B for Bhuira, I told Re, my six year-old, when he asked me where we were going – where they make jam.
You mean J for jam?
Yes, that’s the one.
I hadn’t figured out what I would do in Bhuira—a charming little village in Himachal Pradesh—when Re and I boarded our flight this summer to Chandigarh, with no return ticket in hand. What’s there to do for three weeks, people asked. The mountains were calling, there was no time for paying attention to anything else.
Bhuira is in Rajgarh tehsil (known as the peach bowl of Asia) in the Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh, roughly a four-hour ride from the Chandigarh airport, and a two-hour drive from Kalka, the nearest railhead.
The village is home to pine, fir, and deodar trees; to strawberry, potato and garlic farms and to many stone-fruit orchards of peach, apricot, cherries, plums and Cape gooseberries among others. It is also home to the Bhuira Jams factory, where the local mountain women make and bottle 31 different kinds of jams, marmalades, preserves, chutneys and crushes every day. For the record, the jam is named after the village, although it does feel like the village is the jam factory, as most of its women work here and most of its kids have been raised on a steady Bhuira Jams diet.
I, of course, had Re at “Jam factory!”, and I knew that I wanted this to be a holiday to just “be” rather than “do”. I am on a mission to minimise clutter in my life and on my travels, which essentially means spending time savouring one place rather than packing in too much in my itinerary, or even doing away with an itinerary altogether. Bhuira makes “being” easy, especially if you are house guests at Linnet Mushran’s charming bungalow adjoining the Bhuira Jams factory which is resplendent with flower species you don’t know the names of but are eager to find out. It is here that I met fuchsias, said hello to foxgloves and learned to appreciate 50 shades of pink (in roses) and the delicate wilting and blooming of hydrangeas as the sun’s rays flirted with it.
I was woken up by monkeys on my first morning. They were on the roof, I could hear them walk above us and confer. Seems they got the memo about the kiwis fruiting. Ah, I thought, jam is tough business. If it’s not the monkeys, it’s the treepies and magpies, or the little kids who climb over the walls to help themselves.
On day three, Re asked, as he lay in his hammock in the garden, Mama, can we live here forever?
Because your shouty voice has disappeared.
The village is small enough to not get lost, yet quaint enough to find yourself suddenly accosted by mountain goats, or get waylaid by achhus or wild raspberries which grow all over and are hugely addictive once you start plucking and eating them.
More than a one-horse town, Bhuira is a two anganwadi town, and every day, as Re and I walked up and down Bhuira’s slopes, we noticed different bits of the road being tarred. The jam factory seems to have put Bhuira on the map, at least enough for the state government to consider its accessibility seriously, although there are still huge bits of non-road, as you drive up from Chandigarh. But it doesn’t seem to matter to us travellers though, because you are busy gazing out the window at the jacarandas in full bloom that punctuate the paths.
Every morning, the Himachal State Transport bus pulls in anytime between 8.20 and 8.30 a.m. just outside the factory, and the jam ladies arrive to start a brand new day’s work. As if on cue, the red-billed blue magpie perches on the slate roof, and then wanders off in search of fresh peaches and apricots.
No two days are the same at this factory. Sometimes it’s time for the sorting, cleaning or chopping of fruit, sometimes it’s time for pulping and freezing the fruit, or for sterilizing and drying bottles. Some days, they make tomato chutney or apricot jam by the gallon all day because there’s been a bulk order and everyone’s jamming, so to speak. Other days are for bottling, labelling and packing as they leak-test each jar before sending it off to different cities, or for going off on a wild berry chase, battling bristle and bramble until they hunt down enough achhus and kaaphal (bayberry) to make jam. All fruit is cooked and pulped with some sugar, and then frozen until the orders come in. The warehouse is full of bags of frozen fruit waiting to be jam one day.
Linnet had her heart in the right place when she started experimenting with jams in the kitchen of her family home in Bhuira 20 years ago. She set up the Bhuira Jams factory soon after. Today, the factory bustles with women from nearby villages who work here from 8.30 a.m. until 5 p.m.
There are of course the favourites: peach, apricot, plum, strawberry, kiwi and Cape gooseberry jam. Then there are the jellies: apple, guava and peach, and the marmalades: bitter orange, lemon and their famous tomato and bichhua (mango) chutney. Every bottle has something that leaves a trail. A stick of cinnamon, a seed of apricot, a dried red chilli, a julienne of ginger, a clove or a sprig of mint.
Linnet’s heart is still in Bhuira but her body can’t cope with the demands of running a jam factory anymore, so her charismatic daughter-in-law Rebecca Vaz has now taken over. She brings to this quaint jam enterprise her own brand of chutzpah, drive and leadership, trying to get Bhuira to as many corners of the country as possible and also make it available to online buyers. You can now buy Bhuira Jams on Amazon.in.
The Bhuira Jams’ label states that the goods are made by “happy mountain women”. I can vouch for the bliss quotient. I saw their joy while having tea with them; while catching up with them on their lunch break, when they take a few moments to nap under the trees, to talk about fruit and seeds and how every season has new jam stories; and while doing the Himachali dance with them on their return from a factory picnic.
Re and I found our own little routine around this jam ecosystem.
Some afternoons we just lolled in the hammocks, gazing at the tops of the pine and deodar trees, trying to identify species of flowers in Linnet’s garden. Being a house guest has its perks.
Some days, Re was sous-gardener, working under Ratan, the green-thumb who knew everything from rhododendrons to lilies and raspberries, about watering and weeding, about spraying peach trees with neem oil, an organic fertiliser to keep fungal attacks at bay.
Some days, we plucked fruit from the apricot trees in the garden. Re made for a fine plucker, although limited by Ratan’s height and agility. He nearly filled a whole basket.
Some days, Re was sous-stone-layer, building the no-cement-no-bricks garden wall, with Himachali stones layered to give a beautiful pattern, and to ward off potential two-legged fruit thieves.
Some days we walked through the apple orchard, the potato farms and the garlic farms. Other days we went trekking into the pine forest, collecting cones which we would then paint.
And some days, we just played with the mountain puppies.
And of course every single day was spent eating delicious meals cooked with much love by Ramkali. If Linnet is the heart of Bhuira Jams, Ramkali is its limbs. They flail in all directions as she multi-tasks, being the chief caretaker of the property, apart from being the chef, the logistics-in-charge, the planner of picnics and the mediator of conflicts, all rolled into one. Ramkali prides on being around longer than the jam factory, when Linnet was busy trying out apple jellies and strawberry preserves in little pots in her kitchen. When the factory opened in 1999, Ramkali made and distributed the halwa to the entire village.
Three weeks were gone in a flash!
We missed the cherries this time; they were not in season yet. And the kiwis too. Enough reason to go back.
I was lucky enough to be hosted in Linnet Mushran’s bungalow, but it is entirely worth your while to stay at the nearby Mist n Meadows resort which is 3 km away, or the Himgiri Nature Retreat which is 5 km away and do a day trip to Bhuira village to pluck some acchus, test your flower power in Linnet’s sprawling garden, watch jam being made, and buy some to take back home.