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Food

WHAT DOES ORGANIC MEAN?

Organic is anything that is devoid of harmful chemicals. Crops are grown with bio-fertilisers instead of chemical pesticides. Fabric is derived from an organically-grown plant. With eggs, things get a li’ complicated — the cow or the chicken have to be fed organic grass and grain!

WHERE DO YOU GET ORGANIC FOOD PRODUCTS IN CALCUTTA?

Cereals and more

Several stores have cropped up over the last few years. Rainbow, now at 33B Sarat Bose Road, opened in May 2011 and stocks everything from organic honey to baby food. “We started shop because we realised there was a market for organic food in Calcutta that was completely untapped. There were one or two stores (remember Health Shoppe on Rowland Row?) but they shut down. There is a large community of people who want to go organic but don’t have the know-how,” says Deven Doshi, partner, Rainbow. In two years, sales have increased four times, he says, and they even opened a second shop through a franchisee in Salt Lake (CJ 176, Sector 2, next to Mishra’s).

One of the retail places to open was Down to Earth in Alipore in April 2010. “The top-selling products from the existing 350 are brown rice, ghee, coconut oil, chana dal and wheat chakki atta. The demand has multiplied manyfold,” says owner Pragati Mundhra.

A recent addition is Arome (near the Bhowanipore Golmandir) that opened in October. It’s surprising to see that a large part of the store is dedicated to different flavours of cashewnuts — paneer tikka and lychee lead the pack — and otherwise hard-to-find bottles of pine nuts, prunes and cranberries (also stocked at the mini-bars in The Oberoi Grand). “The flavoured cashewnuts fly off the racks fast. They’re great for snacking because nothing is fried and the flavours also reach out to people who don’t otherwise have nuts. We’ve tried to make food as interesting as buying it!” says Tanmay Modi, proprietor of Arome, a Calcutta boy based in Cape Town.

Living Free at 4 Gariahat Road (near Ballygunge Phari) sources organic products and sells them under one umbrella. “It’s quite surprising that 70 per cent of my clients are from the expat crowd including the Japanese consulate and the Swissotel GM,” says Shreya Kanoi of Living Free. The store’s USP is cheese from Auroville (but the milk is not organic). “We are also selling organic colours for Holi. The flowers are dried and then crushed with essential oils. While marigold retains its orange colour, the powder made from red rose would be purple instead of red because rose turns purple once the petals dry,” explains Shreya.

Other places like Sasha on Mirza Ghalib Street stock spices from Rasa among other items. “We get our products from Usha Gram, around two-three hours away from Calcutta, where the village ladies hand-grind the spices we source from Rajasthan and then they are packaged and sold,” says Saarrah Imtiaz of Sasha.

Vegetables

This is basically Farmville for real! Smell Of The Earth, run by Aparajita Sengupta and Debal Mazumder, grows its vegetables on a 11-bigha community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in Thakurpukur. The initiative has found 26 members, who pay Rs 2,000 each for organic vegetables every month. Vegetables are delivered on the weekends from farm to home.

Another venture is Aakansha Farms, spearheaded by R.K. Bhandari. Started in July 2012, the company now has around 700 families it delivers vegetables to, fresh from their farm, which is in South 24- Parganas. “We decompose gobar (cowdung) and kachoripana (water hyacinth) into fertilisers and the result is pesticide-free vegetables that are tastier,” says Bhandari, who is in the process of certifying his company and has bagged Hyatt Regency as his latest client.

One of the early birds in the organic market in Calcutta is seven-year-old Natureway Agro Products. “When I started in 2005, there was a lot of resistance from the farmers in North 24-Parganas. Then in 2006, I began to grow vegetables on a two-acre plot, which a friend was kind enough to lend me. My farmers would say, ‘Madam, this is not working, let us use chemical fertilisers.’ I did not give up. In Year One, we could not grow cauliflowers and broccoli. In the second year, we tried again and got a lovely crop!” says proprietor Haimanti Dhir.

Meals

The city’s first known organic dinner was held on January 15 this year at The Palladian Lounge. Organised by Earth Day Network, it was an attempt to spread awareness about organic food. “One of the many points discussed was to target women as 80 per cent of consumer choices are made by women,” says Karuna A. Singh, country director, Earth Day Network. Their next project was the Go Organic Garden Party held on March 9 on the lawns of the Jalan House at 9 Alipore Road. “We expected 200 people to come but we crossed a crowd count of 400!” she adds.

