India: Where beer grows on trees

Rice harvests, toddy, lime groves - Alex Ninian gets a front-seat view of Indian life on the road from Madras.

Our mission was limes. We were driving from Madras in Tamil Nadu to Gudur in Andhra Pradesh to achieve the objective. The concept of lime groves in Andhra Pradesh comes less readily to mind than the tea plantations of Assam, or the rice fields of Bengal. It is, nevertheless, an area of beauty and interest and one of the main regions of India - and the world - for the growing of limes.

The road was very narrow but straight, with smooth Tarmac. Monkeys loped lazily across it and swung athletically up trees as we passed. No other cars were in sight ahead or behind but Ravi, my companion, used to Indian roads, knew to look out for ox carts. When we passed one, its huge wooden wheels, higher than our car, trundled along at no more than a couple of miles an hour under the power of two staggering, unwilling oxen.

Without warning we hit a stretch of road completely strewn with green stalks and leaves. They covered the entire width of the road; there was no avoiding them. They lay inches deep and stretched as far as the eye could see, and slowed us to a crawl. "Rice," said Ravi, without even a hint of surprise or interest in his voice. "Rice?" I said. "We're driving on rice?"

Ravi explained: "The villagers cut the rice plants and pile the cuttings on the road. The traffic acts as a threshing machine. It crushes and breaks the plants and allows the rice, or paddies, to be released."

We snapped and crackled for hundreds of yards, meeting one car in the opposite direction, whose occupants gave no sign of experiencing anything unusual. Another run over open Tarmac led to another thrash over more vegetation. Doubtless the hooves of the oxen and the iron rims of the ox cartwheels were more effective.

Ravi was a businessman who normally traded in foodstuffs and bought and sold on the telephone, but today he was going to the source for a good reason. He wanted to buy lime juice as usual, but he also wanted to discuss the economics of buying just the peel. There is a big market for this in lime marmalade for India, Asia and the Western world.

The road then descended into a river valley where a new wooden bridge was being built with the help of working elephants. Indian elephants have small ears and a compliant nature, and seem to have an understanding of human instructions. They lifted, carried and laid treetrunks under the command of boy drivers sitting on their necks, controlling them by pushing their heels behind the animals' ears.

After climbing up the other side of the valley, we drove across a wooded plain. The trees were perhaps 50ft high, stark and almost branchless until the top where there was an umbrella of small branches and leaves. "Toddy trees," Ravi observed. "They give beer."

I laughed. I was sure he was kidding. "I'm telling you," he protested, "they give out a liquor that ferments. Every evening the boys shin up and fix the empty pots. In the morning they bring down the pots full of liquor and leave them out in the open. The heat of the sun ferments the liquor during the day, and by the evening of the same day there is alcohol for the villagers to drink. And as they do, the boys repeat the cycle of what must be nature's most bounteous blessing - a never-ending supply of free beer."

I was still not fully convinced, so Ravi pulled over to a tree beside the road and showed me a marker on it, numbered and stamped by the government. The villagers had to pay an annual tax on each marked toddy tree. Nearing the end of our 100-mile journey, the scenery opened out into attractive rolling country, with a beautiful range of hills to the left with cattle on the cool slopes. Here, at last, were the lime groves - row upon row of laden trees as far as the eye could see.

In Gudur, we met Mr Medi, the current boss of a lime business founded by his father. The price of juice was haggled, an agreement reached and an order placed. "What's the situation with peel?" Ravi asked.

"What do you mean? We use the peel."

Ravi was not to be put off. "What if I wanted to buy some?"

A shrug. "That would really cost you." It transpired that the processing method used in the region involved coring out the fruit, which was pressed for juice. Then the peel was shaved to remove the "rag". This was sold on for further processing and extraction of vitamin C. Then the peel was shaved again to remove the pith. The pith produced rennet, sold on to the cheese industry. The remaining thin piece of skin, the zest, could then be used to extract the colour or flavour, or chopped up for animal feed. "The price of the peel," said Mr Medi logically, "would have to cover what we otherwise get from all the by-products at the very least."

Our purchases limited to lime juice, we had tea and Indian cakes, and then made to leave. Mr Medi, however, said it was essential that we see his father. We went over to his large, expensive house, really more of a mansion. Because of the heat, even the more opulent residences have a stark meagreness about them. Windows have no glass. When the wooden shutters are open the breeze can blow straight through. Bare walls and floors are favoured for their cooling effect. Chairs and settees are bare wood, rather than upholstered, for the same reason. Mr Medi senior stood up and greeted us.

He looked barely 50 but, dressed in a long white muslin robe, he settled back down into a rocking-chair like some venerable Moghul ruler. Business matters were clearly his son's preserve: what he wanted to talk about was cricket. "I was an off-spinner myself in my day, but now I mostly watch on TV. Mind you, I still go to state matches and test matches when they come to Madras."

"You're from Britain, you say?" With instructions in Hindi, he dispatched a servant who reappeared with an ancient bottle of Scotch whisky. It was of a brand that had long since been discontinued, and was thick with dust. It had never been opened.

"I got it as a present from a British visitor many years ago; we don't get many here. And we don't drink," said Mr Medi senior. Two half-pint tumblers were lined up and Mr Medi junior was ordered to serve. Being completely teetotal, he had no idea of the appropriate measures. We settled for amounts near the higher end of the scale before saying "when", and drank with gratitude.

The time had come to take our leave, and with handshakes all round we left "old" Mr Medi to settle back into his rocker, and young Mr Medi to get on with his burgeoning business in the lime groves of Andhra Pradesh.