Friday, August 31, 2012

A memorable meal

Judith writes: Now we are back from our cycle trip across France we’ve had time to savour not only the ride but also the meals we had en route. This reminded me of a meal I enjoyed in India way back in 1984, linked by both bicycle riding and France. I had been fortunate enough to spend a sabbatical away from my normal secondary school job teaching geography. It enabled me to find out about agricultural and health programmes in parts of rural India that few teachers ever see as well as to take a real interest in the lives and aspirations of a wide range of people. I hope I was able to pass some of these experiences to my classes later.
I stayed mostly with Indian families and tried to eat the same fairly simple diets that they did but like many people away from their home comforts I sometimes found myself dreaming of European style food. One trip south of my main base in Madras took me to Pondicherry, formerly a French colony, where many of the older buildings still looked as if they were part of a film set, amid palm trees and paddy fields. I stayed a guest room of an ashram here and found food hard to find, according to my diary my staples were bread, bananas and peanut brittle, all available at streetside tea stands. The following day I hired a bike from the ashram and was able to widen my explorations. At that time Pondicherry was a very quiet place with few vehicles apart from other bikes, rickshaws or animal driven carts so I felt relatively secure although the bike seemed unwilling to turn right. After a somewhat expensive trip by taxi out to Auroville (founded in 1968) where the Matrimandir was then just a stark mass of spherical concrete girders, surrounded by scrub land and under darkening skies, I returned to the ashram a bit dejected and hungry. 
But I had a bike! So I rode into the town again and located the Grand Hotel d’Europe with its French restaurant, talked to the manager and booked myself a meal that evening at 7.45 pm.’’ Don’t be late’’ he warned ‘’I don’t want to give your meal to anyone else.’’
I remember I rode there as fast as that boneshaker would allow, really to escape any police since it was dark and I had no lights, of course. Air conditioned with potted palms, a large table set for one, it really was a film set. In former French Pondicherry, then at least, there were few restrictions about alcohol, grapes were grown here, wine and even brandy produced. However the manager advised me to have a beer, since the litre bottles of wine would be too much for one. 
The food came, a garlicky fish soup with large chunks of fish and tomatoes, together with garlic toast; a main course of a tender fillet steak and buttered rice; eggs mimosa with shrimps and mustard flavoured sauce, garnished with lettuce. I note in my diary that I could barely manage to eat a delicious almond egg pudding, though I found the coffee useful. It was a fantastic meal and gave me enough courage to cycle back to the ashram through the dark. There was little danger of being caught by the police, though running into  some cow lying in the road was real enough. 
Next day I cracked the secret of food in the ashram, there was a simple restaurant on the floor about my room, so I did not starve but was glad I hadn’t found it too early in my Pondicherry sojourn.
And what of Auroville? It has continued to develop and has achieved some of the goals of its founders, the Matrimandir is now a golden dome as you can discover from Wikipedia.

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