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Basque Cheesecake in the Indian Himalayas

www.chajournal.blog | November 26, 2023

Aileen Blaney explores the gentrification of the Himalayan village in the new work-from-anywhere post-pandemic dispensation. In this piece, the coffee shop is used as a device for depicting the arrival of a cosmopolitan elite in rural India.

"They're ruining the Himalayas with their coffee shops and work-from-home," a yoga teacher from Uttarakhand vented some months back. Admittedly, we're enjoying the sea view from an open-air café set in the gentrified grounds of a late 19th century bungalow in Varkala, Kerala. There are sun-loungers and daybeds artfully disarranged around a lawn that undulates to the edge of a cliff and right in front of us, the trigger point—a young man typing away on a MacBook.

As more unhappy sentiments about the Himalayan take-over pour forth across the table, I start to recall a visit I made last Christmas to Upper Dharamkot, a small non-motorable village in the Himalayan state of Himachal and new digital nomad outpost. At the entry point to the village, there's a sprawling Zostel, the India-wide accommodation franchise of hostels, homestays, and "luxurious experiential properties". Here, at its Dharamkot location, guests are encouraged to enjoy the "pahadi vibe" and to "make memories with your kind of people". I'd opted to stay in Cosmic Geeks, an Airbnb tucked into the hillside. On the "boutique homestay's" website, a page dedicated to "café hopping" lists off where to find freshly baked bread, cakes and specialty coffee. "See, see," I imagined my Uttarakhandi friend saying. In their defence, Tinumunu, the baby goat, whom a friend had got to know staying at one of their homestays during the pandemic, didn't feature in any of their marketing. At the risk of sounding like a hater, the goat would have made a good poster child for the unplugging-in-the-mountains experience.

It's Christmas Day in Dharamkot and, after checking-in, I scoot a short distance up the slope to The Birdhouse Cakery. Powder-blue painted walls had hijacked my attention on the hike down. They make their own cakes, and today's offerings are stollen and chocolate yule log. There's no shortage of cafés here; later, out for a walk, I see a sign outside Rain's Kitchen: "Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody is going to die. Come have coffee." Inside, there's an extensive coffee menu—I have to look up what a cortado is-and shelves holding bags of Blue Tokai coffee and brewing kit. A young woman of infectious warmth from Delhi, who has turned her cloud kitchen into a physical premises, explains to me what a Basque cheesecake is.

These independent style coffee shops selling americanos and croissants are only a decade old, and are even younger in the case of the remote Himalayan village. But coffee is nothing new in India: franchises like Café Coffee Day arrived in 1996, the Indian Coffee House chain in the 1930s and Irani cafés in the 19th century. The coffee house origin story, though, belongs to the Ottoman Empire, where they appeared in the 16th century. With men of various rank being able to afford the price of a cup of coffee, coffee shops quickly became the place to go for information and exchanging ideas. So much so that, in 1633, Sultan Murad IV declared drinking coffee a punishable offence and shut down all the cafés. Coffee house bans continued on and off for the next couple of hundred years in that part of the world.

By the 17th century, coffee houses had spread to Europe, putting kings there on edge. Jürgen Habermas, the great theorist of the "public sphere", names the café as the most crucial site of deliberation outside of courts and state assemblies. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau had their go-to coffeeshops, and Isaac Newton even dissected a dolphin on the table of Grecian Coffee House near London's Fleet Street. Frederick the Great of Prussia, unhappy with coffee imports outcompeting domestically produced beer, had former soldiers trained as "sniffers" to root out contraband coffee and urged his subjects to drink more beer: "His Royal Majesty was raised eating beer-soup, so these people can also be brought up nurtured with beer-soup." Coffee came, apparently, to the subcontinent in the 16th century when Baba Budan, a Sufi saint, smuggled in seven coffee beans from the Middle East before promptly planting them in Chikmagalur in Karnataka, a state in southern India.

Today, coffee is one of the most-traded commodities in the world, with a market value in India of $400 million and in the US of $25 billion in 2021. It also has tremendous social capital. Well-heeled millennials in tech, from Delhi or Bangalore, electing to work remotely from the Himalayas, can find flat whites and French pastries in many of the villages they choose to lay their laptop. Unlike the hippy-vibe, Indianised "German Bakery" that proliferated in Indian cities and hill-stations in previous decades, the independent café finds its interior design mojo in a globalised aesthetic, and has, in Instagram, a spiritual home. If the German Bakery benchmarked its prices with other local businesses, these ones have Starbucks for a yardstick, and for patrons, millennials and Gen-Z's on the advantageous side of "if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it".

