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December '02


An avalanche of home-made food

- by Carel


A large quantity of home-made and organic food products is on sale in Auroville. Their number is daily increasing.

 

; Henri taking the freshly baked pastries 'frillantines' from his wood oven Herbert next to his rainwater catchment tank

Valli and Jaya showing the products for Pour Tous Nico preparing the brownies for the oven

Of late organic and home-made foods are widely promoted. The Solar Kitchen posts up each day what elements of its menu have been grown or produced in Auroville. The Pour Tous stall has a special section devoted to organic Auroville-grown and home-made products. The Auroville farms have started a massive jam and marmalade- making movement offering stiff competition to the existing Auroville food processing units. And the number of individual Aurovilians whose home-made pickles, cookies and other consumables are fighting for shelf space in Pour Tous is increasing to such an extent that the Pour Tous team, in an announcement in the Auroville News, felt forced to state: "We have already plenty of jams and biscuits. How about some new ideas?" All this not only suggests that the organic idea has taken firm root in Auroville, but also that there is a market for home-made products, the average low monthly maintenance notwithstanding.

Maintenance needs

In fact, it is rather the low monthly maintenance which has given the impetus to selling home-made products. Herbert, the manager of Siddhartha farm, recounts that when he came to Auroville in 1983, there was not enough food for everybody. "I was in charge of a huge piece of land in the forest area, I had a watchman but the money to pay that watchman often wasn't there. The basket, which all of us received from Pour Tous, was often almost empty. I had no money of my own. Then I decided to start making biscuits, using the oven of the Center Kitchen from 8-12 in the night. I used local grains such as kambu and mixed them with wheat flour, jaggery and some fruits. That resulted in rather sturdy biscuits, each of which was said to be a meal in itself. And I started to make peanut butter. The income helped me to sustain myself and my family and pay the watchman. And I never stopped. I moved to a new farm but I still make the biscuits and peanut butter, though today's biscuits are better. Nowadays I use varagu, ragi and kambu, and mix it with the jaggery from the sugarcane which we now grow here on the farm. I also sell cashew butter and roasted cashews. Most of the peanuts I also grow here, though sometimes they come from Pondy. My focus on using Auroville organically grown produce hasn't changed. And as I have created a large rainwater catchment tank, I'll soon also provide Tilapia fish to Pour Tous." Money problems were also the reason for Jaya and Nico to start baking their by now famous 'brownies'. Says Jaya: "About six years ago we decided to send our children to the Kodaikanal International School but we did not have money and we felt that it would not be a good idea to go back to our home country to earn. At first a number of Aurovilians generously helped out. Then the idea of selling brownies came up and that was a bigger success than we had anticipated. Obviously, quite a few Aurovilians have a sweet tooth. We did have some moral compunctions, though. But just when we were wondering if we shouldn't stop promoting the vital gratifications of the Aurovilians, a lady from Pondicherry approached me on the road and with simple sincerity expressed her gratitude for the product. Somehow it was a sign that it was ok to continue, and since then we have diversified and are offering more products." Henri came to Auroville in 1992. Being a professional cook with a two-star restaurant background, the decision to be involved in the food sector came naturally. "I worked in many Auroville restaurants, but then I realized that I could never afford to construct a decent accommodation if I continued in this way. So I went twice back to France and spent a miserable time working very hard to get money to build myself a house in Auroville. When I came back I decided that I would not repeat that experiment ever again and that I would start selling food products in Auroville to maintain myself. It was the beginning of 'Royal'. Its first product was a chicken-liver pt, which still sells well today. More products followed soon afterwards: biscuits, cakes, mayonnaise, mushroom la grecque, quiches, to name but a few. The reception of the products is good, but after a while some items go down and I have to come with something else. So I make some new products every few weeks. I have to find a means though to balance my inner work with the outer activity."

Going commercial?

With the exception of a few products that are available in Pondicherry, home-made food is only sold in Auroville. There is not yet a drive to turn the home industry into a real food-manufacturing business. Says Jaya: "Many of our Auroville products are top notch quality and I think that a bakery cum gourmet shop selling Auroville food products in Pondicherry or elsewhere would be doing very well. But many of the people involved in the production do not really want to go commercial." Says Henri: "There would not really be a problem to expand production. But it would make no sense to do that as an individual. At present, all those who sell their home-made products in Auroville do so in order to earn money to make ends meet. If all would agree to join forces and not only concentrate on making money for themselves but also on making money to support Auroville, it would make all the difference. We would need a large collective workshop and an Auroville sales organisation to market the products and we would need to adjust the products for a longer shelve-life. But this is a realistic possibility and I would like to be part of it."

