Of Pears, Chinese Guavas and Orchard Raids…


I am sure Jude Thaddaeus’s orchard is worth a visit.  It is definitely one of the must-see places on my list.  I guess it is the only place in Coonoor where you will still find plums, peaches, tree tomatoes, passion fruits and figs.   How he saves these fruits from the marauding monkeys is a big wonder.  The pictures he uploads at frequent intervals takes me right back to the halcyon days at Nenagh.
A view of the Nilgiris - photo courtesy Jude Thaddaeus
Nenagh, the beautiful house on the top of Gray’s Hill where I grew up, is gone.  I have not been there since my father sold it, but some cousins have and the pictures show just another big house which could be anywhere in India and is, now, owned by a media baron.  The old house, however, lives on in our memories.  In the old days, the orchard at Nenagh was resplendent with plums, peaches, Chinese guavas, tree tomatoes, grapes, quinces, sweet oranges, cherimoya, passion fruit, Seville oranges and grapefruit.  None of these trees are native to the Nilgiris!
Many of the grand houses in Coonoor and Ooty had lovely orchards with a variety of fruit trees.  It was always a treat to raid the neighbor’s orchards.  We had honed the raiding to a fine art.  You had to know which tree in Gray’s Hill was fruiting and how the mali would react.  Escaping the violent malis and the attacking guard dogs made the stolen fruit sweeter.
It goes without saying that you didn’t always escape.  Many a time, the mali has caught us, taken away the stolen fruit and sent us packing.  Once, one of Mrs. I’s hounds from hell even bit me on my backside.  Mrs. I was a very interesting woman; she was supposed to be the keep of a rich Parsi gentleman. She was a kind of mystery woman; of whom we caught glimpses of as she passed in her Studebaker driven by a uniformed chauffer.  To add to the mystery, she wore a veil attached to a wide brimmed hat. 
 I, of course, swore that I was nowhere near Mrs. I’s property and that her hounds came out, totally unprovoked and bit me. My father was livid; he hurled me off to Mrs. I’s house.  But cooled down when the woman’s servants said that I provoked the dogs and had entered their property.  It was my word against theirs.  I am ashamed to confess, that my father believed me or looking back, pretended to believe me.
 It was Dr P.V.Kurian, the Director of Pasteur Institute, who finally wormed the truth out of me.  He said if the dog was unprovoked then it would have to be put down and I would have to take rabies shots.  Since I didn’t want injections on my stomach and the dog’s death on my conscience, I confessed.
Most residents of the Nilgiris take all those plums and peaches for granted.  Not questioning how these fruits, which are not native to the region, are found here.  The effort of bringing fruit seedlings, nurturing and growing them has been great.  It was not just from England that the English brought these seedlings.  They were brought from China, Japan, South America and Australia.  
 John Sullivan had built his house in Ooty by 1822 and soon put down a large variety of English vegetables and fruits which he was sure would grow in the salubrious climate of the Nilgiris.  By the 1860s most of the settlers were planting fruit trees in the estates and around their homes.
Apples from Jude's orchard
 Apples from Australia and England were planted at the Downham Estate at Kalhatti.   The varieties which were put down were Margil, Devonshire Pearmain, Adam’s Pearmain and Ecklinvile seedlings which were all popular in England during Victorian days.  Most of these varieties are not available even in England these days. 
 Unfortunately, the trees were left untended, without grafting with superior varieties.  The apples you find today in the Nilgiris are small, green and slightly bitter.  Not market quality, at all.  If care had been taken at the right time, maybe, today the Nilgiri apple could have competed with the Granny Smith and the Washington Apples which flood our markets today. 
Apples for the pie 
These apple trees were also used as espaliers; espaliering is an old practice where trees, mainly fruit trees are pruned and tied to a wooden frame in a certain pattern and often against a wall.  As a child, I have seen the remnants of this art on tree tomatoes and apple trees in some of the big estate houses and also at the Government Pomological Research Station in Coonoor.   Espaliering as a horticultural art is not seen anywhere in the Nilgiris. 
Apples from Australia and England were planted at the Downham Estate at Kalhatti.   The varieties which were put down were Margil, Devonshire Pearmain, Adam’s Pearmain and Ecklinvile seedlings which were all popular in England during Victorian days.  Most of these varieties are not available even in England these days. 
 Unfortunately, the trees were left untended, without grafting with superior varieties.  The apples you find today in the Nilgiris are small, green and slightly bitter.  Not market quality, at all.  If care had been taken at the right time, maybe, today the Nilgiri apple could have competed with the Granny Smith and the Washington Apples which flood our markets today. 
These apple trees were also used as espaliers; espaliering is an old practice where trees, mainly fruit trees are pruned and tied to a wooden frame in a certain pattern and often against a wall.  As a child, I have seen the remnants of this art on tree tomatoes and apple trees in some of the big estate houses and also at the Government Pomological Research Station in Coonoor.   Espaliering as a horticultural art is not seen anywhere in the Nilgiris.
Does this make you think of vodka?
 Another Victorian fruit which was planted in the hills was the medlar.  It was a strange fruit, part apple, pear and quince.  The medlars did not take root.  But what did, was the Chinese guava or the Psidium Cattleianum which is not from China but from Peru.   It is almost an ornamental tree with purple fruit which is slightly tart.  My mother, of course, wove her culinary magic over these fruits and made mouth- watering guava jelly, which we ate with fresh cream for dessert.
  This is one tree for which I have fond memories.  I spent many an afternoon, perched on top of the Chinese guava tree at Nenagh.  There used to be one at school, too.  Ask any convent girl from Coonoor and they will regale you with stories on the midnight raids on the Chinese guava tree and the imaginative punishments that the nuns doled out.   

