, or whether the dense canopy of trees subdued the noise last time, this time I can no longer call this noise ‘musical sounds of the night’  This is more like being surrounded by 4 television sets each one playing ‘News Hour’ in 4 different languages.  I’m convinced that in the field on my right there is a whole lot of political bickering happening.  There is a conspicuously different, loud, solo chatter, and before it stops, it gets drowned by a wave of dissenting voices that pass over the entire field. Before the wave ends, Mr. Loud-solo yells again and then the wave begins!  What a cicadian cacophony!

And as usual Johnny accompanies us. The very first night itself, we had just walked through the farm and climbed onto the machan, when we had a boar-sighting. Johnny started what we now call his ‘Be warned, there is a boar approaching’ bark. We shone the torch in the direction of Johnny’s gaze and there it was! The minute the circle of light fell on him, he started running. It was a thrill to see the boar run in full view from the safety of the machan. He seemed to have vaulted over the compound wall on our right and when we shone the torch on him, he ran straight ahead, so it was quite a run before he reached the impenetrable darkness of the forest which was on our left. Our cosy perch gave us a vantage view as he raced through the arecanut trees in a distinctly straight line.  Local wisdom says that a boar cannot change his direction easily, so, if ever chased by a boar, dodge him - left and right, side step him neatly and duck behind a tree......that is if you are nimble of foot and quick of thought.  Fortunately we did not have to do anything like that, we were lucky to have climbed onto the machan before the boar vaulted over the wall.

A day-time vantage view of the areca palms through which the boar ran!

But although we are at a height now, I had felt much more secure in our old all-weather tent. Here the wind whipped up a frenzy, the tarpaulin sheets flapped with all their might, the chill really got to me and the cicadas decided to sing with the wind.

Should we opt for the tent again? Oh no, I wouldn’t trade the thrill of sleeping on the machan. The constant fresh breeze, the sight of the swaying arecanut tree tops with the twinkling stars overhead on one side and the moon lit view of all the neighbouring fields guarded by the shadows of the distant hills on the other, continues to lure us right until harvest time!

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A new Bridge.

The highway construction work on the Four-Laning of  NH 17 (now known as NH 66)  is in full swing.  Our recent installation of a Biomechanics Lab at the Department of Sports Sciences at the Manipal University, has us driving along this stretch many times. The inconveniences caused by the diversions, the pot-holed service roads all pale into insignificance when the green fields and arecanut plantations open up to show a brilliant scene of a river!  

And there are so many rivers that we cross in this 80 kms stretch.

Beginning with the Venkatapur river just before Bhatkal, the Chowtani river, the Sumna river near Byndoor, Yadamavu river just after Khambadkone, and so on.....

And then there is the breathtaking view at Trasi where the serene Souparnika river runs parallel to the  pounding Arabian sea. There is just a road separating the ocean from the river and the sight is unforgettable. It is one of our favourite tea halts.  Small tea stalls dot the stretch and you could halt at any one of them and have a cuppa, gazing at the brilliant view.

So, just the other day we were travelling yet again on this road. As we crossed the Panchagangavalli  river, Vivek noticed another bridge running almost parallel to the one we were on, but further downstream. “Hey look at that new bridge!” he exclaimed. “I wonder where it leads to”. 

Look.......a new bridge...can you really spot it?

 There was only one way to find out. Just after our bridge ended, we spotted a right turn which seemed to lead towards that bridge.  So on an impulse, we turned, and after about a km reached the brigde. It was indeed spanking new and there was no traffic on it. Just one Maruti van overtook us in a tearing hurry, stopped just as the bridge ended, dropped off a little school boy and raced past us back to the main road. 

We went at a leisurely pace and found that where the bridge ended - the road too ended. There was nothing beyond except a few houses and a mud path leading further into the greenery.  The little boy was handing over his school bag to his mother who had been waiting there for him. They both watched us as we reached the end of the road. “Is this a new bridge?” I asked her.  She nodded an affirmation. “What did you do before this was built?” I asked her.  “Used the boat of course” she smiled as she walked down the little mud path. 

A ferry for people crossing the Souparnika river.

We enjoyed the glorious scene for a while and then turned back.

Later,  I checked on Google maps and found that we had visited an island called ‘Kannada Kudru’ . Apparently the bridge was built and inaugurated just a few months ago. There are about 60 families living on this little island located in the confluence of the Panchagangavalli river and the Kollur river. Depending solely on the ferry to take them to the mainland, these locals must have had it very tough until the bridge was built.

Surely a lot of unseen good work is being done in these remote locations whose residents have silently borne their lot all these years!

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