A visit to the kingdom of spices in Kumily

While strolling in the market of Kumily, scent of freshly cut spices, sold in every nook and corner of this small town seeds a desire to visit one of the many spice plantations on the outskirts. We contact Sunil, a guide, who promises us a never before experience. As we enter a plantation, the sight of lush green vegetation and the smell of aromatic air sets the expectation of the things to follow.

‘A royal white-carpet welcome to the Kingdom of Spices’.
‘White carpet welcome! We don’t see a carpet, neither we expect one here’.
‘Well, we are a little early. The white carpet is in the process of making’, the guide humbly replies and brings us in front of a rubber tree. A coconut shell is hanging on a short sharp stick. The dripping latex from the tree is collecting in the shell.

Latex getting collected in coconut shells

Rubber tree

‘The latex usually fills up to a level of half to three-quarters of the shell in a day. The latex from multiple trees is then poured into flat pans, and mixed with Formic acid. The Formic acid serves as a coagulant creating rubber crumbs. These rubber crumbs are then pressed and the wet sheets of rubber are wrung out. These sheets are then sent out into factories for vulcanization and further processing’, explains the guide and then urges us to close the eyes and imagine the rousing white-carpet welcome we are receiving.

The rubber sheets

The rubber sheets

At the start, we are offered betel nuts to grace the visit.

Beetal Nut

Betel Nut Tree

The guide suggests to start the tour, meeting the ‘Prince of Spices’ – Vanilla.

Vanilla is second most expensive spice after saffron. It is a climbing orchid and needs a supporting tree for its cultivation. It is cultivated as an inter-crop in coconut and pepper farms. Ideal time for planting Vanilla is when the weather is neither too rainy nor too dry. It requires shade for its growth. Flowering normally occurs every spring and each flower needs to be hand pollinated within twelve hours. After pollination the bean takes around nine to eleven months for maturity.

I am enjoying the company of the Prince Charming with pleasant manners and flavours. After learning so many things about him from the guide, I admiringly add, “My favourite desserts ice-creams and custards are naturally elegant in his company. At times, when I am in no mood of experimentations safest and surest bet is always Vanilla flavour”.

Vanilla

Vanilla

After meeting the prince we are invited to the audience of “The King of the Spices” – His Highness, Sir Pepper. I remember how I used to avoid him as a kid. I have realized with age, that the king is magnanimously medicinal, he may taste harsh in the beginning, but has medicinal effects on a sore throat afterwards.

It is believed that Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, reached India in search of Pepper.

Pepper

Pepper

The guide explains, “The King-Spice is a climber and for its success and its kingdom to flourish, it needs strong bishop like Coral tree to support it. It is a long term crop that yields continuously for twenty five to thirty years”.

It is spiky and its berries are separated from the spikes by thrashing. There are three kinds of Pepper, the black, red and green. All of them are gifted by the same climber crop, the different colors and aroma is the result of different processing applied to its berry. When these berries are dried in sun for three days, they turn black and are called Black Pepper. The White Pepper is produced, plucking the ripe red berries. These berries are then soaked in running water for around eight to twelve days. Thereafter the outer skin is removed and the berry is dried in the sun. After a few hours, it turns white and we have the white pepper. For the Green-Pepper, the green-berries are collected before they are ripe. These berries are then dehydrated in the factories. This process helps them to retain their color and the fragrance.

From here we are invited to the Private chambers of the “Queen of the Spices – Cardamom. The presence of queen adds grace to everything, be it a cup of chai, kheer (rice pudding) and for that matter any sweet dish.

Cardamom

Cardamom

The guide starts telling us about the queen, “It is a perennial bush, belonging to ginger family that grows from six to sixteen feet. The Yield of queen Cardamom starts three years after its plantation and continues up to ten to twelve years. The flowers bloom at the bottom of the plant and need cool and humid weather for forming the fruits. The maturity of the fruit takes around ninety to one-hundred and twenty days. The picking season lasts from September to March.

After picking, drying is done in specially designed curing chambers called Cardamom Store. Here cardamoms are dried at a temperature of fifty-to-sixty degree centigrade for around twenty-four to thirty-six hours. Drying is followed by polishing. Polishing is done by rubbing cardamom against hard surfaces.

As the meeting was about to be over, excited guide tells us that we are lucky and can have a glimpse of the “New born Princess – the Clove.

Clove is the dried unopened flower buds of the clove tree. On maturity, the unopened flower buds are carefully collected by hand and dried in sun for around three to five days till they become crisp and dark brown in color.

