On the Road Again

Breakfast on the Deccan Queen

While much has changed for the worse, some things have definitely changed for the better, in the last five years, in India. One of the changes I am really grateful for is to be able to book train tickets online.

Hallelujah!!

Does anyone recall ye olde days of yore at the railway station, standing in a queue for 4 hours to reach the head of the line only to be told “Sold out” or “Waiting list only” or only available for the next day and other such disappointing stuff. We knew full well that half the tickets had been “reserved” to be sold in the black market later that day.

Being a frequent PUNE-BOMBAY traveler this was my weekly plight. My fate was to be jammed in with a hundred other women for “floor only” seating in the unreserved ladies compartment, time after time.

Eleven years ago all that changed. IRCTC online happened and there has been no looking back. Oh the pleasure of booking a ticket from the comfort of home rather than being inspected with infinite interest from top to toe, for an interminable four hours by bored and curious fellow queue’ ers in the grubby and smelly environs of the booking office !!

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Though trips are less and less frequent, I still make the odd journey on the Deccan Queen (now rather battered by age) with its tattered blue rexine covered seats and less than spacious chairs.

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However one wonderful tradition has not changed.  The menu of breakfast made fresh in the pantry car......

Omelette sandwich, Cutlet sandwich, Sabudana wadas , hot chai and coffee. All dripping with oil and deliciously sinful, served with “tomato” (read pumpkin) sauce.

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The waiters have a great memory, taking the order before Lonavala and coming round a couple of hours later (around Panvel), to settle the bill without aid of pen and paper.

Today the price of the breakfast snack is significantly more than the original 35 paise but worth its oily weight in gold.

When you crave the fine pleasure of spacing out on train journeys and eating gloriously unhealthy stuff, or are bitten by the nostagia for the delights of chair car travel and railway food- you can whip up the following.

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 Omelette Sandwich Deccan Queen Style

Ingredients

2 tablepoons vegetable oil or butter

2 eggs, beaten

½ onion, finely minced

/1 green chilli, finely minced

½ tomato chopped fine

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large slices white bread

Method

1. Heat the oil and a frying pan. When hot fry the onions and chillies. When soft add the tomatoes and sauté.

2. Pour in beaten eggs and fry till set. Fold into half and then fold again into a quarter

3. Butter two slices of bread. Put the quartered omelette in between .

4. Serve hot with plenty of tomato sauce and a paper napkin to wipe a shining face later.


The Best Restaurants in North Goa 2012-2013

 

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December means Goa to our family. One morning at dawn all is packed into the boot of the car, minimal  clothing (in size and quantity), much in headgear and footwear, a standard picnic of egg mayonnaise sandwiches and chai and- we are off.

Each turn and twist in the road is remembered but not always recognized .The increasing amount of construction along the highway prevents total recall. Bill boards proliferate on the Maharashtra side of the highway and feature the apparent aspirations of the population . This, at present time, seems to be a life of royalty. The privileged were obviously dressed very grandly. Prissy faced men are togged out in brocaded sherwani and churidar, with strings of pearls, rubies and emeralds roped around their short necks  and stretching to the waist. The clothing is generally called something like Maharana, Mewar, Raja, Monarch or Saheb. The models assume an air of superiority and disdain in the style of one Balasaheb. Many of our politicians assume this same air. No rubbing of shoulders with the masses for them.

The dream of royalty is also reflected in the many billboards for housing. From Katraj to Satara to Kolhapur , crummy apartments are called Palacia , Corinthian or Chateau d” etc, in the hope that buyers will thrill to the name rather than the reality of a 500 sq foot, badly constructed, BHK.

Our burgeoning middle class seems to want to distance themselves outwardly, as far and as quickly as possible , from their roots.

The motorcycle of the Kolhapuri sugar baron has been replaced by the SUV, many with the (now banned )tinted black windows. They hog the road in the way that a Maharaja presumably hogged the pathways with his elephants.

