Manjeet and I are on the road again, this time to the Pink City of Jaipur, the capital city of Rajastan founded in 1727 to replace the hill fort of Amber and so called as the walls were apparently painted pink for a visit by the then Prince of Wales, later to became Edward VII.
I’m staying at the Samode Haveli, one of the quirkiest hotels of the trip with a large courtyard leading to a warren of little staircases weaving their way up to rooms. This had to be one of the most beautiful I stayed in in India with a remarkable deco like zigzag black and white marble floor.
I was convinced to visit the Amber Fort even though after the Taj I would now pay not to mingle with another sea of tourists. But apparently it’s never done to go to Jaipur and not visit it and despite the heat and said bus loads it was a spectacular sight.
Dera Mandawa Cookery School – 12th April
I’m excited about today. I’m visiting the homestay and cookery school of Durga Singh and Usha Kumari. Usha is going to give me a special insight into the cooking traditions of Rajastan, including of course several curries. When Rajastan nomads cook on the go they pride themselves on needing a very small shopping list. The homestay of Durga Singh, although set around a leafy courtyard in Jaipur is not far away from some of India’s most inhospitable terrain; dry, furnace hot deserts which can be very dangerous to those not used to them. Nomadic people, Durga explains, carry only the bare minimum of tools and ingredients and cook using fuel they pick up along the way. Yes, none other than dried, extremely combustible cow poo. I love the practicality of this.
A large pile of this is lit before me and the beautifully attired modesty veiled lady from the desert way of life is tending the fire and making bread to eventually bury in its embers.
Usha made Masala Aloo, a very delicious simple vegetable curry, perhaps it was the handful of fresh chopped coriander leaves and the over generous squeeze of lime juice she added at the end that made it so incredibly fresh and enticing that I ate a large plate of it, compounding to me again that great ingredients simply cooked will always achieve the best results.
She then made Baingan Bharta, a lovely smoked aubergine dish, the smokey flavour simply achieved by roasting the aubergine black over a naked flame before peeling its blistered charcoal skin. Aubergines, tomatoes, onion and chilli are mashed into a bowl we then dipped and mopped up with bread she had baked just a few minutes before.
As she cooks and talks through her recipes I am constantly nibbling on something utterly addictive in a small bowl. Eventually I ask her what these tiny little savoury nuggets are. Yellow lentils she tells me, which are soaked overnight in milk at room temperature. They are then slow roasted in a little vegetable oil before salting. A far healthier alternative to crisps and far more enjoyable. The biggest challenge with this recipe I found out when I got home is yellow lentils are almost impossible to find in the UK, different from any other lentil and not (as many think a split pea), I’ve needed the patience of a saint to eventually find them on the internet.
We move on to a Chicken Masala curry and I watch closely as 5 tablespoons of oil are added to a deep bottom pan which is heated until smoking hot. With the flame turned down five single ingredients are added; a single black cardamom, one clove, a stick of cinnamon and one bay leaf. When the clove looks set to explode onions are added and roasted till brown. Dried spices are then added and this is the basis of all her curries which all start this way. These five ingredients form the bedrock of all her curries and I have adopted it as a way of cooking a curry ever since.
Usha finally makes Chena or cottage cheese in what seems to be a heartbeat, I had no idea something could be so simple; boiling milk, adding lime juice till it curdles and separates before straining and mixing in honey and cardamom seeds before serving. Straightforward and totally delicious. I wish I could take her home with me but second best I have a file of her recipes instead, the most wonderful legacy and a very kind gift, they will be very treasured.
Samode Palace 14th April
We leave Jaipur for our last stop of the trip to stay at the remarkable 475 year old Samode Palace 42 kilometres north in the rugged hills of the Aravalli Range, this extraordinary Palace was the location for the film The Far Pavilions. Set beside a small village which has many old painted havelis, village life abounds with local craftsmen still producing multi coloured glass bangles and beautiful hand printed fabrics.
By the time I get here I’ve all but run out of energy and it’s the perfect place for some relaxation. I do have a walk around the village in the company of Mr Singh who has worked in the Palace most of his life. He speaks perfect English and is wonderful company. So enjoyable in fact that we have another tour together driven in a jeep when he shows me local abandoned palaces and some truly beautiful countryside. Mr Singh is a legend and he kindly let me take a photograph of him which he said he was sure his wife would permit, because I loved his moustache so much. It was a pleasure to meet such a humble, charming and knowledgeable man.
On my first morning I asked if I could sit outside on the terrace for breakfast, my request was met with some hesitation. Looking up the waiter pointed out one of the largest monkeys I have ever seen in all my days sitting on a roof top with her baby attached and suckling her staring down at me, stupidly I didn’t think for a moment this might have spelt danger. But the table was duly laid and I sat with my iPad reviewing the BBC news as I did each morning, looking forward to a lazy day by the pool. If I think back to what happened next I am unsure if I had actually poured my coffee before what was a minimum of 60kgs of primate literally crashed onto my table and suddenly there I was eye balling the mother of what appeared to be only a slightly smaller version of herself only a few inches away from me.
They say when faced with extreme danger every second is like a lifetime and trust me this was very true in this instance. I hadn’t read anything about the protocol of eye contact when up close and personal with a massive monkey sitting a breath away from you on a breakfast table (protecting its baby at the same time) in any of the guide books. Was I to look into her eyes or away? Which would signify aggression and which submission?
All I knew was she could have wiped me out in one movement of her enormously powerful arms. Or perhaps there was the lesser fate of being savagely bitten and contracting rabies with what appeared to be tomb stone sized totally rotten teeth. As I write I remember this moment with horrendous clarity but most of all my supreme stupidity in not taking the obvious advice of the waiters. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I decided to stay very very still based on the theory that any movement might antagonise her into some form of attack. In what appeared to be only a few seconds she is frightened away by every waiter in the restaurant who recognise my plight and came flying to my rescue shouting and clapping their hands. Her ejection from the table proved nearly as dramatic as her arrival with cutlery and coffee flying through the air with her and her baby clinging on. It might have been one of the scariest but was also one of the most beautiful sights I have ever encountered.
Mumbai and Home 18th April
A sad sunny beautiful morning to be leaving Rajastan for the drive back to Jaipur and the flight back to Mumbai and on to London. I’m dreading saying goodbye to Manjeet who has been so much a part of this trip; always early, always smiling, air con running, water bottles at the ready and with a Formula One driving talent that literally saved our skins on many an occasion through the trip. This man has the reactions of Lewis Hamilton and the speed to go with, his swerving avoided many a dog, cow, sheep and rickshaw. But most of all he was just lovely company and had a miraculous talent to find half decent loos amongst the roughest of streets.
I arrive very late in Mumbai, internal flights in India leaving a great deal to be desired in my opinion. Most of all any tiny little bit of any kind of coordination and organisation. By the time I check in its gone 9pm and my early night seems to have gone out of the window. You see I’ve planned dinner in the nothing short of what turns out to be awesome Italian restaurant in the hotel and am like a child in a sweet shop as I feast on simply the most delicious freshly baked focaccia dipped deep into Italian olive oil followed by the most wondrous pizza I can recall, blistered with charring and molten mozzarella. I’ve loved the curries, the street food, the paneers and the pakoras but sometimes, just sometimes, a change is as good as a rest.