I have a very special guest post today from my friend Prachi Deshpande. You may remember Prachi from her previous guest post last year, an ode to the Hawkins Futura Pressure Cooker Cookbook. Though they’re based in Kolkata, for the last few years Prachi and her partner have been involved with a small family farm that they started in Birbhum district in West Bengal. I’ve been following their progress on Prachi’s Instagram feed for the farm. One of the things I like very much about that feed is how un-prettified and un-aestheticized it is; and I appreciate very much as well how open she is about the difficulties and challenges of this project.
Which is not to say that there is nothing about her reports of work on the farm that engages in a sensual manner. I have been salivating for two years now over the pictures of the dana gur/granular jaggery they produce every spring from the sugarcane they grow. They sell it in Kolkata and it is a source of annual agony for me that I cannot get any of it. I am glad, however, that I finally managed to convince her to document the process of production of this gur as a post for my blog. What follows is a brief introduction by Prachi to what they are up to at their farm and then a slideshow of images taken on a phone camera of the gur being made. The pictures in the slideshow have captions that explain each step in detail. [Note: the two videos posted to the right of Prachi’s write-up would in the production sequence follow the slideshow photograph captioned “The Night Vigil”.]
Take a read, take a look and if you are in Kolkata or know anyone who will be traveling there soon see if you can get your hands on some of the gur (details are in the last image of the slideshow). And in case it needs to be said, while I am very happy to promote my friend’s endeavour, there is no quid pro quo involved.
Gur Making at Grass Hamlet ~ Prachi Deshpande
Stirring the reduced juice
Grass Hamlet is a small four-year-old farm in the Birbhum district of West Bengal, India. We are a couple of academics with two young children trying to grow some of our food and learning about sustainable agriculture and agroforestry. Our goal is to make it a thriving food forest, developed through principles of natural farming, which can eventually supply most of our family’s nutritional and food needs, and also be an ecosystem for local flora and fauna. Our initial interest developed while living in the US, inspired by critiques of the broken food system. We also wished strongly to somehow reconnect with our roots, however tangled up in multiple languages, regions, and experiences. Although based in Bengal, the name Grass Hamlet is a translation of Hullikeri, the name of my ancestral village across the country in northern Karnataka.
Translating these aims on to the ground amid myriad hurdles, and work and family commitments in the city, has been an exhilarating, instructive experience so far! It is teaching us as much about ourselves, our strengths, and limits, as about the joys and challenges of growing food. Connecting with people in the village has been a mixed bag – our neighbours have been more welcoming than I had anticipated, despite predictable raised eyebrows about how serious we city folk are about all this, especially someone like me who is not even from this region. Yet it takes a long time to peel away the layers of rural practice and learn about the intricacies of local government and village life, and we’re still figuring it out. Seeing ourselves not as educated people armed with superior knowledge about sustainability, but as newbies who wish to learn from farmers with practical experience in actually seeing a crop from seed to table, even if through conventional agriculture, has helped us establish channels of communication with our neighbours who often work for us as farmhands to supplement their income. We have been lucky to connect with one farmer Kartik, who is very eager to learn about organic/natural practices and experiment with them on our farm, but also freely shares his own knowledge with us. We also did a week-long introductory course on natural farming and permaculture principles at the nearby Smell of the Earth farm, which was very useful in getting us started, and remains an inspiration.
Checking the consistency
Grass Hamlet is still in its initial stages of setup. In the last three years we have planted several fruit trees such as mango, jackfruit, sapota, bel, guava, litchi, java plum, wood apple, rose apple, papaya, banana, and mulberry, some of which have just begun giving us fruit. We also have various perennials, thorny and medicinal shrubs, and small trees for a live fence. Knitting and spinning fibre were my serious hobbies when I lived in the US, but there is sadly little need for warm clothes in this climate. So I have learnt to spin cotton instead of wool, and one of my joys has been to revive and propagate a perennial tree cotton called phele which has long been grown in eastern and north-eastern India. A few trees give me enough to card and spin over the year. In the last few years, we have also successfully grown various annual staples for family consumption: rice, potatoes, mustard, chickpeas, and peanuts, and lots of vegetables. Experimenting with a range of annuals has given us some sense of what to focus on commercially in the future – oilseeds, legumes, perhaps some livestock – but also brought home the importance of focusing on developing perennials, and establishing a longer-term design for the farm as a whole. The pandemic has both frustrated some of these efforts and brought home the importance of investing in it; let’s see what the next couple of years bring us.
The one crop we have grown successfully for sale in the last three years is sugarcane, which is sowed in April and harvested the following year around the same time. We process this cane on-site first into juice, and then into thick, viscous and grainy molasses or jaggery, known as gur, to sell locally in the Kolkata urban market. The entire process is heavily skill and labour-intensive. Depending on the amount of sugarcane and labour we can hire to cut it, it takes about 24-26 hours from starting to cut and clean the cane, to pouring the completed jaggery into tins the following morning. But the end product is delicious, with a dark look and smoky taste that far surpasses the commercially grown and processed blocks of cane jaggery in the markets. This April I documented the entire process through a series of photos, mostly candid ones on my mobile phone camera.
Many thanks to Prachi for documenting the gur making process. If you have any questions about any of this or about other aspects of the farm I am sure she would be happy to answer them. And, again, if you are—unlike me—able to get your hands on this excellent gur please do take advantage of your opportunity.