Farm to table: Tales from another era

LIVING IN THE KITCHEN

Farm to table: Tales from another era

As the festival of Sankranti draws near, my mind returns at least three decades ago to the time I spent my ‘study leave’ at my grandparents’ farm which was in a remote part of, what is today the outskirts of New Delhi, but was then considered the back of beyond. Picture me waking up at the crack of dawn along with the chirping of the many birds hopping around looking for left-over seeds, the mist rising from the freshly sown wheat fields and me pacing up and down with my ‘notes’ trying hard to get my brain cells to absorb at least part of the Paleolithic Age. And then it hits me! The most delicious aroma, a mix of molasses and caramelised sugar. I run back to the farm house imagining my doting grandparent cooking up some yummy pancakes with treacle for my breakfast. But alas to my great disappointment I am told it is just the fresh batch of ‘gur’ being cooked in huge coracle-like vats out in the fields. 

Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum Linn.) is indigenous to tropical South Asia and Southeast Asia. It was brought to the Americas by the Portuguese. After Brazil, India is the second largest producer of sugar cane.

Milling & jaggery making
Iron crushers operated by bullocks, oil engines or electricity are used to extract the juice. In those days of the early seventies and perhaps even in technologically advanced times, though of highly erratic electricity supply, using bullocks was the norm.
The crushing is done generally at night as it is cool. Wide and shallow metallic vessels are used for boiling the  juice. Discarded stalks of cotton, tur dal and the castor plant are used for fuel. When the juice begins to boil a mucilaginous extract of bhindi (lady’s finger or okra), roots and stems are added to the juice a little at a time to facilitate scum formation, which is removed time and again till the juice acquires a string-like consistency and readily crystallises into jaggery.

Okra magic
For this the farmer makes use of the bhindi growing in his own fields. Bhindi is soaked in a container of water which is then sprinkled a little at a time over the entire contents of the vat in which the sugar cane juice is boiling. This process, known to all gur-making farmers from time immemorial, helps bring the dirt and scum to the top of the vat. The scum is then scooped up again and again with a flat ladle until only a clear, clean syrup is left which then becomes the thickened gur. The scum too has its uses as it is used for chicken feed. This syrup is then transferred into another mould and constantly rolled backward and forward till it breaks into little crystals — and that is known as jaggery. If gur is required it is further boiled until it thickens. This is  measured and transferred into 2 1/2 or 5-kilo moulds, either shaped round or square. Alas, the old ways are dying out with vast tracts of farmland giving way to ‘progress and development’, as also in the gur-making process with soda having replaced bhindi as a clarifying agent instead. Only time will tell if farmers are able to continue  the quaint method of using bhindi, (whose price has sky-rocketed along with everything else), to clean the sugar cane syrup in the making of gur.

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