New food products

There is a lot of experimentation going on to create new food products. Henri plans to start a product line of instant-food. Packed in aluminum foil, these vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes only need to be kept for 5 minutes in boiling hot water, and then are ready for consumption. Refrigerated, the bags will keep for 3 days. Jaya too likes to experiment. "I have always been interested in health food. Though I myself like good cakes I didn't really feel happy baking all kinds of things with sugar. When Don from America came to live in Auroville he suggested we make breakfast cereals. We worked on that idea together and it resulted in 'Granola'. It contains oats, wheat flour, dried fruits, nuts and organic jaggery instead of sugar. But this product still relies on grains that are not locally grown. Then, together with Anandi, Martina and Don, we visited the Central Food Technology Research Institute in Mysore, and that eventually gave the boost to introduce a new product, called 'Dr. Nibbles'. It is a breakfast cereal consisting of crispy flakes of organically grown local grains, mixed with jaggery, and snippets of dates, ginger and raisins. "This product is being extensively tested by a few Aurovilians. Some are friends who eat these type of products regularly. One of my testers has a very well developed sense of taste, and recently I asked an Aurovilian who is involved with a physical fitness program to give me feedback on how her body responds to these foods. If 'Dr. Nibbles' and other products in this line are a success, it would encourage both the AV farms and local farmers in the village to grow these grains organically and the farm-group could be supported in buying its own flaking machine. Another planned activity is to meet with experts in the Ayurvedic health tradition to understand more deeply how best to combine different foods

Quality control

A rising concern is the need for food quality control. So far, the Auroville sale outlets accept the products as they are brought in. "The need for quality control was voiced years ago by Dr. Lucas, Martina and others, but it has not had a sufficient follow-up. Few people will disagree that quality control is necessary, and that a 'food quality control team' will be required soon. It probably is a full-time job. They should not only check the end-product for the presence of pesticides and toxins, but also the hygienic circumstances under which it is manufactured. Ultimately, this should result in some Auroville standards, and products that do not confirm should simply not be sold," opines Jaya.

The maintenance paradox

Isn't it a paradox that in order to increase one's low monthly maintenance home-made foods are offered to those who have to survive on that same low maintenance? Jaya admits that the question has relevance: "Some Aurovilians who are on a low budget have an arrangement to get my products straight from me, which is cheaper for them. Ideally, all of us should be able to live without having to make a profit. But this is not an ideal world. I have no problem that cakes and luxury items carry a profit; but basic food items, such as the breakfast cereals, should be within everyone's financial means." For Herbert, this question arises to a lesser extent. Herbert's farm Siddhartha is unique in Auroville as its location bordering the Irumbai lake allows it to grow crops such as rice and sugarcane that require large amounts of water. Along with Annapurna farm, he participates in the Free Food program which was started a few years ago by Auroville's commercial unit Maroma. Maroma donates the costs of production to grow organic red rice and sugarcane, and Herbert donates the rice and the jaggery directly to the Solar Kitchen. But as the community does not pay for farm maintenance, the income from the sale of foods made from the farms produce remains necessary to run the farm. "The farm's productive area is still low, as it consists of a lot of pieces that are not linked to each other. But the piece of land right in the middle is now for sale. If we can manage to buy that piece and raise the money for a well and a pump, Auroville would have a productive area of 30 acres instead of the 5 acres I manage today," he says. "And that would vastly increase the amount of free produce I can offer to Auroville under Maroma's scheme."

Meeting basic needs

Maroma's Free Food scheme is certainly a step towards the realization of the Auroville economy Mother wanted. For the township is supposed to meet everyone's material needs on the basis of the most elementary necessities. Says Jaya: "We have still a long way to go to provide basic housing but we could look at places like Atithi Griha to get an idea how to go about it. For clothing, Auroville has developed the Nandini system: you donate a certain amount each month, and in return you can take, within certain limits, whatever your requirement is. It should be possible to create a place where Aurovilians would get their basic food requirements in the same way."

See also: auroville.org/health

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