On a muggy July morning, First Agro's 80-acre farm in Talakad on the banks of river Kaveri near Mysore, was rife with the murmur of expected and unexpected visitors. A team of four chefs from the Ritz-Carlton, Bangalore, arrived, searching for innovative ideas that could one day delight gastronomes. N.P. Ramesh, who has a guava and banana plantation in a neighbouring farm, was there, too. He was of the opinion that nano drones and autonomous bots could revolutionise Indian agriculture. A brown Malanois X Shepherd, Mogambo, strolled in, and placed his head atop a large wooden table outside the farm's kitchen, where lunch was being cooked. He craved for attention every time Modekurti Nameet, the co-founder of First Agro, looked at this writer to talk on progressive farming. "He is my quality inspector. If he does not like a tomato, we don't sell it," Nameet joked.
First Agro sells about 70 varieties of tomatoes. It also sells Indian vegetables, exotic herbs, Japanese greens, peppers, lettuce and a range of South American chillies - Ancho, Poblano, Habanero, Amarillo, Aji Panca and Rocoto - to 110 luxury hotels, including The Oberoi, the Taj Group, JW Mariott, ITC and Hilton, among others.
Not far from the kitchen is Nameet's low-lit bedroom, which resembles a dormitory with multiple mats spread across. A whiteboard holds his scribbled vision for the future. Over the next few years, his farm could be ready with koshihikari (Japanese rice), buckwheat, black corn, purple corn, rainbow corn, teff (an Ethiopian grain), kiwicha (a Peruvian heirloom variety grain), numerous lentils, spices, exotic flours and cold-pressed oils.
"Japanese and Peruvian cuisine could be the next big thing. Perhaps, Nikkei cuisine (marriage of Peruvian ingredients and Japanese cooking style) and Kaiseki (traditional Japanese meal). I am preparing for it," says Nameet.
That's a bet. He is part of a small band of farmers that hopes to shape the fare luxury restaurants may dish out, going ahead. If not shape, influence. He proactively grows stuff that chefs visiting the farm take back to their kitchens. Then comes the feedback, which is translated into agronomy practice at the farm. Changes could be made in the way a plant is harvested and the amount of water it needs to match the flavour profile a chef desires, for instance. That trial to final production can take 28 months.
But why do all these when every leaf, vegetable and fruit can be imported? Indeed, The Indian Council of Agricultural Research says that India is importing more than 85 per cent of the exotic vegetables. Imports are getting tougher because India's custom inspectors dealing with fresh produce have become more aware. "It's not like a few years ago when you could get purple potato coming into the country without the inspector knowing about it," says Nameet.
Imports of some fresh produce are restricted from certain countries or are subject to higher supervision and testing. Costs are a big factor, too. A kilogram of purple corn's landed price in Mumbai can be Rs 1,350- Rs 1,750 - roughly, three cobs. The price of a dish that has one cob can hit the roof because a luxury restaurant can price it 10x the raw material cost. If Indian farms can produce it, the price could crash to Rs 300. When First Agro started production around 2012, the price of arugula (salad green) trended at Rs 1,800 a kg, or more, based on how desperate the market was, says Nameet. "Today, we keep it at Rs 850." Culinary trends are changing, as well. Gastronomes demand a lot more of international fare. And suddenly, "farm-to-table" is becoming a fad in India; it has been for many years in Europe and America. Chefs have started talking about sustainable sourcing, directly from small farmers around the region their restaurants are located. And imports do not always translate into better quality.
"If a product comes from California or Chile, you pay more. It is also picked unripe," says Chef de Cuisine at The Leela Palace, New Delhi, Diego Martinelli. Most fruits are picked unripe because it can wilt if it spends two to three days travelling. They ripen on the way. "But the product does not get all the nutrients that the plant gives for it to be fully good. That product won't be the same."
Both large farms, such as First Agro, and niche farmers have sensed an opportunity. While luxury dining is a small part of India's overall food services market of $48 billion in 2016 - organised standalone fine dining restaurants have a market share of just about 3 per cent, according to a report by the National Restaurant Association of India - there is still money to be made by selling produce that are not easy available. According to some estimates, the exotic vegetables market is growing at 30 per cent every year.
