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A plateful of high mountain produce

The Nilgiris Earth Festival focuses on the link between ecology and food with panel discussions, chef tables and farm visits

A display of fresh produce at Nilgiris Wild Food Festival 2022. The festival has been renamed as Nilgiris Earth Festival this year.

By Jahnabee Borah

LAST PUBLISHED 11.12.2023  |  09:00 AM IST

As climate change threatens biodiversity, there’s a rise in events to protect ecosystems where forest foods flourish. The Nilgiris Earth Festival—with a line-up of chef tables showcasing high mountain ingredients, dishes by local and indigenous communities and climate talks—intends to spotlight the spectacular biodiversity of the region. The five-day event will run from December 19-23.

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There are other experiences on similar lines. A few months ago, the publishing platform Locavore partnered with OOO Farms, an online marketplace of heritage grains, for a wild food festival in Mumbai. Goa’s Serendipity Art Festival spotlights ecology and food through documentary screenings and workshops.

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At the the second edition of the Nilgiris Earth Festival, formerly Nilgiris Wild Festival, visitors will get a chance to try dishes by the native Badaga community and ingredients of the indigenous Irulas. There’s food for thought with talks and panel discussions. A talk by agricultural economist Yon Fernandez de Larrinoa holds much promise. He works with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and will share his vast wisdom of indigenous ecology and cuisine. Another speaker Dr Nicola Bradbear will touch upon the significance of bees in a climate-changed world. She is the director of the UK-based charity organisation Bees For Development. The Nilgiris are a biodiversity hotspot and bees play an integral role to sustain the rich flora and fauna. The adivasis, Irulas, Kurumbas and Todas, depend on these precious pollinators for food and livelihood. Apart from attending the talks, visitors can also buy the rare and delicious honey.

There’s more on the menu. Educationist and entrepreneur Dr Suresh Belliraj runs the restaurant Odae in Kotagiri. He will lead a food session, named Parva, unique to the native Badaga community. Parva refers to a communal eating experience focused on service, just like langar. A moreish bean preparation with potato is a must in a parva meal. Along with serving food, Belliraj plans to share the history of Badaga cuisine that evolved through colonial influences with the inclusion of potatoes, chillies and bread.

To explore the possibility of how these sub-regional ingredients will work in contemporary restaurant-style experiences, there are two chef tables by the renowned chef Avinash Martins of Cavatina in Goa and the innovative Karan Upmanyu from The Conservatory in Bengaluru. They will collaborate with the festival’s chef Arup Kakati for two distinctly different menus—an amalgamation of Goa’s Saraswat Brahmin and Portuguese flavours rendered with ingredients from the Nilgiris; and dishes that champion local farm produce with modern flair.

Kakati’s voice is flecked with expectation as he speaks of using high mountain produce like globe artichoke, rhubarb and elderflower unique to this region. He is planning to treat visitors to local fish varieties, such as rainbow trout and the tasty Nilgiris barb.

Move from plate to farm with two experiences: a workshop on regenerative farming to learn how to grow a garden without digging; and a visit to Kikui farms in Ooty that features cooking on wood fire. Then there’s a high-tea menu at the tea plantation Tranquilitea in Coonor. Something similar in a fabled coffee estate would have ticked all boxes.

To sample indigenous flavours, sign up for the special lunch with dishes by Irulas and Kurumbas. It presents the rare opportunity that makes most city foodies travel for food.

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