Inspite of these signs of social mobility the drive to Goa is always a pleasure. We still feel proud of a four  lane highway in India and enjoy speeding along at a clipping pace, a velocity inconceivable with that old tank, the Hindustan!

The best part of the trip is the turn off to Gadinglaj and the 60 kilometers to Amboli. Along the plateau, surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, the traffic considerable reduced compared to the highway, the road meanders, bordered by trees of many varieties , mango and chikoo orchards in the background. It has been newly tarred which is a welcome surprise. The rice has been harvested and bundles of hay are stacked neatly in the fields, a picturesque sight. The sky is clear blue, we are far away from the smog of Pune.

We turn the corner from Amboli and face the steep and snaky descent into the plains, spread out below in a massive and breathtaking vista. Very wooded and green with the occasional waterfall this is a gorgeous drive. The occasional monkey and mongoose scamper across the narrow road. We finally reach the plains and Sawantwadi, the beginning of our entry into Goa.

It is 4 pm and we look forward to our tea at the end of the journey.

Now comes the all important and serious task of finding places to eat. We gather what information we can from friends and recent travelers to Goa and make a combined list of restaurants that we will check out in the week before us.

Here are the results of our daily research.

The best places to eat in North Goa in 2012-2013

1.Bomras-  Burmese influences in an exciting menu offering an amazing choice of food  all with mind blowing new  tastes.This is so head and shoulders above the rest it requires a post of its own...coming soon on these pages

247 Fort Aguada Road, Near Kamat Retreat Fort, Candolim  Tel: 9767591056 /9011947436.Open for dinner only

.2.La Plage-  Meditteranean food well prepared with excellent ingredients.

Ashwem beach.  Best to go at lunch time when you can enjoy the view.

3.Thalassa-  Greek food with authentic taste and  generous portions. Vagator. Tel 9850033537. My favourite  was the Kleftiko with serious chunks of meat stewed to melting point

4.Brittos- Goan food. Baga Beach. Everyone knows Brittos and while standards are uneven they are always worth a couple of meals.

5.Bhatti Village – Cheap excellent Goan food. Be sure to try the white bait (moteine) and fish roe( gaboi). No menu but Patrick D’souza,  the owner, will tell you what is on offer.Bhatti waddo, Nerul Bardez, Goa 403114 ( take a left from Candolim at the Nerul crossroads). Tel: 9822184103

6 .Terry’s Restaurant- behind Betim Petrol Pump, Betim, North Goa. Landmark: Next to the Ferry       .          Tel: 2411961 Try the Sambar Prawns delicious with sukha sungta ( dried prawns) and kokum.

While we found these restaurants worth making a trip for there are ofcourse plenty of others vying to be chosen. With hundreds of eateries in just the stretch  from Calangute to Baga you are assured of a decent meal pretty much anywhere.

It occurred to me, after a week of unbridled ingestion of good to great food, that Goans do not have  much mind space for royalty. Why would they? When you eat like a emperor everyday you don’t need the trappings of kings.


The Verandah in The Forest

One of the modest pleasures life still affords is a short train ride through the post monsoon countryside of Maharashtra. Green fields surrounded by the low craggy hills of the Western ghats, the day cool and bright and, if the ride is early enough, a little nip in the air.

Hot tea in miniscule cups served at regular intervals and the occasional vada pau during the many, many stops that happen on a long distance train. Friendly chats with fellow passengers amidst the quiet inquisitiveness about family and home, to be shared and forgotten the moment one alights.

Just such a journey happened recently on the way to Matheran , aboard the Sahyadri Express which meandered its way through the small towns and villages on the route to Mumbai. We got off at Neral to take a cab up the steep and winding road to Dasturi, the last stop for cars, as this little hill station is probably the only place in India which does not allow vehicles in an area that covers a few square kilometers. What a blessing!

Toy train tracks to matheran

From Dasturi we took a fifteen minute train ride on one of the three famous toy trains that still run in India. As old as I am this was still a delight. Most of the passengers were transported back to childhood  and many allowed themselves to reveal their joy. This made for a happy excursion. The rail tracks stood two feet apart and the train chugged shakily along, up the hill, as breathtaking views of the valley below passed us by.

