“There’s not a square foot of these mountains with a plant or tree that’s not useful’, my mom commented as we drove through the rolling mountains of Munnar, a beautiful little town nestled amongst the Western Ghats in South India close to the Kerala-Tamilnadu border.
Over 50,000 acres of these mountains is covered with tea plantations. The rest is covered with spices, coffee, cocoa, teak, sandalwood, banana, coconut, betelnut, or sugarcane plantations or wild bamboo, plain vegetable patches and human habitats! The town is at an elevation of 6000 feet above sea level. The views are mind blowing as is the sense of wonder at the footprint of humanity on these mountains. There are mountains, rivers, waterfalls, little streams, lakes, and the best part, the human footprint.
The tea plantations cover much of the mountains and include the world’s highest organic tea plantation in Kolokkumalai, at 8000 feet. Some of these mountains or hills in this part of the Western Ghats are called Kanan Devan Hills, named after a village headman who lived in the nineteenth century. The largest tea company in the area is named after him. Walking through these tea plantations is a beautiful experience. We learnt that the tea plants live as long as 450 years, and tea is harvested from them beginning age 3-5 years. The center leaf bud makes the white tea (frequently called the orange pekoe tea), the next two leaves make green tea and the remaining leaves make black tea. If you allow it, the tea plant makes pretty little flowers that are white with a yellow center and the size of a quarter, and berries that are green and woody. The women who pick the leaves are very sweet mannered and more than willing to let you experience the joys of tea picking. The leaves are sundried and then packed into bags that are transported to the tea factory. At the tea factories of Munnar, the leaves are rolled and sifted and passed through four cuts, then oxidized and dried and filtered into at least six different sizes. Tea dust, which is the most commonly used form of tea in India, unfortunately happens to be the grade which has the least health benefits among the different grades. Moreover, we Indians have a habit of boiling tea in milk and water and sugar and sometimes, ginger, cardamom or spice mix called tea masala for a cup of masala chai. This drink is one of the most delicious heart-warming drinks ever made on Earth. However, this form of boiling deprives you of even the few remaining health benefits the tea dust has to offer. Many of us also use tea leaves and tea dust interchangeably. What I learned was that it’s best to reserve loose leaf tea for steeping and drinking as is, and use tea dust to make chai the way we normally make with milk and sugar. Even so, the experts in the tea plantations say that for the traditional Indian chai or masala chai, boil water first, add tea dust (and spice) and turn the heat off. Let it steep for five minutes and then add it to milk that is boiled separately and add sugar. I started making my masala chai this way ever since I returned home from Munnar and I am not looking back any more. As for the organic loose leaf tea I got from Munnar, it’s so good and so fresh that after the tea leaves steep in hot water, the leaves basically become fresh whole leaves! The tea itself tastes exquisite! This is the kind of tea I am going to buy from now on.
The spice plantations are another real treat in Munnar. On a tour of one of these plantations, you get to see, pluck and taste fresh cardamom growing off the base of grassy looking 5-8 feet tall plants, pepper berries that grow on vines that lace around jack fruit trees or other large trees, clusters of cloves that look like flowers hanging off tree tops, and the aromatic bark of a cinnamon tree is just a lovely experience. Then there are nutmeg, allspice, coffee berries, the mild coffee aroma of coffee flowers, the sweet tangy taste of white flesh around the cocoa beans in a cocoa fruit, and all those ayurvedic medicinal plants. We even ate passion fruit and tomatoes that grew in the wild. I came back home with loads of fresh spices and I am now so spoilt for freshness and flavor that I am not going to buy spices from supermarkets any more. I put the usual amount of black pepper the other day in a dish I normally make and the heat of the black pepper hit us smack in the face!
There are so many other wonderful aspects to a Munnar vacation. Kerala Ayurveda massages, a show on traditional martial arts called kalaripayattu and a traditional dance form called kathakali. I’ll share these experiences another time. The place is truly a slice of heaven within God’s Own Country!