A Foraging Experience Two Hours from Mumbai

The trail shines a light on the sustainable food practices of local indigenous communities and provides a rich connection with nature.

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A walk through the forest to discover the various plants and flowers that were served up at lunch. Photo by: Samarpan Bhowmik

“Just make sure it’s not alive when you pop it into your mouth.”

With these words of wisdom guiding me, I gingerly go about the task at hand: to pick up a fire ant from the colony and eat it, so I can fathom the fascination for the famed fire ant chutney that is relished by indigenous populations in various pockets of the country. I am at Varadhast Farms on the outskirts of Mumbai, just about a couple of hours’ drive from the thronging streets of India’s financial capital.

But even less than 100 kilometres from the megacity, it seems like an entirely different world. Once off the highway, the roads get rough and concrete gets sparse. As bothered as my backside is by the bumpy ride, my weary city soul finds balm in staring out the window as we go past thatched roofs, crop fields and borewells. By the time I arrive at the farmhouse, my lungs are heaving in gratitude for the fresh air. I, along with a number of other Mumbai folks, am being hosted by Shardul and Anuradha. Shardul is an architect and co-founder of Design Jatra, a firm that deals in environment-friendly and community-centric architecture. Anuradha has her own landscape architecture concern, which promotes conservation of natural biodiversity.

The experience is curated by Johann and Samuel from Jack and Hill Adventures, an experiential adventure company that is as serious about keeping the environs within which they operate pristine as they are about providing unique, fun and mostly outdoor experiences. The farmhouse itself has been lovingly built by the architect couple using their deep-rooted sustainability practices and engaging the local community. All materials are either natural such as mud, bamboo, limestone and cow dung, or recycled from older constructions, all sourced from within a 5-km radius.

The design takes into consideration local climate and has been used innovatively to regulate temperatures, among other functions. The central atrium, for instance, works as a shaft for hot air to escape all rooms. Then there are particular rooms which stay cool in summers and warm through winters.

Aside from helping them build their home, members of the local community also work with them on the farm. It was during an interaction with the locals that Shardul and Anuradha first realised the breadth of the community’s palate and how all of it came from the forest.

“Every year, we would spend a lot of time and effort cleaning up the weeds in our plant beds. One of the ladies who works with us on the farm asked us, one day, why we would do that. ‘You can eat all of those plants, you know,’ she said. Given that we are consistently trying to make our lifestyles more sustainable, it was a revelation once we started speaking to the local tribals about their eating habits,” says Shardul.

As they explored and then adapted the food habits of local tribes, the couple also realised that there were many who would be fascinated and interested in such practices. Some consultations with Jack and Hill later, the Farm and Forest Forage experience was born.

I speak to the others who have travelled from Mumbai, some young working professionals, a couple of kids accompanied by their mothers, and find out that most have stumbled upon Jack and Hill’s Instagram page and found out about the experience. All city folks interested in knowing how their food is grown and where it comes from.

While Anuradha whips up a massive breakfast in the kitchen (occasionally correcting Shardul on scientific names of plant species), Shardul starts an initiation into the foraging. We are shown a variety of leaves, fruits and plants that grow on the farm and which we’ll attempt to forage through the day. While there are some varieties which most recognise, there are others that look very different from the hybrid or commercially farmed equivalents we find in the city.

Breakfast of millet and mahua dosa done, the group troops out to see for themselves all the different plants on the farm. We see the oxalis, kokum, camelfoot tree, ground gooseberry, spiral ginger, wild tomatillo and mahua. It is during the course of this session that we come upon a tree with a nest of fire ants.

“They work as a natural insecticide. No insect will dare intrude upon the area where fire ants build their nest,” informs Shardul. While his work has usually seen him associate with tribals in Maharashtra, recently, he has expanded to Madhya Pradesh, where he worked closely with tribes who make a delicious chutney of these large, aggressive ants. And that’s what gave him the idea of introducing them onto his own farm.

The ant tastes sharp and acidic, the flavourful aftertaste lingering on the tongue for a while; and I drool a little at the prospect of revisiting the farm a few months later, by which time, Shardul promises he would have mastered the famed chutney recipe.

One round of education done, we set about doing various chores around the farm. From making a natural fertiliser mix of soil, cow dung, dried leaves and a solution of cow urine, rock phosphate and water, to lining the beds of young trees with clay-fired tiles, it is hard but satisfactory work, which all the city folk take to quite enthusiastically.