There's no way to tell it is a Caesar salad unless you are schooled. There are no chopped and tossed greens. What arrives, instead, at The Leela, New Delhi's Le Cirque, is a whole head of lettuce. The seasoning, the dressing, even the grated Parmesan is all hidden, within the lettuce. It looks novel and in the mouth, it can come close to what is called 'foodgasm'. What stimulates the intellect is the method of production. The lettuce has been grown hydroponically.
Le Cirque sources its lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and rocket leaves from Sparsh Farms in Himachal Pradesh that grows vegetables and fruits hydroponically - a method of growing plants without soil. The plant roots are kept wet by dripping water and mineral nutrient solutions. Those who care, love hydroponics, because if there is no soil, there is no bacteria and, thereby, no pesticides. The plant is left in a coconut fibre to allow rooting.
"Hydroponics is big in Europe - it has been there for 15 years. I started toying with hydroponics produce at The Leela about one year ago," says Martinelli, who exclusively directs the gastronomical delights at Le Cirque. He turns out to be a strict chef. He wants the Ceasar salad photographed only at a particular angle. When people, doing up a private dining room at his restaurant, create a minor racket, he goes and shuts them up. He also picks his local suppliers carefully. In India, he quips, it is tough work to get reliability and consistency in the produce.
Farmers, on the other hand, say it is difficult to get consistency of produce in open-field cultivation because India is a tropical country. Nevertheless, many fine dining restaurants now have a set of farm-to-table suppliers. And they seem to be trusting newer farms with no track record, alternative growing methods, as well as first-generation farmers. First Agro's Nameet, for instance, was a pilot before he became a farmer.
At The Oberoi, Gurgaon, the modern Indian restaurant Amaranta has a dish called 'Wilderness'. King oyster mushrooms are served along with asparagus, croquettas, gram salad and a mix of microgreens - onion cress, radish greens and nasturtiun leaves. Microgreens are tiny, edible vegetable greens that are used mostly for aesthetics, but also for flavour. This dish's microgreens come from Krishi Cress, a relatively new farm in Delhi, while the mushrooms are from Swadeshi Mushrooms, a spawn supplying company that now has ventured into growing the exotic. While Krishi Cress was founded one year ago by 23-year-old Achintya Anand, a trained chef himself, Swadeshi Mushrooms' Pranav Bahl, 26, started growing the exotic in 2012.
Trusting their ability to produce stuff good enough for a luxury restaurant is a 30-year-old talented chef with a handlebar moustache, Tejas Sovani, the Executive Sous Chef at Amaranta in The Oberoi, Gurgaon. This writer visits Bahl's facility along with him. Besides the brown-coloured King Oyster, Bahl has been experimenting with Pleurotus Ostreatus (black oyster mushroom) and Pleurotus Djamor (pink oyster mushroom). He opens a box and out comes a carefully-kept pink mushroom. It looks like a flower, but would taste like chicken when cooked.
Sovani is visibly excited. "I can flash fry it to ensure it remains crunchy from outside and soft inside," he says, as soon as the mushroom comes out of the box. He would add herbs and spices, salt, black pepper, curry leaves, fennel and finish the dish with lemon juice. This could be part of Amaranta's menu soon. He has also been trialling the Ostreatus.
While progressive farmers proactively come to chefs with their produce, chefs pop up ideas, too. "If I see something interesting during my travels, I can ask farmers here to try growing it," the chef says.
At Achintya Anand's farm, Sovani walks around, where, besides microgreens, a field full of carrots have been planted. Sovani's mind, at that moment, drifts to his three-month stagiaire (internship) at Copenhagen's Noma, rated among the world's top restaurants. Noma's chef René Redzepi's has a signature dish - slow roasted vintage carrot (old carrot not harvested for a year or so) in butter. "Try it," Sovani tells this writer. But the carrots used at Noma for this dish are 'biodynamic'. Where can he get them in India?
