Plough through the forest roads of Auroville to find the perfect cheesecake at the Well Paper Café
I’ll go anywhere for cheesecake. Really. Anywhere. I do however question my judgment for a minute when I find myself lost in the middle of a forest. It’s a tad too Red Riding Hood for my liking. Except instead of carrying a basket of apples for my grandmother, I’m wandering through the trees muttering “Cheesecake, cheesecake.” Not the most glamorous way to go.
It begins when I discover, much to my dismay, that I’ve already worked my way through all the Pondicherry staples. Cocktails and calamari at Le Club. Tuna salad and quiche at Baker Street. Steaks and iced tea at Satsanga. So, I turn to Auroville. The bohemian township may seem quiet from the outside, but with its multicultural population it’s a goldmine for gourmands.
A friend tips me off about the Well Paper Café, famous for its cheesecake. Fortunately I’ve become more cautious after my last Aurovillian odyssey, which involved riding circles for two hours, stopping at regular intervals to trudge through ankle deep mud in the pouring rain to accost passing bikers for directions. (All to track down an elusive wild-haired, tattooed, biker designer, who finally met me in a forest clearing in what felt like a scene straight out of Twilight.) Having learnt my lesson, I demand a map, which my friend obligingly sketches on a piece of paper with a circle in the centre depicting the golden Matri Mandir.
Fortified by a quick croissant at the Auroville bakery, we plunge into the forest. The red dirt roads get rougher as we drive in, stopping only to gape at the Matri Mandir, rising above us all gold and grandeur. Just as we’re giving up hope, we notice a tiny blue board set in front of a candy-striped gate, announcing ‘Well Café’.
The kitchen, which looks like a converted shed, is the only concrete structure. The rest of the cafe is composed of chairs and tables randomly strewn under dusty blue tarpaulins heavy with fallen leaves. Between them there are boards strung with recycled bags, handmade jewellery and paper baskets. It’s all very rustic. How rustic? Well, I head to their little bathroom to languidly wash my hands and freshen up. Minutes after I return to my seat, I hear a slight commotion. The cook chuckles, “Oh. They just found a snake inside the bathroom.” Ah well. I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t the big bad wolf.
Sipping on refreshing mint lemonade served in tall steel tumblers, we look around the Well Paper Café. WELL stands for “Women’s Empowerment through Local Livelihood’ and Well Paper was started in 2005 as a tsunami relief effort. Created to provide employment, it enables local woman to earn a living from selling products made of recycled materials. The organisation also runs this Café, which offers fairly authentic, healthy and organic Israeli food.
Under the dinky lights, strung haphazardly with little cut outs of bells and hearts, the daily menu is scrawled on a blackboard in blue, pink and white chalk. There’s couscous with vegetable soup, Malabi (the creamy Middle Eastern pudding perfumed with rose water) and chocolate cake. I peer closely at the board, and there at the bottom, I find what I’m looking for: Cheesecake.
But first lunch. We order labane, a soft Mediterranean curd cheese condiment with Middle Eastern herbs. However, it’s disappointingly sour and one-dimensional. Fortunately it’s served with addictively smoky grilled eggplant and crusty brown bread. There’s also a small salad, which is surprisingly tasty despite it’s fairly plain Jane appearance: a rough mix of cooked beetroot chunks, grated cabbage and chickpeas, all tossed with toasted sesame seeds. We have hummus, fortified by a gentle echo of garlic. And a Mediterranean Plate: thin slices of carrots, roasted squash, grated raw papaya and more, all tossed with billowy cous cous and a handful of fresh mint leaves. Unfortunately they are out of falafel, another one of their specialities.
The meal ends with cheesecake, of course. Its semi frozen, with a hard, buttery, sweet biscuit base. The smooth filling is tangy with local cream cheese. Finally there’s a topping of more crushed biscuits. Totally worth the drive. Well, provided you like salad and snakes. Admittedly, enjoying this experience does require a dash of ‘Tarzan and Jane.’
(The Well Paper Café is next to the Matri Mandir in Auroville. The meal costs approximately Rs. 500 for two.)