Wednesday, 31 August 2016

A Journey to the Center of the Jamroll

A jam-roll is a jam-roll is a jam-roll. 

What could be so exceptional about it at a time when every variety of jam and cake is available in the market? When my cousin requested me to get Kunjus jam-roll from Kanjirapally, little did I know about the nostalgic yearnings furled into its spongy sweetness. Sure we have our local favorites too like the multi-colored faluda at Sangeeth Coolbar which comes with a generous topping of home-crafted vanilla ice cream. Then there's the classic mango duet! I still slurp dreaming of the mango and vanilla ice lolly I loved as a kid. But what could have pushed her into craving for something as prosaic as a jam-roll, especially when she didn't grow up with it? Curiosity got the better of me and I ran a google search to get some insight. What I found titillated my inquisitiveness even more. It was covered in the news! And why wouldn't it be? The recipe was formulated more than 80 years ago by a gifted baker named K.K. Kunju aka Kunju Ashan who founded his own bake-house in Kanjirapally. On his return from training in Ceylon, he attempted to create his own version of the Swiss jam roll to appeal to the refined tastes of the British-inspired food connoisseurs of the time. Now strawberry doesn't come cheap in India. That's when he looked around and saw the ripe and raspy floral beauties - pineapples! He juxtaposed the fruit preserve with some sponge cake baked to perfection in a wood-fired oven called the borma and offered them as one long bundle of goodness called the jam-roll. And that ingenious idea has continued to attract customers for more than three quarters of a century!

It was time to get the cat out of the bag. Off we went in search of the legendary pineapple jamroll, driving through the inside lanes of the rubber 'capital' of India. At the market junction of Kottayam-Kumily road, standing vigil to all the noise and commotion, stood an ageless, unassuming outlet named S.A.C bakery.

Nothing about it, neither the age-stricken wooden shelves with their clear glass exterior nor the sleepy middle-aged manager who sat at the bill desk,  gave even a hint of its glorious history. We asked for the jam roll and out came an elegant, white, cylindrical cardboard box about the length of an arm. The package said that each roll could be cut into 32 slices and it would go best with ice cream and custard. Each roll costed Rs. 300. We bought four of those and took leave from Kanjirapally, but not before savoring some local coffee, beef roast and porotta from a roadside thattukada!

Back in our own kitchen, we opened the box and carefully unwrapped the butter paper to reveal the golden brown jam-roll. And how did it taste? At the outset, it was soft and mellow, then it exuded a strong fruity punch and before giving a sugar rush, the spongy cake came in and conquered the sweetness. That may have sounded dramatic but I was intently looking for reasons behind the popularity of this product. I concluded that it wasn't really out of the world. Well, it could have been delightfully extraordinary when it was first introduced back in the 1930s. A couple of days passed and I found myself munching on a slice of the roll every time I opened the refrigerator. That's when the idea of combining it with some Vanilla and Alphonso mango ice cream occurred. After that there has been no looking back. I fell in love with the sugary sweetness of the jam-roll which is unlike that of any of the mass-produced baked products you can easily lift off a supermarket shelf. 

Kunjus Jamroll (branded so by K.K. Kunju's son due to the immense popularity of this one product) now has an exclusive outlet in Kochi. You can also order it online and they will deliver the jam-roll at your doorstep, wherever you are in India. 

Gavi - A Mystery in the Wild

I discovered Gavi purely by chance. The resort we stayed at in Kumily, Thekkady organized day trips to Gavi and we decided to explore this quaint little hamlet nestled in the midst of wilderness. Though the place became popular after getting featured in a couple of movies, it still remains one of the lesser traveled destinations in India. Now declared a part of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Gavi is home to a variety of flora and fauna including leopards and elephants. Located in the Seethathode panchayath of Pathanamthitta district, there are many roads leading to Gavi. Yet the dense forest encapsulating Gavi attracts only the discerning enthusiast. Kerala State Road Transport Corporation operates an ordinary bus service from Pathanamthitta to Kumily via Gavi and that is the only public transport available in the region.

We started from Kumily at six in the morning. It was in the month of July when the monsoons were in full swing. Our open jeep traversed the rain washed mud tracks hewed out in the thick of the forests. The scent of the wild was accentuated by the persistent drizzle and the buzzing and screeching of insects. We peered out of the jeep to catch a glimpse of the wildlife inhabiting the region. Among the few animals we spotted were the Great Indian bison, elephants and black monkeys. Driving down, we entered a clearing in the middle of the jungle and there awaited Gavi in all its magnificence. The Kerala Forest Development Corporation runs an ecotourism project here with arrangements for food, camping and trekking. The day's activities included hiking, visiting the cardamom plantations and boating.The highlight of the tour was a waterfall hidden deep inside the jungle accessible to tourists by boat. The grandeur of the falls arising from heights and shattering away on rocks like shards of glass, is unparalleled. It captured the essence of Gavi - a wild, unpredictable kind of beauty which is as pristine as mountain water and as dangerous as its violent currents. 

It is when I tried to gather more information about this hidden gem that I chanced upon a documentary on the people of Gavi. No, they are not aboriginal tribes. Nor are they native dwellers. They are refugees from Sri Lanka who sought to build a new life away from the terror they faced back home due to the constant tension between the LTTE and the Srilankan Army. The Indira Gandhi government provided them refuge in the impenetrable forestland of Gavi, safe from human intervention but precariously exposed to the perils of living in the wild. Till date, little has been done to improve their plight. One member from each family is employed at the cardamom plantations maintained by the forest department. The demand for wage increase is met with a threat to job security. The nearest school is miles away and the only dispensary in the region has just one nurse. It seems as if these people, in their quest for a better future,  got drawn into the esoteric depths of Gavi, becoming one among its darker secrets.