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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.

One of the helpers is wearing a hat made from the betel nut palm - he shows us by bending over that it's good during rain while bending to work, as water drains off the end without getting in the eyes.

One of the family members has an Enfield motor cycle made in Madras. They're popular here.

There is an outside wash basin with a home-made loofah. It seems to be coconut husk with a netting cover.

We eat jackfruit and chat to the several helpers.

An owl has been spotted in a hole in a tree so we all troop off to see it. We’re busily trying to focus our lenses on it.

Someone says, ‘You’re so busy with the owl that you haven’t seen the elephant!’. Right in front of us, two tourists are having a ride. Everyone falls about laughing. We scramble to photograph the elephant.

We watch men separating the peppercorns from the vine by grinding with their feet. The resulting green and red peppercorns lie gleaming on the floor.

We go on to lunch at the home of a local plantation owner. He owns 10 acres of land, and grows coffee, cardamom, pepper and ginger. There are a couple of girls working on the almost vertical slope.

I am a little worried about eating outside the hotel, but one look at the gleaming copper-sized water container convinces me it's safe.

Both husband and wife serve our food on banana leaves. From left to right, cabbage with coconut, mixed vegetables including okra, and green beans. Added to that is a piece of fish and some chicken. And the lightest pappadum I have ever eaten. They are so thin they almost break when you pick them up. I’m sure they would win a pappadum competition! We end the meal with fruit, and a glass of a dessert made from green grapes, tasting of lentils as well.

The fish is browned and smoky-tasting.

The fruit is mostly reassuringly familiar.

Our hostess has a beautiful smile. The welcome is warm. The red dot between her eyebrows is in the area of the sixth chakra, a common practice for Hindu women. The top mark is more unusual. In the north a red mark at the hairline indicates that the woman is married. Our guide thought this second mark may simply be decorative. Whatever it means, she is quite delightful.

Her husband’s quite elegant 90 year old mother quietly patrols the garden and house. She smiles readily. There is a photo of her husband high on the wall, coloured flowers around the frame, festive coloured dots on the glass around his face.

A blue waterlily shines in the sunlight. Today isn't hot at all.

Tomorrow is a big day. We leave early to drive to the backwaters of Kerala for a cruise on Vembanad Lake. Then it’s on to Cochin, one of the main ports of the Malabar Coast.

I think we’ll be late in arriving so I may not be able to post tomorrow night. But I’ll be thinking of you!

shelley dark, writer 

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