Tuesday, October 20, 2009

An orgy of Cheese









This post about our trip to the Nilgiris in August should have been up long ago. But I didn’t have a blog running then. And we have just finished the huge amount of organic cheese we got from Acreswild. So this is going to be both a travel and food post. Escaping the heat of Chennai itself is enough to make me ecstatic. Added to that, I could look forward to a really good cheese haul!

We stayed at the exclusive (exclusive because only worker bees, like Sitabhra, and their hangers-on are allowed) Radio-astronomy Centre (RAC) Guest House in Muthorai. Muthorai itself deserves better notice. In the internet its claim to fame is the RAC and the Central Potato Research Institute. Its about 10 kms from Ootacumund, so you can drop into 'town' at any reasonable hour without too much trouble. Yet, it is on the way to all the nicer places in the Nilgiris; Avalanche, Emerald Valley, Parson’s Valley to start with. The RAC campus itself is one of the few patches of verdant green in the region; most of the area being assiduously cultivated. One can walk up or down from its gates and feel virtuous about taking some exercise! If it is not tea, this region is cultivated for its fields of carrots, potatoes, cabbages and green veggies. On our second day in Muthorai we set off for the “Emerald District”. Emerald District? The name conjured up vistas of rolling green dotted with lakes. The few sketchy routes I had found in the internet all agreed that it is within the purview of such out-of-shape city denizens like us to walk from Muthorai to Emerald Valley. The weather as we came out was lovely; lightly cloudy but not threatening (that is, by the way, very deceptive in the Nilgiris).

We climbed down from our perch at the RAC after a substantial, old-fashioned breakfast and went into the Muthorai village. From there, we followed the main road. The road is tarred, so the traffic is considerable and houses, farms, schools straggle almost half the route. En route we would stand to look at cabbage fields and carrot threshers. At cross-roads we would patiently wait for a vehicle or a local to point the way towards Avalanchi. Avalanchi, deep in the forest, is 21 km from Muthorai. There is a perfectly good bus service and to any local it must have seemed a bit mad on our part to want to walk. In fact, one very nice truck driver stopped his vehicle in order to ask if he could drive us to our destination! Away from Muthorai, the country-side became less populated. For long stretches, we would walk in quiet solitude each engrossed in their own thought, maybe stopping to click a photo or two. Then came our first real break; a tea shop. Makeshift though it was, it served welcome hot, sugary tea in small glasses. We had it with some snacks we had brought along. It was a satisfied trio which resumed walking. The roadsides by now were sporting lots of wild-flowers so the stops to admire them became more frequent.

And then, as we turned around a wooded corner, the first of the lakes came into view. Across miles of rolling hills we looked down into a lake nestled among green hills. Small houses dotted the hillsides among the tea gardens. The sky had become slightly overcast by now. A wind was blowing. It was what we had been walking for. We were loathe to move from there. Only the thought that there were perhaps better views spurred us on. The district was definitely green and as the sky darkened it looked even more wild. The whole area is riddled with lakes all inter-connected. Small, big, medium. Shores fringed with woods. Shores upto whose edges tea estates rolled. As we blissfully made one turn after another it had escaped our notice that the sky had started looking ominous. It was only when the droplets started falling I realised to my chagrin that, decoyed by the blue sky, I had decided to keep my raincoat back at the guesthouse, neatly packed at the bottom of my backpack. One hat and one umbrella were all we had to protect three of us. By the time we reached Ithalar twenty minutes later, the rain had become more persistent if not ferocious. The question arose; do we take a bus back home or take a bus towards Avalanchi, another 10 kms ahead? A bus towards Avalanchi came soon. We piled in. It was surprisingly empty, so we each grabbed the best position and rode through the winding, narrow (by this time it was unpaved or untarred too) roads. Soon, we crossed Emerald village where the dam over one of the lakes consolidates the importance of this village. Avalanchi is inside protected forest areas, so if we hadn’t been aboard the local bus, special permits would have been necessary to get into this area. One can stay only in designated forest rest houses and as I knew from previous experience, Wildlife Wardens are notoriously fickle in letting the hoi polloi in. This area was heavily forested. Branches of trees regularly scratched against the bus and poked through the open windows. Where the trees had thinned out, we could glimpse series of lakes flashing by. Half an hour later we were deposited in the Avalanchi Power Station area. It lay close to another lake. Green, fringed with woods and definitely wild. The area had been cleared specifically for the power station. It was hemmed in by formidable crags. The tops of all of them were clad in clouds and wisps of fog rolled down their slopes. Sometimes one could spy a lonely tree, lopsided and valiant in its efforts to stand at the summit. In fact, it reminded me of my views of Lake District in England. That had been a gray, chilly trip in December. This was obviously greener. But looked equally stern! We had been warned that the bus would leave in half an hour (the power station being the last stop) and it was the last one for the day! There was a lot of scrambling for the best points for photos and before long we were headed back. The rain seemed to have let up only for us. Very soon it was pelting on the roof of the vehicle and only when we were away from Ithalar did it stop. By this time, we were pretty hungry and since the lunch hour was way past, we didn’t have much hope that there would be anything left for us at the guest house. So on disembarking at Muthorai, we stepped into a shack. Never did idli and sweet tea taste so good. The idlis were plump and fresh. We dipped them into a soupy sambar, spooned some coconut chutney and gulped down huge quantities of tea with it. Having taken the edge off our appetite, we felt we could tackle the climb up to the guest house. Once we had dropped of our belongings we made our way to the canteen, having not completely given up about more food :>. We were not wrong. They had been specially kept in what looked like a hot air oven. So we had two meals for lunch. The food in this jaunt was nothing spectacular. Stolid and substantial. And warm.