After seeing the response to organic food at the Go Organic Garden Party, Biscotti has plans. “We will launch an organic menu comprising hummus, baba ghanoush and dill yogurt,” says Kanta Mittal of Biscotti, which has stores in Forum and on Sarat Bose Road. Flurys also serves up organic bread, made without sugar and yeast, but one has to order 24 hours in advance.

WHY BUY ORGANIC?

“It’s healthier,” says Indrani Basu, a regular shopper at Rainbow. “People are reading more and more about organic food and want to try it for themselves,” added the teacher, who picked up a packet of organic rice, Amla Candy, sugar and body-care products like the night cream and lip balm.

But ‘healthy’ is not the right word, says nutritionist Hena Nafis. “Organic food is not nutritionally better in any way. It is relatively better only because it is free of chemical contaminants, in most cases 30 per cent less than non-organic food. There is not much data available in India though some studies say that toxic food results in cancer, birth defects and low fertility. From that perspective, it is a good idea to go organic.”

Credit for organic awareness also goes to Aamir Khan! In a 2012 show of Satyamev Jayate, he addressed the pros of organic farming and that helped spur the industry!

IS IT MORE EXPENSIVE?

Yes, most products are. A kilo of potatoes costs Rs 15 while organic potatoes come for around Rs 22. “Some vegetables are on a par or less than market prices, sometimes five-30 per cent more. It’s a price-sensitive market but we have to cover costs. Labour is expensive and transport too,” says Dhir.

“A big advantage is that our prices are not subject to market fluctuations due to shortage and hoarding,” says Bhandari. The products last longer, too. “Around two weeks back, a lady who regularly shops for brown rice told us how the amount of rice she eats has reduced by one-third. Even a packet of haldi lasts longer,” says Doshi of Rainbow.

However, because it is a new market in India, there is little or no control and companies can price-tag any amount. “People who buy our stuff are the kind who drive Jaguars. We feel customers do not mind paying extra for guaranteed quality,” says Modi of Arome. At Down to Earth, most of the customers come from ‘posh’ localities like New Alipore and Ballygunge. “One way to combat the prices is by increasing sales. The more the number of people buying organic food, the lower the prices,” stresses Karuna of Earth Day Network.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S ORGANIC?

a) One way is to check if the product is stamped by Ecocert or USDA (US Department of Agriculture) or any of the organisations listed under APEDA (apeda.gov.in), the Indian government body in charge of the organic segment.

b) The other is to go by word of mouth. Since getting certified is expensive — it runs into lakhs depending on the size of your land — and involves tedious documentation, not many farmers can afford it or are literate enough. But certification is a must if you want to market your products. “I knew what I was doing and that I was giving 100 per cent naturally-produced stuff to the market. But there were very few buyers. I realised that you had to get certified,” says Dhir of Natureway Agro Products.

WHAT NEXT?

Restaurants and hotels with organic meals, farmers’ markets (where buyers can directly buy produce from farmers), and more events to spread the word.

 

OBAMA’S ORGANIC OUTING

Chef and Earth Day Network board member Nora Pouillon, who owns the first certified organic restaurant in the US, Restaurant Nora, shared her Obama experience, just with t2.

When the Obamas dined at Nora’s in 2010, it was a party of over 20 with a special menu offering different choices. The only request was to have a lot of shellfish on that menu. The First Lady had a salad, soup, rack of lamb, and the bittersweet molten chocolate cake with ice cream. The President had the soup, a scallop appetiser, a lobster entree, and apple pie. He specifically asked for whipped cream with the apple pie instead of the usual ice cream that comes with it. The party was very private — they had the whole top floor, and I really was not privy to what happened. In fact, we were not informed that the President was coming — we were only told the First Lady was. It was only when I overheard a Secret Service employee in the kitchen say that, “They left now, and they will be here in seven minutes.” I said to him, “They? Is the President coming too?” He told me he wasn’t allowed to say. But exactly seven minutes later, a black limousine arrived, and the Obamas entered via the private entrance. The First Lady was really surprised when she walked up the stairs and all of her 20-plus friends screamed surprise! An anecdote was that President Obama remembered me from having met him before in the White House garden. When I was introduced to him, he yelled over to the First Lady, saying, “Michelle, Michelle, you have to meet Nora — she’s really up your alley!”

 


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