Tucked away in the once barren folds of Auroville, India, past the reflective Matrimandir, in a corner known simply as E2 on the vague map of the township, sits Naturellement Garden Café. With the absence of signs, it’s hard to find. Not even many of the auto rickshaw drivers can get there without verbal GPS, stopping along the unpaved roadside to ask for directions. But the trip there is worth it.
Naturellement is pronounced the French way, in line with the Franco influence that still dominates much of the nearby city of Pondicherry in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I discovered this the hard way after attracting some bemused looks at my very American pronunciation “nature-el-ment.” The founder, Martina Ljungquist says it means both “naturally” and “of course!” — a perfect combination of two of their highest regarded values: natural ingredients and the enthusiasm that comes hand in hand with indulging in quality food.
The business started not as a café, but as a line of handmade products, and not even necessarily as a business venture. Ljungquist came to the experimental township of Auroville from Sweden in 1985, looking for like-minded people and a community that had a desire to create a better society. Her jams, marmalades and peanut butters were intended as a means to give back to the community — a very Aurovillian gesture of social welfare and communalism. She set about employing a handful of local Tamil women to produce homemade breakfast spreads for her adopted community. As demand grew, so did her business.
“I just expected to go back to teaching kindergarten. But demand was so high, and I had employed these women from the local village. I felt that if I quit, these women would have no more income.”
For Ljungquist, it’s not just about the money, it’s about the Aurovillian values that she came from Sweden to assimilate and engender.
“In Auroville, we should look for something better, something higher. We use the best local raw materials, but the human aspect and the environmental aspect also go into the recipe.”
Ljungquist uses Naturellement as a platform for social good, providing education, loans, advice, and support to the local women she employs. Not every woman who applies for a job gets one, but every woman gets an application, an interview, and most importantly, the chance to hone their interview skills for other potential jobs. Ljungquist keeps all applications on file to rifle through when she inevitably needs to add to her staff. Currently, Naturellement employs 35 women from surrounding villages in the office, the kitchen and in production.
In India, there are many social welfare projects that are flourishing, many times in the service of rural women who fall below the poverty line, such as the people Naturellement employs. Throughout India, there are thousands of self-help groups (SHGs), mostly with women membership, that help members open a combined bank account, save money, and receive loans. SHGs normally offer occupational training as well, such as tailoring, incense-making, or candle-making, just to name a few.
Naturellement’s founder holds dance classes weekly throughout the year, and puts on movie nights once a week during the summer for the employees. A few times a year she takes the women on trips outside Auroville; places they would normally not have the chance to see due to poverty or cultural restrictions on women. Sipping her jasmine tea, she fondly recounts 6 a.m. bus trips to the far reaches of India, the women dancing and playfully falling on one another as they journeyed to their destination.
Besides the convivial atmosphere, Ljungquist also offers more practical benefits such as ESI government healthcare that covers 70% to 80% of their pay while ill, including full medical coverage, and unlimited sick time. She also provides 12 months’ maternity leave, complimentary nutritional lunches, and classes on nutrition and feminine hygiene.
Before the interview, I ordered a Swedish cinnamon bun and iced tea. After the interview, I had their highly recommended ricotta and spinach ravioli with pesto. All ingredients are sourced locally and handmade from scratch. Naturellement makes an effort to keep the food mileage as short as possible, starting with the kumquat trees and vegetable garden just a few meters outside the office windows. Food that she can’t grow herself, she sources from local farmers or processors. The cheese is cultured at La Ferme, the eggs are laid at Auro Orchard, the bread is baked at Auroville Bakery, and the milk is pumped from neighborhood bovines.
Within the context of India, Auroville is unique as far as green practices go. The township does not necessarily strive to be a center for ecotourism, focusing instead on self-sufficiency for members of the township. However, there are quite a few opportunities to volunteer there or take workshops and classes. Naturellement is not the only environmentally and socially responsible business in the area. In fact, there are an abundance of restaurants and shops like Naturellement that hold these ideals as the gold standard for business.
As I sit in the blissfully air-conditioned office, the tall Swede proffers a sample bag which she says she just rejected as a contender for packaging Naturellement’s breakfast cereals. She pulls apart the opening, revealing the foil inside. The product is not fit for Naturellement’s products, as the packaging cannot be recycled.
To make the jams, marmalades and fruit syrups, Ljungquist employs a traditional open pot method. Factories making similar items will use a closed system, which Ljungquist claims is deficient in flavor. She learned the open pot method growing up in Sweden where she says all Swedes of her grandmother’s generation possessed the knowledge to make their own preserves.
In her younger years living in Sweden, Ljungquist says it was simply an instinct to forage for fresh mushrooms or wild berries to bring home for preservation, and it is still a pastime she indulges in when she’s home in Sweden.
“It must be from all the generations of Swedish women before me who knew they wouldn’t make it through the cold winter without preserved food.”
This instinct still guides her “no shortcuts, no compromises” attitude toward preparing food that she employs in the kitchens of Naturellement.
While you can, and should, make a trip to the Naturellement Garden Café for the fresh food as well as the serene garden atmosphere, you can also buy Naturellement products at various health, organic, or fair trade stores throughout the wide state of India. To discover where their products are sold, visit their Where to Buy page. All items are handmade and free of artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.
If you do decide to take a trip to Auroville and stay over, check out Afsanah guesthouse, which is among some of the more upscale guesthouses in the township. Plus, it’s right next door to the Garden Café.
Like most Auroville enterprises, Naturellement exists for social good and the integral communalism that’s woven deep into the tapestry of every Aurovillian’s life. This one just happens to come with some to-die-for jams, sauces and ravioli.
Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.