The final destination for us was a good two kilometer walk from the station and this was made comfortable by having a slightly built woman porter, by the name of Lata Kadam, carry my overloaded friend’s  backpack for her. Map of Matheran and Bar house

We made our way through the lanes which were being repaired and which were consequently rocky and dusty with the typical red stone and mud of the area. A short while later, with the aid of just one signboard on a completely deserted pathway , we walked into The Verandah in The Forest. It was, appropriately, hidden amongst the trees. 1-DSC04257

This large bungalow, once and still known by the locals as Bar Cottage, is precisely what the name suggests. A huge verandah backed by rooms. No swimming pool, no children’s playground, no gym, just a verandah overlooking a forest.

And it was enough. The Verandah

Tables and planters chairs are laid out at decent intervals so residents can lounge in peace reading papers or books. Morning tea is served here. Masala chai or a choice of teas  or coffee . Neemrana’s own roasted coffee. Breakfast and lunch is served here. A buffet for both.  Cereals, choice of eggs, juices and toast plus their rather good jam for breakfast. Lunch consists of a selection of Indian dishes , mutton curry, a couple of vegetables, rice and chapathis. This is a fixed menu as is the dinner and no a la carte is served at The Verandah. A plated meal is provided in the evening and it is Continental food . A soup,. A starter, a mains of vegetables, pasta and meat or fish, and finally a dessert. It is a sit down dinner with candlelight . Very atmospheric and romantic.

You can hear a bee buzz here. It is so quiet. Most people who come to stay respect the silence and keep their voices down. There is a small garden with hammocks and rope chairs to laze in. It is easy to fall asleep. 1-1-DSC04309

The central  drawing room has  high ceilings , with ventilators at the top that allow a fine light to shine inside during the day and is lit with lamps in the evening. This is the place to come to when one is feeling convivial. A carom board is at hand to while away the hours, and several  illustrated tomes about the Parsis who are presumed to have lived in such places after the British left our shores.

The rooms are large with four poster beds and teak furniture of that vaguely colonial kind. Heavy, not particularly beautiful but strong and comforting.

All the pictures that line the walls, in each room , along the verandah and in the living rooms are genuine old etchings with some reference to the place and its history. The rooms and suites are names after distinguished gentlemen of the time. One of the most luxurious is Elphinstone, another of note is Petit and Peerbhoy is nicely situated along the verandah.

Staying here takes you back to a time when conversation and contemplation  were amusement ,  and gentle activities filled the day. Walks and horse rides are all  there is to keep one busy, if anyone feels the need to be busy here.

The Verandah in the Forest is a perfect place to relax. Just a few things would add to the experience. A game of croquet could be organised on the lawns, a few board games could be provided in the drawing room and the menu could do with an overhaul.

When so much care has been taken with the building and its interiors and there has obviously been such respect for history , a little more imagination would help in approaching the meals.

I suggest a breakfast more Indian in choice…. Millets, ragi, pohe ,sabudana khichadi or lapsi rawa could form the “cereal” options. Egg bhurji or masala vegetarian omelette for course two. And the juice could be more local….coconut water or nira .

Lunch could again reflect the area…Maharashtrian or Konkan . Forget the palak paneer and ubiquitous Punjabi mutton curry, gobi alu, the bhindi fry,and that dry, nasty,  rosogulla. Why not a jowar roti, pitle, amti, bhareli baingan,arvi  or the local yams, kachumber, kokum juice or buttermilk ending with basundi or shrikhand.

The sit down dinner is a lovely idea and the menu could be less “continental” and more “colonial”.All those old Indianised “British” dishes like the khansama used to make.

Mulligatawny soup, Shepherds pie, Russian salad,  caramel custard, blancmange or trifle ending with coffee in the lounge. There are so many other possibilities.

A little wine from our very own Nasik vineyards to accompany the meal would not go amiss either!

Its time boutique hotels like this took more time and trouble over the food. It could make a great experience- unforgettable.