The mean bean coffee at Chikmagalur
Being the largest coffee producer in the country, Chikmagalur is known as the coffee capital of India. It’s where the best coffee of the country comes from. It’s grown, curated, processed and packaged here before it’s exported to the rest of the world. Almost every family here is involved in some kind of coffee business, be it plantation, processing or retailing. Many coffee estates, spread across acres of land, growing some of the finest coffee, providing employment to thousands of locals are actually generations old!
Me, I’m a coffee enthusiast and was enthralled about this journey to South India during the monsoon of 2015 in the hope of finding amazingly aromatic, fully flavoured filter coffee at roadside stalls. My dream of finding this aromatic filter coffee came to a screeching halt as I discovered that filter coffee is available only in a few places in Karnataka. Yes, contrary to the popular perception filter coffee is not available freely across the south! People are more inclined towards the instantaneity of instant coffee which surprised me. I have travelled to various parts of India to find the finest locally grown coffee beans and at last, destiny brought me to Chikmagalur where this dark brew couldn’t get any better!
The first whiff of its aroma made us stop abruptly on our way from Shimoga to Chikmagalur at an estate owned coffee shop where I had the first cup of my dream coffee. Aah, and it was delicious! I sipped coffee back to back until I could feel butterflies in my stomach! I couldn’t help it, it was the best coffee I’ve ever had!
We left around mid-afternoon and could see the clouds forming above us. The drive from there on started to transform drastically. Suddenly we were amongst dense coffee estates lined one after the other for miles and miles. They all looked picturesque and similar with the same pattern of the plantation. Hundreds of tall, red-stemmed Silver Oak trees, less tall Arecanut trees on which pepper creepers were climbing & beneath them – lush dark green coloured coffee shrubs. There were some bits of vanilla plantations among these estates as well I could tell that by the fragrance in the air. The clouds were getting more denser and it started to drizzle, a golden shower of dried leaves from the Oak trees poured as the breeze became swifter. It was magical and it went on for long, it almost felt like we were stuck in a limbo, driving around a beautiful scenery and dreamy sky for about 20 kilometres. I don’t know if that road had a name but it’s gotta be the most beautiful road I have ever seen or been on and I have seen quite a few roads!
We struggled to find a good homestay, they were either too expensive or too far. We almost gave up, but as they say, night’s darkest before dawn. We found a perfect place set in eight acres of coffee plantations – Nature Craft, just a couple of kilometres outside Chikmagalur. We met our host Ansar, the owner of the estate, living there with his family. It was dark so we couldn’t really see how the place was, but the cottage was great and we waited eagerly to see how a coffee estate looked like in daylight.
Nature Craft, Chikmagalur
As the sun came up, we were thankful to have found this place as it was truly a “craft of nature”. A dense estate where I can see and hear countless colourful birds chirping their lungs out with the break of the dawn. Strange looking flowers that I have never seen before, an uneven, forests like estate rich with aromatic herbs, flowers, silver oaks and coffee. There were ducks and swans roaming around freely and then I heard a barking. I went to the house, a few yards away, where the family lives. Their tall black Great Dane dog – Soxy with a shiny black fur coat climbed up to my shoulders, panting, drooling, licking my face and I had to put her back on the floor, patting her as she looked at me with affection wanting some more loving.
Soxy & I
I greeted Ansar and his wife Nishad, both of a very strong and lean built. They offered me a cup of coffee and I shamelessly asked for two. I’m gonna drench myself in coffee I thought to myself.
I started asking them about their estate and Ansar promised me a tour of the property.
As we were sipping coffee, talking, Ansar told me a very interesting story about the origin of coffee. Along the gentle mountain slopes of Bababudan Giri hills of Chickmagalur is where coffee was first grown in India. The mountain range is named after a Sufi saint Baba Bundan who on his return from Mecca, carried a hand full of coffee beans from a coastal town called Mocha in Yemen and brought it to Chikmagalur in 1670 AD. He found residence in one of the caves in the Bababundan Giri hills and planted those seeds there. Not just that, the cave is also believed to be inhabited by Dattatreya – the last incarnation of Vishnu. The site is a holy shrine which has a dargah and a matha in the same place and is held in high regard by Hindus and Muslims receiving large numbers of pilgrims every year. I have never imagined that a place like this could even exist in thoughts. Beautiful, rare, one of its kind shrine which is a medium of peace between two of the biggest communities in India who are always on a verge of collapse. It’s proof that coexistence is not just a theory.
We decided to have a day out in the countryside to see the mountains and waterfalls of Chikmagalur.
A beautiful drive on a sunny day through the Western Ghats to Mullayanagiri Peak, the highest mountain in South India which is known to have spectacular views of the sunset, was getting obscured by thick fog as we climbed up. At 6000 feets above sea level, we were lost among in the middle of clouds, with hardly any visibility, disoriented, disheartened because we knew there will be no sight of sunset for us today, we roamed around aimlessly consoling ourselves by thinking how wonderful it is to be in the middle of the clouds. Well, it actually was beautiful but a little sunshine would’ve been nicer.
There goes the sunset for my dear Sumi
Sitting there waiting for the fog to clear, the wind unveiled a series of green mountains one after the other in all directions leaving us amused because we didn’t know what lies under these clouds. The cold and moist air left us shivering and we started to descend to Dabdabe falls. To get to these falls one has to hire a 4×4 jeep as it’s a dirt road till the falls and normal cars can easily get stuck in the slush.
A short hike through a mildly leech infested forest you reach to the base of the waterfall. The falls were ecstatic. Fine streams of milky white water gushing to the pool below. We were crossing over to the other side of the stream when I saw a big dark brown snake crawling speedily on one of the rocks before it disappeared. I have never seen a snake that big in its natural habitat. I was both scared and enthralled.
Chikmagalur is known for its flavoursome Biryanis, yes that’s right! We stopped at Maharaja restaurant, one of the best places to have authentic biryanis and fish preparations in Chikmagalur. Town canteen was another of my favourite spots to eat classic dosas and filter coffee. That’s the only two things they serve there and the place is full almost all the time.
When we got back to the estate, I told about my brief encounter with a snake in the wild. Ansar and his brother started narrating interesting snake stories from their estates. It’s good to have snakes on the estates because they keep the rats away, they said. They have encountered various snakes both poisonous and non-poisonous including Cobras and Vipers on their estate and even in their homes. Nishad is no less than a snake wrangler. She grew up on a farm with her brothers who were hunters. She picked up those traits very well I must say, because according to the entire family, Nishad has a knack for catching snakes no matter how big or poisonous they are. She will catch them with her bare hand and behead it with a machete in a split second while all the family members will be standing on top of the furniture, scared to the bones. The irony is, that she is frightened by little flying insects and runs out of the house panicking every time she sees one. But when it comes to snakes, she leads the game! Ansar’s brother jokingly said, “you know what they say that when you listen to a lot of snake stories, you dream about snakes?” I laughed at it because it didn’t make any sense but I did dream of a snake that night. Not just that, I even woke up to find a baby snake in my room. Universe has a weird sense of humour, I wondered. We bottled up the tiny creature and took it to Nishad so that she can tell us more about it. She looked at the snake like a curious child while she examined it. It was a harmless watersnake and she released it into the garden. I couldn’t admire her more. She is one hell of a woman and she makes amazing coffee! She even taught me her style and I ended up making coffee for everyone…
Ansar’s mother referred us a government coffee shop from where I bought the same coffee to take back home with me. We said our goodbyes with a promise to come back again soon with my family.
Our hosts at Nature Craft – Ansar and his family
Chikmagalur now holds a special place in my heart and I know this is one place that I will keep going back to.