Beneath Auroville's deceptively calm surface there's plenty of experimentation with edgy health food
We start our day with a buttery papaya jam served with warm croissants. For a country that teems with bright, luscious fruit it's astonishing that more people aren't making the varieties of jam found in Auroville and Puducherry.
Instead of the tired mixed fruit, strawberry and pineapple found in every supermarket aisle, over here Naturellement makes jam with star fruit, kumquats and even tamarind. Using less popular fruits does more than just expand people's flavour repertories. It's also the most effective way to safeguard biodiversity.
Puducherry's justifiably famous for its cuisine, irreversibly influenced by about 300 years of French rule. Today, although much of this food has been adjusted for spice-craving locals and domestic tourists, the town's still a petri dish for fascinating culinary experiments, for a number of reasons. The most obvious — its eclectic mix of spirited new-age entrepreneurs and reformed yuppies, many intent on opting out of the rat race to create an eco-friendly, self-sustaining, organic (and often artistic) way of life. These are the people who turned Auroville, which was once barren land into a lush forest, studded with fertile farms.
Since the settlers come from all over the world, the food they create is necessarily international. However, unlike Goa, refuge of the global hippy, or cosmopolitan Mumbai, where slickness is key, the food style here goes far beyond the crepes-camembert-curry route. Fuelled more by idealism than commerce, it's supported by new-age farmers and European technical know-how.
Add to this Puducherry's determinedly Tamil aesthetic, savoured and celebrated by both locals and expatriates in everything from architecture to culture, and its unchanging small town feel. Then factor in the unmistakable French influence, seen even in the tiny bakeries, which still offer crisp, skinny Parisian baguettes every morning.
The result is an environment that's ideal for the kind of gentle culinary crusade that California pioneered in the early Eighties, promoting simple, yet innovative, meals made from garden fresh, local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. Granted, Puducherry still has a long way to go before it becomes as influential. Especially given the fact reclusiveness is practically a virtue here.
Yet, for visitors who keep their eyes open, it's easy to see a world of feisty ideas bubbling under the town, and Auroville's deceptively calm surface.
The Annadana Genetic Resource Center and Soil and Seed Savers Network, created in 1999 in Auroville, for instance, promotes the conservation and exchange of traditional vegetables, pulses, cereals and plants. The seeds they save include rocket, cow peas and wing beans. How many varieties of tomato can you name? They have 11. These include black prince, described as having a juicy rich fruity flavour, the red pear “appreciated by children as garden candy” and black krim “richly flavoured with a hint of saltiness and smokiness.” Other varieties are broad ripple, gold dust and orange oxheart.
Like any new-age community, there's plenty of experimentation with edgy health food. At Auroville's boulangerie, perpetually swathed in the aroma of baking bread, there's a shelf piled high with spongy vegan cakes and solid banana muffins. Even the dark fudgy brownies are rebelliously healthy, made with dark chocolate, apple vinegar, jaggery and sunflower oil.
The popular health food store opposite the bakery offers mustard, coriander and eucalyptus raw honey to dribble on slabs of dense whole wheat bread. We pick a bottle of cloudy Kefir lemonade here, choose it over the kompucha lemon grass and kompucha rose petal juices. Kompucha's a fermented tea rich in nutrients. The kefir, a probiotic antioxidant made from different types of milk (from cow to coconut) blends riotously with the lemonade creating a drink that's fizzy-strange, like the lovechild of lemons and Kerala toddy.
There's also a big cool bag of miso made by Aurosoya, resting in the fridge beside a range of locally produced, strong smelling cheeses. Spirulina coos at us from behind the counter, promising to be “crunchy and delicious”, especially since it's fortified with amla for extra punch.
We debate between power food and pleasure. It's a quick decision. In minutes we're at the Auroville visitor's centre spooning up delicate teacake, laced with organic vanilla and generously slathered with chocolate. Clearly, healers come in many forms.