Fortune Cookie

Kolkata’s First Showcase of Organic Produce, The Market Place, Brings the Farmer Closer to the Urban Table

Posted: December 15, 2016 at 9:25 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

I HAVE just returned from Kolkata after spending two days at The Market Place, or Bish Mukto Haat (which when translated from Bangla means ‘Poison Free Market’), which brought together traditional famers who had returned to age-old organic agricultural practices after chasing the dream of higher productivity and returns on investment with an array of hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Having seen chemicals ruin their land, poison their water table and increase the cost of production, these farmers are going back to tradition. They are reviving disappearing grains, such as the short-grained rice variety Tulai Panji, which is cultivated only in a cluster of villages in North Dinajpur district, and is a favourite of President Pranab Mukherjee. Chefs visiting The Market Place were struck by how similar Tulai Panji was to the Italian arborio rice, which is the basic ingredient of a risotto.

From picturesque Mirik in Darjeeling came farmers producing exotic items such as deliciously sweet-and-tart kiwi fruit, juicy mandarins, plump and earthy shiitake mushroom, and the feta-like Siri cheese made from the milk of a little-known family of short-statured cows of Bhutanese origin. Sambit Banik, the management-professor-turned-chef-owner of Kolkata’s Spicekraft restaurant, used Tulai Panji, Siri cheese and juice of the mandarins to make the fried rice balls called arancini, a Sicilian speciality. And Abhijit Saha, Bengaluru’s celebrity chef who’s famous for his Caperberry (Modern European) restaurant and now for Saha (Modern Indian) in Singapore, prepared a risotto with West Bengal’s best-known short-grained rice, the fragrant Gobindo Bhog, accompanied by Mirik shiitake and Bengal greens cooked in the aglio-olio style.

Our traditional farmers are repositories of ancient wisdom that has helped our agriculture remain sustainable over the centuries. A West Bengal government official in the state agriculture department shared his experience of visiting Santhal villages in the Jungle Mahal districts (West Medinipur, Purulia and Bankura) that still don’t have electricity, but where women are the most ardent upholders of earth-friendly agricultural practices. These have become fashionable all over again all over the world, thanks to the Slow Food movement and its offshoot, Terra Madre, and because of the efforts of people like the American First Lady, Michelle Obama, and the famous Californian restaurateur Alice Waters.

The Santhal women of Jungle Mahal, with whom the official I spoke with had to conduct a meeting using car lights because it was pitch dark, use cow dung and vegetable waste to produce natural manure, and they use cow’s urine (collected daily in an underground tank) as well as neem leaves as pesticides. These are time-tested, fail-safe methods, and even farmers in Punjab, where the use of chemicals is rampant in agriculture, are returning to traditional techniques in the plots they reserve for family use. As a farmer proudly informed me on my last visit to a fairly prosperous village in rural Bhatinda: “The food you’re eating is chemical free. Notice the difference in taste?”

The words of the farmer in Punjab came back to me when I sat through a presentation made by Saha, who pointed out, for instance, that as many as 15 pesticides are used to protect grapes, or that, whereas edible wax is used all over to make apples shine, in India, apple growers use a cheap variant that is harmful to our health. Examples such as these can be multiplied.

Initiatives such as The Market Place, which was organised appropriately at the Vedic Village Spa Resort, a scenic rural retreat not far from Kolkata, can achieve little till the farmers find a market for their niche produce. Achintya Anand, a 23-year-old chef-turned-gentleman-farmer, for instance, couldn’t have pursued his passion had 40 restaurants in Delhi-NCR not bought his micro-greens and ‘exotic’ vegetables. On a larger scale, First Agro launched a zero-pesticide, non-GMO revolution from Karnataka’s Mysore district and found a responsive market for its vegetables. It is this market that has given the company confidence to start acquiring 1,100 acres of land in 16 locations across the country.

Saha has started working on a national network of stakeholders in the food business to sustain organic farmers. Closer home, Chef Manjit Gill of ITC Hotels has brought the global movement to promote the agricultural practices and produce of indigenous people, Terra Madre, to India. Such networks alone can transform good intentions into sustainable practices.


SOME TIME BACK, I read a news story that said IIT-Kharagpur was going to seek G.I. status for West Bengal’s gohona or goyna bori, which are vadis (sun-dried lentil dumplings) in the sense of the better-known Amritsari vadi, but stand out because of their ornamental design and subtle flavours. These works of edible art have been celebrated in folk ditties and by Rabindranath Tagore as well as his nephew Abanindranath Tagore and acolyte Nandalal Bose, both celebrated artists of their age.

It was not until I saw these delicately delicious hand-made creations during my sojourn to The Market Place in Kolkata’s rural fringe that I realised why they tickled the fancy of these great men — and why we must stop them from disappearing from our table. The boris are made only in the district of East Medinipur (Midnapore of the past) with the cheapest yet drought-resistant lentils (known locally as kalai or biuli dal) grown in abundance in the countryside. I met a practitioner of the dying art, Pramilla Maity from Contai (East Medinipur), and her story was shared with me by her daughter, Susmita, a civil engineer who has switched to IT and now works in Bangalore.

The lentils that go into making the boris are sown in March-April and August. It is the August crop, harvested in November and December, that yields the best lentils for the boris. These are soaked overnight so that the skin comes off and the lentils are hand-ground in the morning to yield a paste that is shaped like wedding jewellery and other ornaments on a bed of poppy seeds (the favourite posto of the Bengalis). The delicate, exquisitely designed boris, with a sliver of posto on one side, are dried in the sun and made ready for the market. You can get them only between November and January, just in time for the peak wedding season so that the brides can take a box of goyna bori along with them to their new homes.

They fetch Rs 6 apiece, which is a shame, and perhaps the reason why the next generation doesn’t wish to carry forward the tradition preserved by their mothers. I was happy to hear about Susmita’s success story, but I was also sad to figure out that the age-old practice of making goyna bori would lose, after Pramilla Maity is unable to continue working, a link in the chain of continuity.


INDIAN CACAO? If India can have vanilla (apparently, it came to our country before it was planted in Madagascar) and world-class coffee, why can’t we produce cacao, the basic building block of chocolate? Well, it seems Indian cacao can stand up to competition from the more popular South American and African pods, and the credit for making the world know about it goes to David Belo, a South African who was a mixologist in some of London’s hippest clubs and bars before he switched gears to become a bread baker, pastry chef and practitioner of the ancient healing arts.

Together with his partner, Angelika Anangnosteau, who headed the famous 1930s-style speakeasy, Milk & Honey in London, before becoming a yoga teacher and alternative therapist, Belo launched Earth Loaf to hand-craft bean-to-bar chocolate in small batches in Mysore, Karnataka. The cacao is from Varanashi Farms, which turned completely organic in 1991, in the Dakshin Kannada district, also in Karnataka.

At Earth Loaf, according to Belo, “all chocolate is hand-screened, hand-tempered, hand-filled, the truffles are hand-rolled, and all is hand wrapped with care.” Even the wrappers and boxes are silk-screen printed by hand. “Though more complex and painstaking, going bean-to-bar gives the chocolate maker the kind of influence over his chocolate enjoyed by a wine maker or artisan bread baker,” explains Belo, adding: “Subtle flavours can be enhanced or subdued, terroir (climatic influence on flavour) can be exposed, acidity can be maintained or reduced. In an era where more and more chocolate makers are getting closer to the origin of their beans, cacao is being sourced from lands never considered in the past. This makes for an incredibly exciting voyage of flavour for today’s chocolate lover.” Blessed are the chocolate connoisseurs!