The organic cheese from Acreswild Farm in Coonoor is of course another story and I was aching to try all the different things I could do with them. We had been overwhelmed by their Camembert when we had visited the Khans three years back (I must admit I had been wowed by their bungalow with ponds and cow and goat sheads and herb garden too :-)). And their Monterey Jack and Cheddar. Coonoor to Muthorai is about one and half hours drive and when we reached their old place at Coonoor we found they had moved to their new place where not only are they going to continue their cheese-making, but also give a taste of their life at little cottages inside their (former tea) estate. I am happy we had one of their employees to guide us. As it is, part of the journey was quite hair-raising. The place is not far from Coonoor town centre, but it looks like another world! The going was steep, there was no road to speak of (though I hear they have the internet!) and the fog deliberately drifted only ten feet in front of the car! When we got there, the first thing we thought was how to reverse the car and get it to climb the steep incline! The Khans are still establishing things at their new quarters. We did do a tour of their new cheese-making cottage. They are trying to be as eco-friendly as possible and doing an amazing job. Gobar-gas unit, rain-water harvesting and vegetable garden will all add to the minimum human footprint. A must visit if you are going to Coonoor. They are super-friendly and it was a pleasure interacting with them.

They sell their cheeses through quite few outlets now, so on taking our leave we trooped down to Baker’s Junction and splurged on huge amounts of cheese. This is something I miss awfully in India. Good cheese. But given India’s hot weather most places can only stick to paneer and ricotta. Anyway, we got as many hard cheeses as possible to stash and of course their Camembert (which was just wonderful spread on cream-cracker biscuits or with grapes) and their new, flavored soft cheeses. Needless to say, you can’t store all varieties for equal lengths of time. So the feta was used up pretty fast in a Greek Country Salad. And some dishes were more successful than the others. Some of the recipes were adapted from other sites, some from my cookbooks.


Cauliflower three cheese bake

This was inspired by a Greek recipe. I added some other vegetables for good measure. It made a meal itself.

1 small head of cauliflower, kept whole with leaves and core removed

2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced

300 gm pumpkin, cubed

1 sweet potato, peeled and cubed

2 Tablespoon coriander leaves, chopped

1 Tablespoon mint, chopped

2 cups skimmed milk

2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon of pepper

1/4 - 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

1 beaten egg

1/4 cup Gruyere, grated

1/4 cup Gouda, grated

1/4 cup crumbled Tomme de Savoie


Preparation

Bring a pan of water to boil. Chop all the vegetables (except the cauliflower) into equal sizes. Add the carrots and potato five minutes before the pumpkin and simmer. Cook for 5 minutes more and add the cauliflower for about and switch off the flame. Drain. The water can be used for other purposes like boiling rice in! In a bowl, combine cheeses and toss to mix thoroughly. Preheat oven to 180C.