Comments

  1. Wonderful memories of long summer days, reckless games and fresh fruit...

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  2. Selene Augustine writes this:

    'It was like reading Ruskin Bond. Even without a storyline, yr piece makes for great reading and that is an achievement.. Also superb writing style. Keep writing.

    Regards,
    seline

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    Replies
    1. high praise indeed, Selene. Esp. from a person of your stature.

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  3. Lovely tales Nina, nice to see the story teller in you flourish. Please write more. BTW what is a tree tomato?

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  4. the latin name for this fruit is Cyphomandra betacea. it is an egg shaped fruit.. rather tart with a very pleasant fragrance.. of noticed nowadays in up market shampoos.

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  5. Nina, you have awakened so many memories with your lovely article - the pomological station, the apples and other fruit, the malis , Mrs. I of H.H. (like Victor Hugo)
    I have tresspassed into Nenagh , but I can honestly say , no plucking of fruits or raiding by me .Gardens of my mum's friends were strictly hands off !
    There was a large guava tree in Shelwood. I often sat on a branch in the rain and imagined I was keeping an eye out for Moby Dick.

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  6. Thanks Philip, for taking the time off to write the comment

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  7. P.Devarajan writes this:
    hullo, lady of nenagh. you surely are lucky to have such blessed memories... yes a touch of bond for sure....... one can christen you apple nina for the fineprint knowhow of the fruit. tell me are they as crunchy and juicy as the apples which the bhaiya in mumbai claims come from simla. pl. can you name the media baron who stole your nenagh home. hey, keep it up...

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  8. any idea how these refined mallu christian population came to be about coonoor? there were more of them in coonoor than in ooty?

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  9. why dont you write about it? like the first mallu family to settle down at coonoor, also ooty? by the way whats the meaning of nenagh?

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    Replies
    1. Thats where she got her name from ,

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  10. Coonoor sunshine warms the floor beside me as I write this from an elevated sun room in Highfield. Thank you for those lines about my grandfather, Dr. P. V. Kurian. They brought back some very pleasant memories.

    Jude is an old friend and yes, his garden is quite spectacular. Equal credit must go to his wife Anne, who probably charms the monkeys so that they stay away. Aided by the indefatigable Bananas, who makes enough noise for a troop of dogs.

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  11. Can you please provide me address of Jude Thaddaeus's orchard? Thanks

    Diwakar Bhandari

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