An attitude to money among privileged classes is by no means recognisable to everyone. Last year, in Mandrem, north Goa, I met a restaurant owner who had spent a decade on cruise ships as a pastry chef; when I asked if he'd ever thought of setting up on his own, he replied "In India, people don't want to spend 300 rupees (US$4) on a slice of cake". Just500 metres away, Alternative, a plant-based café, was catering to the very clientele this restaurateur didn't yet know about. One morning, I witnessed about 15 designers and tech entrepreneurs from Russia crowding out the café, which had Piña Colada muffins and strawberry cacao tartlets on its menu, to present their Goa-centred business plans to each other for feedback. A half-hour drive away, in the small town of Moira, the post-pandemic arrival of foreign digital nomads, Indian tech workers, and small businesses has electrified the café economy, and the larger service and construction sectors. But for locals, there's a downside-the cost of living has increased at pace. And Anjuna is the future tense of rents in lower-key locations like Moira. The owner of a co-working space, who spoke to a journalist reporting for Rest of World said he paid 16,000 rupees (US$213) for a two-bedroom apartment there five years ago. The same space fetches 65,000 rupees (US$886) today.

While the new arrivals aren't necessarily pricing locals in Himalayan villages out of accommodation, its young people who migrate to the plains in search of employment, in considerable numbers, only encounter Work from Mountains (WFM) on Instagram and visits home. Good internet connections and scenery make the Himalayan village a hot destination for a reverse flow of college graduates running start-ups, freelancing as UX/UI designers, or with the hustle mindset to realise a quirky idea for a small business in the mountains.

The best and worst of changes reshaping local character in Himalayan outposts remind me of Ireland in the early 2000s, when many shared the opinion that a continental coffee culture was ruining the character of Irish towns and villages. One afternoon in Dublin back then, a gormless teenager walks into Mulligans Pub, known for pulling the best pint of Guinness in the city, and asks for a cappuccino. "Where do you think you are, Italy?", snaps the barman, before pointing in the direction of the door and advising me to go find wherever they "go in for that kind of thing". Too late, I saw the Nescafé jar and kettle behind the counter. At a time when multinational finance was transforming the country into a competitive global economy, and its population into one with decidedly European tastes, americanos and macchiatos were emblematic of a country moving on from frugality and an insular past.

The types of cafés popping up wherever there are digital nomads typify a kind of gentrification in how people talk about what were previously everyday staples. For growing legions of speciality coffee devotees around the country, standard information now includes attributes such as "provenance" and "tasting notes". The "world's first terroir-mapped speciality coffee" belongs to India, courtesy of Araku Coffee and retail websites carrying lyrical descriptions have become the norm: beans are grown in soil with the "highest percentage of silver oak trees"; a "Grand Reserve" hails from "high-altitude scree soils" with notes of olives, dates and citrus. For the past three years, Maverick & Farmer Coffee have been producing cold-smoked coffee from an old bungalow-turned-smokehouse on their coffee estate in Pollibetta, Coorg. Their earthy style of pushing boundaries was very evident when I spoke to co-founder Ashish D'abreo. "The fruity funky taste profile is now commonplace, but there's not a lot of work in the floral zone," D'abreo said. "This beautiful aroma happens, with our own blossom, but it doesn't last. We want to bring that back in to the coffee".

Far from Coorg or the Himalayas, in Los Angeles's Arts District, US$7 will buy you a latte, one third of the cost of keeping a child in nappies for a week, which one in three Americans cannot afford. Boxx Coffee Roasters, in the Arts District, is an airy, naturally lit roastery, filled with house plants that look like decor but on closer inspection carry dainty price-tags with hand-written instructions for watering. The customers are an exclusively young, white, work-from-home crowd, out for a take-out coffee. Seated by the window, one day last April, a young man is interviewing for a barista job. "I need something in the morning, to go with acting which is my main thing," he tells the future boss. "It was always about coffee in our house. I can say that I have a refined palette." It's difficult to tell if he's speaking in earnest or to the gallery. My thoughts, though, land in the future, with the offspring of coffee-forward digital nomads gracing Himalayan hill stations and, wondering if they'll be mouthing similar words, I picture my friend, hailing from the mountains high above Rishikesh, looking back at today with a longing for the Himalayan village as he once knew it.

This article has been authored by Prof. Aileen Blaney, Faculty of Film Studies, FLAME University.

(Source:- https://chajournal.blog/2023/11/26/indian-himalayas/ )