Of course, our hosts are mindful of the harsh Maharashtra sun and announce a breather soon. One of the most respected trees among tribal communities is the mahua, and a delicious drink, made from the juice of the sweet flowers—slightly fermented for a refreshing bite—is passed around. “The mahua is a very important tree for the locals. They can use every single part of the tree, whether it’s for fuel, food, animal fodder or alcohol.” Unfortunately for me, for the drink to attain a respectable level of potency, it would require fermentation overnight. I console myself by finishing off the drinks of those who find the taste a little too bold. Farming is thirsty work.

By the time lunch rolls around, we have foraged enough greens to feed the entire group, including our four hosts. Those who tired of the sun had ducked in a little earlier to use a stone mill to grind an organic variety of tuar dal grown on the farm. Samuel takes the kids along to wash up some banana leaves, while Johann and I chop up said leaves to be used as plates. Anuradha, aided by a couple of others, serves up an extensive menu she has been preparing all day. Every single dish, includ a fig curry, green banana chips, dal, three different varieties of leaves, long beans, and homemade cake, among others, has been sourced from the farm and the villages around.“The menu here changes every 15-20 days, because the earth and forests are changing constantly. Come back in a couple of weeks, or when the rains start and the entire experience will be different,” Anuradha says.

Fatigue, delectable food and the cool confines of a room designed specifically to funnel most of the air flowing through the house, lull most of the group into a short, well-earned nap after the meal is done. In what seems a blink of an eye, the hosts wake us up for the final session of the day—the forest walk. A short distance from the farm, we take a trail down into the forest, punctuated by little patches owned by local farmers. A local farmer, Kalpesh Patil, owner of one of the aforementioned patches, accompanies us. He has taken to planting fruit-bearing crop such as mulberries, among local species, and is kind enough to let us wolf a few down when we pass his bit of land. Shardul, on the other hand, takes time to stop at each tree and plant he wants us to see and explains their significance or just points out interesting facts about them.

“There are some trees which the tribals say will never let them go hungry. One of them is the fig. Of all the varieties of figs in nature, there are very few humans eat. The wild ones that grow here, you’ll not find in the city.”

After an adventurous hour of trekking through forest lands and imbibing knowledge about a variety of native flora, we arrive at a lake. The lake, owned by local tribal village societies, is out of bounds for outsiders and is used strictly for fresh water fisheries. Luckily for us, Kalpesh has agreed to let us use a designated corner of the lake for a swim. And indeed, after a long day under the summer sun, the cool water on my skin feels like heaven and I take to it like a hippo to the Nile.

As the sun ducks below the treeline, I watch our hosts play with the kids, escort some of the keen swimmers into deeper waters, and carefully scan the area to ensure we haven’t left anything aside from footprints behind. I realise today has been about more than just garnering a sense of respect for what we eat or becoming more mindful about the environment and its preservation. For those who live in concrete jungles, far removed from nature, this is a unique chance to connect with the earth. It is a connection most city dwellers rarely experience, but when you do, it is one you cherish, and one that might just prompt you to live a little more in sync with nature.

 

Also Read | From Forest to Table: Foraging for Food in Nagaland

 

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India May-June 2022. Get your copy here.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

Season’s Feastings

Seasonal wild produce plays an important role in tribal diets. While certain trees such as mahua and toddy palm are used almost in entirety for various purposes, from food to construction material, and are in use through the year, across seasons, there are many plants which become important as they either mature to bear fruit, or become inedible, once a certain window passes.

In monsoon, the forests offer up kowla, whose tender leaves are very popular for their medicinal properties but only until it bears yellow flowers; bamboo shoots, which spring early are fermented and eaten in a curry or fried form; Dioscorea pentaphylla, climbers that are known for their tubers and flower clusters that are also eaten and taste just like fish eggs.

In winter, wild produce comprises sword bean, its tender pods used as a fried vegetable and is a marker of the change in season from monsoon to winter; Dioscorea family of climbers that provide at least eight different varieties of tubers that last through the winter months; palash flowers, which mark the end of winter and the arrival of spring, are made into a concoction.

For more information, visit https://www.jackandhilladventures.com/

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  • Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.

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