In a saucepan, heat 2 cups of milk with the salt, pepper, and nutmeg over medium-low heat. When the milk is steaming, switch off and add the beaten egg mixture, whisking continuously so it doesn't boil. When the sauce thickens, remove from heat and stir in 2/3 of the mixed cheeses.

Arrange the cauliflower in the centre of the baking dish. Arrange all vegetables. Sprinkle the chopped herb on top. Pour the sauce over evenly and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake at 180C for about 40-45 minutes.


Greek Country Salad

The simplest Indian salads are vegetables cut into rings and arranged on a plate. I grew up on tomatoes, cucumber and onion arranged and sprinkled with salt as the staple salad. So this one reminded me a lot of my childhood.

Adapted from Horiatiki Salata, Mediterranean Cookery


For the vinaigrette and garnish

150 gm crumbled feta

12 black olives

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

4 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 Tablespoons minced flat-leaf coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano


Mix together all components.


Salad Components
1 cucumber, peeled and cut into batons
3 ripe tomatoes cut into wedges

1 green pepper, seeded and cut into rings

1 medium sized onion, cut into thin rings

Arrange all salad ingredients and mix it with the vinaigrette.


Tuna mousse

My husband hoards tinned tuna and sardines. When the stacks of cans start becoming alarmingly high, I have to look at the food blogs for inspiration. This one was from Orangette: Bouchon au thon. There are a few changes in the ingredients. I used yoghurt and added half teaspoon of jaggery instead of crème fraiche, 2 eggs (instead of three) and coriander (not parsley).

I loved them warm! We had it with bread.


180 grams canned tuna in water, drained
3 Tbs tomato paste
4 Tbs yoghurt
2 large eggs
1 cup finely grated Gruyère cheese
1 teaspoon Salt
½ teaspoon Pepper
2 Tbs finely chopped coriander
¼ cup minced onion


Cheese shortbread

These have been made with many different cheeses, with added flavourings of herbs or spices. I have used Acreswild Gruyere, Green Chilli Monterey Jack, Cheddar, Gouda and Romano.

1 Tablespoon Whole roasted cumin with 1/2 teaspoon ajwain,

1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder with 1 teaspoon paprika,

1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves

and in another case 1 teaspoon nigella seeds, have all gone down very well!

I have also baked them in different shapes. In a typical 9” cake pan they come out as wedges, sliced thinly from a log (dough shaped into a log) in circle, cut into batons as cheese sticks. The basic recipe is from the Complete Book of Breads. I add skimmed milk to bring the dough together.


Dill cheese bread

Adapted from the Complete Book of Breads


Beetroot with halloumi

This was simplicity itself. Peeled, whole beetroots were boiled and thickly sliced. The halloumi was sliced. Try to maintain equal sizes for the beetroot and halloumi for reasons of stability. A tahini-yoghurt dressing was whisked up. Arrange beetroot and cheese in a tower form. Pour dressing. Some pomegrante seeds were strewn as garnish.

P.S - I sometimes make my own tahini; works quite well.


100 gm Halloumi, sliced thickly

3 boiled, peeled beetroot, sliced

1/2 pomegranate, seeds separated

6 Tablespoon yoghurt

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 mint leaves, chopped finely


Tahini

1 Tablespoon white sesame seeds, ground

1/2 teaspoon olive oil

pinch of red chilli powder

Mix all ingredients together into a paste.


Mix tahini, yoghurt, salt, pepper and mint for the dressing. Top the layered cheese-beetroot towers.


Crab cottage cheese pie

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup slices spring onions,chopped

1 teaspoon dill

1 teaspoon basil

400gm crab meat, fragments of shell and such removed

6 sheets of filo pastry

1 tablespoon prepared mustard (I used the Bengalee kasundi)

2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs beaten

150 gm cottage cheese (I used green chilli flavoured soft cheese)


Preparations

In medium-size skillet saute onions, add dill weed, and basil. Remove from heat; stir in crab meat, one teaspoon salt, pepper, mustard. Oil a flan tin and arrange each filo sheet so that it covers the tin. Oil each sheet and arrange the next one so that it partly overlaps. Let the sheets overhang. Spoon carb mixture into shell. Beat remaining ingredients. Pour over crab mixture. Fold the hanging bits of the sheets. Bake in preheated 180-degree oven 40 to 45 minutes until knife inserted near center comes out clean.


1 comment:

Even proven recipes have variants. If you have tried a variant successfully please let me know the link or type it in!