Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Greek Salad With A Visit To An Organic Cheese Making Farmstay in Coonoor

Towards the end of May, my family and I managed to get away to the mountains down South, Coonoor and Ooty specifically, for a few days. Ma wanted to go back to her boarding school, fifty years after she passed out from there. The brother-in-law had to attend his 25th School Reunion and my sister, nephew and I were just glad  for an opportunity to escape from the heat. Now, if you've visited any of India's popular hill spots, you know that tourist season is never kind to them. The crowds, traffic, and chaos are enough to make you question the whole point of your trip. Or, you can be like us and choose a farmstay that lets you enjoy the charm of the mountains as it should be.

Across India, farms and homes are opening their doors to travellers who are looking beyond impersonal, standardised hotel accommodation for something a little more informal and with character. For our part, we zeroed in on an organic cheese making farmstay in Coonoor, Acres Wild.

I love the mountains, I really do! It all starts when you leave the heat and dust of the plains behind and drive up the long, winding mountain roads. As you go higher, the temperatures drop, roll down the windows, feel the breeze in your face  and breathe in the crisp, mountain air, barring the occasional blast of diesel fumes from the buses on the way. And in this case, as you approach your destination, the air gets infused with a faint whiff of eucalyptus.

A little travellers tip, do make a midway stop at Burliar and have your fill of exotic fruits, more likely to be seen in South-east Asia,  like mangosteen, rambutans, green peaches, passion fruits and plums that are grown locally in the forests around. Taste the fruits as nature intended them to be and not the insipid, exorbitant variants that you get in Khan Market!

Secluded, at the edge of the property, overlooking the valley and surrounded by the mountains, our cottage was all that we were looking for our stay. There is a steep climb to the dining hall that might find favour with you or not, but will ensure that post-holiday weight gain is not an issue. It is a place where you hear the birds in the morning and you can count the stars at night. Of course, the occasional bus horn and blaring loudspeaker from Coonoor town will remind you that civilisation is never too far away!

Our host, Tina and Mansoor, have themselves made the transition from city to farm life. You will understand their motivations when you hear Mansoor talk passionately about his book, 'The Third Curve' where he explains why a world addicted to oil-fuelled high growth rates is doomed to meet an unhappy future and is totally unaware of it. It's a far cry from his days when he directed movies (remember Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar) and will give you enough to ponder about.

Ooty was the disappointment we were warned of. Indiscriminate development and overburdened resources have not been kind to the memories my mother had of the quaint town from her school days. As she eloquently put it, "Ooty was best left in her memories!!"

Back at the farm, we sat outside in the verandah, stretched out our legs with a book and a cool drink. As the cows grazed at a distance, we took in the miles of green all round us and watched the weather change ever so often. One moment, it was bright sunshine to the next instant when the clouds and mist would roll in and a downpour would ensue. We ambled around the farm where we met the camera shy cows and the paparazzi friendly Billy Goat Gruff. We walked past the tea plantations and the dairy shed but the most interesting part was the cheese making unit.

Ideally, we would have liked to participate in the cheese making workshop that the farm organises, but time and commitments  meant that we just had the time to observe the entire process as explained by the affable duo of Mary and Munna. But, we did walk away with packets of cheese made at the farm. We picked up some halloumi, herbed ricotta and feta. The mint halloumi made its way into a bacon, potato and halloumi salad of which, unfortunately I have no photographs. But, last night, the feta was put to use in a Greek salad.

As Nigel Slater puts it, as long as tomatoes and feta are there, you can play around with what goes into the salad. The only important point that needs to be stressed is that the ingredients be fresh.

The feta was a delight. Most often, we have to make do with a packet of feta that is so steeped in brine that all you can taste is salt. But, in this case, the cheese tasted fresh, creamy and not overly salty. And we shouldn't have been surprised. There is a reason why increasingly there is emphasis on knowing where our food is sourced from. The cheese makes that point strongly. The salad with its freshness quotient is just perfect for the weather we are experiencing now. And do try and get your hand on some organic, farm fresh cheese.. it makes all the difference!

Greek salad

Serves 2

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano / 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
  • 3 medium-sized tomatoes, cut in wedges and then halved
  • 1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup olives, pitted
  • 1 large cucumber, quartered lengthways, chopped
  • 1 small green capsicum, chopped
  • 100 gms feta cheese, crumbled or in thick slices, as per your choice
Cooking Directions
  • Soak the red onion in a bowl of heavily salted ice water, 15 minutes. It helps take the raw edge off the onions.
  • Combine oil, lemon juice, garlic and oregano in a screw top jar. Season with salt and pepper. Secure lid. Shake to combine.
  • Drain the red onion. Combine tomato, cucumber, onion, capsicum, feta and olives in a large bowl. Drizzle with oil mixture. Toss and serve.

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