Coffee break in Somwarpet

Zac O?Yeah | Updated on March 10, 2018

Full of beans: A farmer at a coffee plantation in Coorg

Zac O’Yeah

Zac O’Yeah   -  Business Line

It is a nerve-jangling bus ride to this Coorg town, named for its ‘Monday market’, but there’s a headily fragrant perfect cup at the end of it

If I have a hunch I take it seriously. Although my Kannada skills are somewhat limited, I figure that Somwarpet, the name of a tiny town in Karnataka’s Coorg hills, means ‘Monday market’. So being a bit of a shopaholic, I naturally decide to go there on a Monday.

As the bus rattles along winding jungle roads and occasionally through vast coffee plantations, past villages, and on narrow bridges across rivers flowing rather lazily, I worry a little. The only guidebook I found that mentioned Somwarpet was the 1870s’ Gazetteer of Coorg, according to which, “Though fully alive to their material interests, the town-people have little desire for or perhaps little faith in education after European fashion. They seem to be quite content with the knowledge of their bazaar-routine. Every Monday there is a market, hence the name of the place.” But that was when the population was 953, which has now grown to 7,218, and I have no way of knowing whether the Monday market tradition has been discontinued and replaced by modern supermarkets. The one thing I do know is that it’s a major Arabica growing region of India (at least according to Wikipedia), which for any coffee lover is a good enough reason to head that way.

The bus gets impossibly crowded, with more people piling in the closer we get to Somwarpet. An exasperated dad offloads a clutch of toddlers into my lap and for about an hour I have the poopers crawling all over me. Luckily, before there is a stampede, the bus reaches its destination.

The small town sits on a ridge surrounded by scenic, green hills. Its handful of criss-crossing streets is lined with tiny shops and old bungalows. The large, partially covered market dominates the centre. Here one gets pretty much everything from fresh produce and spices, bakery products and fried snacks, to homemade pickles, poultry and vegetables, plus things like detergents, clocks, rechargeable torches, and even clothes sold in big piles. One section is devoted to dried fish and there’s a pungent smell in the air — like walking around in a huge kitchen.

For such a small town, the market is humongous and I stroll in its crowded lanes, rapt. I seem to be the only tourist in town. Small girls turn their heads, point and giggle.

Watching the food on display makes me ravenous. I go up the main street and spot a few veg and non-veg eateries, a biriyani joint, and ancient seedy bars housed in ramshackle bungalows. But I need something more substantial than bar snacks, and I don’t quite want to wolf down my grub at a shared canteen table either, while the next customer waits for me to vacate my seat; so I turn and head downhill instead, towards the Madikeri Road. After a three-minute walk, I discover Hotel Saphali Family Restaurant adjacent to a coconut plantation. It appears to be the only proper restaurant hereabouts — meaning it has menu cards and clean restrooms.

It does not disappoint. The Coorg-style pork fry (₹100) is cooked in a very homely manner and a chicken masala with a stack of Kerala parathas comes at ₹140, plus one can have a big bottle of chilled beer for ₹100. Don’t let the local drunks put you off, for it simply seems the done thing in Somwarpet to begin tippling by noon — at least on market days. And what better way to start the week than by sharing a bottle with mates? I hear the increasingly boisterous banter from the booths surrounding the dining hall (which I have to myself). The only word I catch yelled frequently is ‘politician’. Mondays in Somwarpet can be quite a ball.

After this sublime, leisurely lunch, it is shopping time. A couple of coffee mills uphill from the bus station beckon. One is surrounded by a heady fragrance of roasting coffee. At the tiny Someshwara Coffee Works, the proprietor Mr Kumar is busy running both the roasting oven and the grinder at the same time, his shirt-front brown from coffee powder. I learn that his family has had the mill for 50 years and they have a plantation where they grow only Arabica.

While other mills offer you blends of Robusta and Arabica (and chicory), Kumar deals exclusively in Coorg Arabica. I request 2kg pure. As he grinds half of it ‘nice’, meaning fine ground, I pull out a thousand-rupee note thinking that this is going to cost a bomb, when Kumar suddenly turns and says, “520.” Then he changes his mind —“Give 500.”

I find it hard to believe that quality coffee can come as cheap as ₹250 a kg. But the scent, powerful and rich, is promising and indeed, the coffee, once I brew myself a mug at home, turns out to be the best I’ve tasted. Sipping, I’m totally blissed out. Over the next couple of weeks, it rattles my brain awake in the mornings; the sheer fragrance jumpstarts me. I realise I will have to keep returning to Somwarpet whenever my stock runs out. No matter that I have to spend hours in a jungle bus with random toddlers on my lap. It’s worth it.

Zac O’Yeah is a Bengaluru-based travel writer, literary critic and author of 'Hari A Hero for Hire', a comic thriller; zacnet@email. com

Published on December 18, 2015

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