?Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland. Johanna discovers a hidden gem in the Western Ghats.
“My only qualifications to start this place were complete ignorance of the hospitality industry and good eating habits,” says Dr Simon. The founder of the Windermere estate is sitting at our table regaling us with tales of how he transformed this small coffee and cardamom plantation from a piece of not-very-productive land, into the best place to stay in Kerala’s Western Ghats.
In front of us is an epic amount of food – fish curry, vegetables, grilled and spiced quail, chickpeas made into something dahl-like, and more fish, marinaded in spices, wrapped in banana leaves and slow cooked. Oh and rice, and delicious flatbreads called baturas. Dr Simon definitely knows what makes good food, and it’s clear that, in spite of his protestations, he knows how to offer good hospitality too.
The Windermere Estate is 3,500 feet up, and so offering guests a home away from home, with incredible 360 degree panoramic views, was a more sensible way to make the land pay its way than struggling to sell the coffee and cardamom grown there. Instead, the plantation itself has now become one of the estate’s biggest draws for visitors – the coffee tastes as it ought to taste, not bitter, but almost chocolatey, smooth and round in your mouth.
We’re not up to the coffee yet in our meal, and though I’ve pretty much eaten all I can, I’m stretching my stomach to try just a little more fish curry; just a little bit more of the chickpeas; oh go on then, I’ll have some more quail too.
“My chefs are ‘grandmother cooks’,” says the doctor. “They all learned how to cook from their grandmothers.” It’s true: the food is simple and clearly of the kind that might be made in the homes of the workers of this landscape. But then again, there’s some kind of magic going on here, something which is preventing me from being able to stop putting more of it onto my plate.
Finally I think I’m done. And then out comes pudding… a gentle cardamom and coconut milk pudding that’s just too delicious to resist. I lean forward, and under the satisfied gaze of our host, help myself to seconds.