The Health Twist
Every Sunday, Manisha Bhasin, the Senior Executive Chef of ITC Maurya, lands up at a farmers' market in Delhi's Malcha Marg. She loves small farmers and makes cash purchases from them. They are mostly seasonal produce and the dishes created using them is mostly showcased at ITC Maurya's restaurant, The Pavilion. Every Sunday, she also meets Snehlata Yadav at this market. Her farm, Tijara Organic, is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Delhi, in Rajasthan's Alwar district. Chef Bhasin recommends we visit the farm and readily agrees to accompany the Business Today team. This will be her fourth visit.
A few kilometres off the highway, are the gates of this high-walled farm. The walls act as a buffer against cross contamination since this is an organic farm. Inside, there is a cow shed and a hut-like structure on the right. Open fields lead to two green houses, and a well-architected modern building where Yadav and her husband Col. Retired Tara Singh, live. A water body just around the house has fish. Hens roam around freely, sometimes eating up their produce of kale.
Besides kale, the farm grows rocket, celery, parsley, bajra, jowar, oil seeds, and all local and seasonal vegetables. Chef Bhasin, particularly, sources lettuce and amaranth leaves from this farm. "I would like to continuously buy from them, which is why I visit so often," she says. She also likes the practices the farm follows and that is its unique selling proposition - it practices Biodynamic and Vedic farming.
Biodynamic agriculture, often called "esoteric", started in Germany in the 1920s. "One farm is considered as one unit and it should be self-sufficient. It should have animals, water bodies, birds, and all the bio life on it. Farmers should grow their own grain and fodder. If I have animals, 60-70 per cent of the food should be from the farm," says Yadav. Biodynamic farmers believe that the position of moon and earth makes a difference in the atmosphere - it decides the moisture level. "We follow the lunar calender. There are specific seed sowing days."
Composting is done from material at the farm. One of the "esoteric" manures she prepares requires her to fill up the horns of a cow with cow dung. In another preparation, she fills it with silica powder. These horns are buried in October and taken out in March. "Around October, the earth is imbibing energy from the universe. When summers arrive, the earth is releasing the energy."
Vedic farming is cow-centric, too. Yadav uses 'panchgavya' as the growth promoter. It is made from cow ghee, urine, dung, milk and curd. "The microorganisms in the Indian cow's dung and urine are manifold higher. This is the best growth promoter. It has good bacteria and minerals," says Yadav.
A few days later, Chef Bhasin was at the hotel making a chicken curry with amaranth leaves plucked from the Tijara farm. With the spinach, she cooked 'palak paneer', and a few 'agasthya leaf roti', a low-glycemic bread.
Wellness cuisine is certainly rearing its head. "Customers are keen to know what produce it is, not necessarily from which farmer you are buying it. They want to know if it is organic or zero-pesticide," says Bhasin.
Back to First Agro, which markets itself as a "zero-pesticide" farm. One of its bets is also on a wellness grain, the Ethiopian Teff. "It has one of the lowest glycemic index among all grains. It is perfect for diabetic patients and India is the diabetes capital (of the world)," says Nameet.
Most chefs may not have heard of this grain, and from germination to being production-ready and commercialisation, is a long haul. But this is exactly why chefs have come to like local, progressive farmers. In their effort to influence the exotic of tomorrow, they are obsessively persistent.
So are some chefs who obsessively believe that 100 per cent sustainable sourcing is possible in India. Prateek Sadhu, after stints with restaurants in the US, The Leela and The Taj Group, among others, is preparing for the launch of his own fine farm-to-fork restaurant, Masque, in Mumbai. The cuisine will be global, but all the ingredients, Indian. "I will showcase India," he says. So for a dessert of buckwheat and chocolate, the chocolate is being sourced from Puducherry and the buckwheat from Himachal Pradesh. He has also discovered a rare rye supplier in the country. And, some of the berries in his desserts could well be from sea buckthron, found in Ladakh. He is spending loads of time with farmers producing niche and interesting stuff.
"Ingredients are the real stars," Sadhu quips, "Not the chefs."