Looking adoring at the beautiful princess, I turn to guide and tells him, “I don’t know whether the princess cried or not at the time of her birth, but one day when I was crying with an acute toothache, a single piece of clove in my mouth had the effect of most effective pain-killer”.

The Clove

The Clove

The waxing and waning sound (usually heard at night) of a guard at duty – “Jaagte rahoo, jaagte rahoo” diverted our attention from the loving princess. The guide smiles and replies, “Sir, its Coffee”, alleviating the curious wrinkles trying to identify a familiar voice.

Coffee beans

Coffee beans

Robusta and Arabica are the two main varieties of commercially cultivated coffee in the Periyar region. The ripe fruits are hand plucked and dried in open for seven to twelve days till the seed rattle within the husk. It is then taken to a coffee mill to remove the husk. The roasting that follows changes its color to brown and the distinct aroma is produced.

Coffee

Coffee

Suddenly the guide speaks up in a soft admiring voice, “We are facing the beauty queen, gracious Ms Heliconia Flower”. Wow! We keep on staring at her for several minutes, it was difficult to take our eyes away from her.

Heliconia Flower

Heliconia Flower

The guide shakes us and tells, “I know you are captivated and hypnotized, but let me take you to the real hypnotizer of the spice-world”. With these words, he brings us in front of a tree with a Papaya like fruit hanging from it. It is Cocoa. In reality Cocoa is not like Papaya. It has a shell like Pomegranate. The seeds with the pulp are removed and kept for one or two days for fermentation. Then seeds are removed, cleaned and dried before selling it. It can be processed by big processing units only. Without fermentation the seeds are useless. Cocoa is grown in hot weather with abundant rains.

The guide warns us not to get too close to it. “This magician is well-known to keep people under his spell. In-fact from its dried and fermented seeds the sinfully delicious chocolates are made”.

The Cocoa

The Cocoa

A person with rough looks and mannerisms scares me. I try to avoid it. The guide holds my hand and brings me closer. Don’t get scared. If you probe him hard, its external roughness gives way to inner sweetness. Its Pineapple. I was expecting pineapples/Ananas to grow on a palm or coconut like tree, and so the medium size herbaceous perennial plant surprises me.

The Pineapple

The Pineapple

The guide then introduces us to a family that starts life with the mantra of openness but the realities of life, converts them into closed types – The Cabbage.

The Cabbage

The Cabbage

‘Do you want to see the God as an expert miniature artist?’
Our heads nod with an affirmative curiosity.
Look at this beautiful leaf. It is evident that the Supreme artist has taken an extreme care to create and decorate it.

Beautiful leaves

Beautiful leaves

In the wonderland of Spices we see ladyfingers growing on trees and not on the herbaceous plants and also spot little ‘Dennis the Menace – the red chillies. The guide warns us, “Do not get baffled by its innocently cute looks. One bite and its color will be visible on your face.”

Ladyfingers

Ladyfingers

Red Chilly

Red Chilly

No story is complete without villainous character/s. We are introduced to a treacherous character planning a murder. The guide speaks in hushed voice, “It is waiting for years now for Newton to sit under it, to observe and propose the gravitational force.

Jack Fruit tree

Jack Fruit tree

Close-up of the jack-fruit

Close-up of the jack-fruit

We thank the guide for the beautiful trip of the spice land. And then he speaks up with grave reality, “With agricultural land shrinking, traditional way of paddy cultivation is no longer viable. Many of these farmers have moved to massive cultivation of pepper, cardamom, coffee, tea and vanilla. Previously these spices were always intercropped, but the lure of higher income made farmers to go for it in big ways. Spice plantation involves huge funds and any reduction in prices or farm failure due to diseases leaves farmers in penury. In recent years there are some incidents of farmers committing suicides in this part and that is the cruel and saddest part of the Spice plantation”

I suddenly wake-up from a dream like visit to the ‘Kingdom of Spices’ to the sad and cruel reality of farming in general and spice plantation in particular.

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2 Comments

  1. Some interesting information about clove from an article by “Suranjana Nandi” in Spice Route – In flight magazine of spice jet.

    ” Clove originated in Ancient China. The ancient Chinese Han Dynasty lasting from 207 BC to 220 AD gave us the first traces of association of spice clove with human society. According to historians, the court visitors in the ancient Han Dynasty were made to hold clove in their mouths while addressing the ruler.

    The word clove comes from the Latin word Clavus meaning nail.

    According to folklore, sucking on two whole cloves without chewing on them or swallowing prevents the urge to consume alcohol.”

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