During one of my many trips to Kochi, Aishwarya Maria Manjooran (read Manjoo) spoke to me a great deal about her ancestral property at Mavady. Her conversations held plenty of emotions, from stories of her father’s upbringing there to the number of times she had visited the house with her parents. I had drawn an image of the house in my mind, with a rubber plantation surrounding it, a river flowing nearby, and the well-lit rooms that look over lush green trees.
Mavady hill is close to Vagamon in Kerala, an area that comes under the Western Ghats, and is covered with rubber plantations. We kickstarted the trip to Vanilla County from Vytilla Hub, Kochi. A bus ride during a pandemic wasn’t something we should have done but nonetheless was safe and worth it. We reached Pala by daybreak where a jeep and Mathew Vallikappen (read Maachan) awaited us. A few kilometres from the city and the off-roading experience began. We picked up a few wine bottles on the way and reached an all-white, bright and beautiful plantation house. When Manjoo mentioned that it was her home, I imagined it to be small, well, I was wrong.
We were shown to our room, the master bedroom of the house, which had two single beds and a balcony that looked over the road that leads to Vanilla County. While I was soaking in the fresh air and the moment of peace, all I craved for was a strong cup of hot tea. By the time we had freshened up, it was lunchtime and boy, a feast awaited us!
Silu and Maachen along with the chechis of the house were whipping up a storm in the kitchen. The table got adorned with earthen crockery filled with naadan (traditional) Kerala dishes like Red rice, Moru curry (tempered curd), Chembila Thoran (taro leaves tempered with grated coconut), Ayala fry (Indian Mackerel fry), Koorka Mezhukkuperatti (stir-fried Chinese potato), Sambhar, Cabbage Thoran (sliced cabbage tempered with grated coconut), Vazhuthananga Porichathu (crispy fried brinjal) and Pappadom. The taro leaf Thoran was unlike any other that I had had in my life, I was mind blown when the Chechi told me how minimal ingredients were used to make this masterpiece. At home, we make Vazhuthananga in a very different manner, but how it was served here with it being coated with masala and fried into thin strips was familiar to me, thanks to Manjoo’s Amma. The next thing I remember is waking up on my bed at 6.00. pm post a siesta. The temperature had fallen by a few degrees and we were prepared for a night of fun, music and wine, the one we had picked up on our way to Vanilla County!
The aroma of stewed beef drove me crazy and I walked straight into the kitchen to see if my senses were playing the right cards with me. I saw Chef Maachan gently stewing a pot of minced beef with Silu mashing potatoes by his side. What do you think he was cooking? Joining the main course was a flavourful plate of lemon butter garlic prawns, garlic bread and a hot bowl of pumpkin soup.
After downing a big slice of shepherd’s pie which was probably one of the finest I have had from Kerala, I went on to binge eating the delicate prawns that had soaked in all the goodness of the lemon butter garlic sauce! Balancing flavours is a skill, it comes with practice and this one was a spectacular explosion of flavours in my mouth. the four of us downed all of this with two bottles of wine and paired it with some music. The dessert counter was Silu’s department and boy, she owned it! A trifle of custard, orange base with biscuit and sugar crumble on top, I fondly named it Jil Jil pudding. It had started to feel a lot like Christmas to me!
I woke up to the sound of the birds chirping, it is not something new to you when you are from Kerala, but this place hosted a serene silence. We broke our fast like a King, or to put it better, like people who had not had food in over a week or so. We started off with Appam and stew and moved on to fine dining elements like toast, homemade banana jam (which was stunning!) and omelette. We had to stock our body up with enough energy as we awaited a trek and a swim!
A 15-minute warm-up session is all it took us to get geared up for a swim, to dive right into the crystal-clear, cold water that had come melting down from the hills. This little stream nestled in between the plantation could easily be something Vanilla County could boast of! What an overwhelming experience it was. To have soaked in the goodness of nature, to feel exhausted, to have silky smooth hair at the end of what felt like cardio! I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said it was an experience of a lifetime for me and the separation anxiety had started creeping into my bones.
Another brilliant lunch followed. This time it was Biriyani, and legend says that you eat like a pig after a swim! I had tried to snooze my guilty conscience, but by now it had hit the metre. A small walk later, I put on my workout clothes and in the cold weather where sweating was a challenge, I ensured a drip report!
The weather was perfect for reading. We snuggled into a comfortable position, picked up our kindles and soaked in the silence. An hour into the book world and we were done for the day! It was time to return.
Honestly, it was difficult to leave. The hosts had become family and Vanilla County, home. Life is strange that way, you build a home in the most unexpected places, you grow your ties when you least expect it, but this is what keeps it real. I am grateful for the impromptu girls trip we planned, for it gave me a memory that I would cherish for a lifetime.
Vanilla County is now open to the public and you can find more details about them here: https://www.vanillacounty.in/ . I look forward to the day I get to revisit them!