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  • Shelley Dark

18. spice heaven

It’s spice heaven today. The latitude, altitude, rainfall and soil make this the perfect place for them. Most are not native to India but were brought here during European exploration. There are two monsoons on the top of the western ghats, and 3.5 metres of rain. The soil is a heavy red basalt clay, so I’m glad it’s the dry season.

Again our guide is the knowledgeable and very pleasant Vinu. We go in four-wheel drive Mahindras (made in India) to a small display plantation which showcases many spices.

Vinu tells us that like agriculture everywhere, when prices go up, more of a spice is planted. Then oversupply forces prices down. So most growers have a spread of different spice crops to even out their income. They sell at the local auction, or to dealers who come to the farm. At the moment cardamom prices are high.

The cardamom, ginger and turmeric plants all look very similar.

Cardamom puts its flower out from the base of the plant, setting the seedpods hand-harvested by women workers. Steep slopes make it back-breaking work. It’s dried in electric dryers. One plant makes nine kilograms of dried seedpods a year. Each time I've tasted a cardamom seed in the dishes we are eating, it’s been a wonderful surprise. I’m going to look at recipes to use it.

One pod is full of tiny little seeds.

This basket of seedpods must have taken a long time to harvest.

The flower is tiny and quite insignificant.

Peppercorn vines grow up specially planted coral trees which have spikes on their trunks to support the growth. Vinu tells us that teachers will sometimes say to a naughty child, ‘Go climb a coral tree!’ See the spikes in the photo below?

Tall ladders are needed for the hand harvest. Green peppercorns are the most expensive to produce, followed by black and then white which stay later on the vine. Vinu tells us not to buy white pepper which is pure white. That indicates it’s been bleached. White pepper should have some black bits in it.

He tells us there are two types of sugar cane: one with thick stalks which is used for eating and juicing, one with thin stalks for making sugar.

We see the tiny flowers of the clove tree, one of the lillypilly family, syzygium aromaticum. Oil of cloves is traditionally used for toothache.

Coffee beans are also grown here, brought to the area originally by Arabs. Arabica needs a colder climate, and some is grown, but it’s mainly robusta here. Powdered coffee often has cumin, fenugreek, black pepper and dry ginger added for extra flavour.

We also see the holy basil plant, used in ayurvedic treatments. Aya means life, vedic means knowledge. Having this type of basil in a house brings good luck.

The nutmeg tree has large hanging fruits and a male and female tree is necessary for pollination.

Vinu splits one open to show us the pink interior. This part produces mace. Inside that again is the seed, or nutmeg which is sundried. Originally from the Banda Islands, nutmeg in excess is said to damage the brain and the memory. Go easy on the nutmeg!

We see tapioca with it’s pretty leaves.

And the tall betel nut palm.

The outside bark of the cinnamon tree gives the strongest flavour and is used for cooking. It comes off the tree as a flat piece. The inner bark gives the cinnamon roll, which is more delicate, more expensive, and better suited to baking. The outside bark takes 15 years to regrow and the tree lives for about 250 years. It comes originally from Sri Lanka.

I’ve never had okra before and I’ve been enjoying the younger smaller ones. Bigger pieces can be stringy and indigestible. The seed pods of the okra vine are quite pretty.

We see the cocoa or cacao tree with its heavy fruit hanging from the branches. It’s small and evergreen, a native of South America. There are 20-60 beans inside each pod, in a white pulp. All of the pod is used to make chocolate though a complicated process of fermenting drying roasting and grinding. By itself it’s very bitter. It’s only the addition of sugar which gives us what we know as a chocolate taste.

The immature fruit is green. Vinu cuts a ripe yellow one in half for us to try.

The shiny new pink leaves are soft and pendulous.

The flowers delicate but insignificant.

At the end of our walk we try sugared ginger, chocolate and cashews, all grown here. There are lots of sales in the adjoining shop.