Herbie strolls in an Indian Spice Garden with a group of travellers.

A modern trend in agriculture is to focus on broad-acre cropping to achieve greater efficiencies. One may be surprised to learn that many spices are still grown on small family-owned holdings, where more than one crop is cultivated. There is a simple logic to this method, one that has served Indian spice farmers for centuries, and has a few key reasons for being sustained.

These are:

  • A diverse planting is less likely to be wiped out by one disease that affects only one crop
  • Different plants are harvested at different times, spreading the workload and averaging out the farmer’s income stream
  • Prices will always fluctuate, and a diversity of crops helps to stabilise a farmer’s revenue

Herbie and Liz visited India with a group of spice travellers in March 2018, and these were some of the interesting things we saw when strolling through a family-owned spice farm in Kumily, in the south western state of Kerala, India.

Spike of Green Peppercorns

This is a spike of green peppercorns ready to be harvested.

Pepper is a tropical climbing vine, and the flower raceme is fertilised by the monsoon rain running down it. After a good monsoon, the spikes will be full of plump green berries.

 

Remains of Pepper Vine Flower Stem

Peppercorns that are left on the vine will gradually ripen and turn yellow then red.

Ripe, Red Peppercorns on Stem

To make black pepper, the green berries are threshed to remove the stems, then put out on mats in the sun to dry. During drying, an enzyme in the skin of the peppercorn turns it black, and creates the volatile oil that gives black pepper its characteristic flavour and aroma.

Peppercorns Drying Before Sieving

After drying, the peppercorns are sieved to remove pieces of stalk, and ‘light berries’. Light berries, (often called ‘pinheads’) are empty berries. That is they don’t contain the white centre you see when you crack a peppercorn. The white ‘heart’ of a peppercorn contains most of the piperine, and it is piperine that gives pepper its heat.

Cleaning Dried Black Pepper

The waste material is usually ground and added to low grade ground black pepper.

So how is white pepper made?

Ripe red peppercorns are soaked in water for up to a week in a process called ‘retting’. They are then removed from the water, macerated to remove the enzyme-containing skin that makes a peppercorn turn black, and dried in the sun. The result is a white peppercorn that is hotter than a black one, and does not have a black pepper taste.

Here’s a question for you:

What do you think is hottest, very black ground black pepper or pale grey ground black pepper?

The answer is counter-intuitive. The pale grey one is the hottest, as it is made from complete black peppercorns, which have a white core and have not been adulterated with pinheads (empty berries).

The next spice we came to was one of my long time favourites, Cardamom.

Cardamom Pods and Flowers

Cardamom is a member of the ginger family, and unlike ginger it flowers at the base of the plant. After flowering the green cardamom pods form like little green peas.

Close Up Cardamom Flower

Cardamom pods are one of the few spices that are dried in the dark. This helps to retain their green colour and optimum flavour.

Cardamom is considered to be an environmentally friendly spice, because the plants like shade and are cultivated in rain forest areas that don’t have to be cleared. The shady canopy in the forest provides an ideal environment for cardamom.

The same spice garden was dotted with a number of clove trees, all in bud. Cloves are native to the Indonesian spice islands and are now grown in many tropical parts of the world, including Kerala.

Clove Buds

These clove buds will be harvested just before they open into flowers. Like pepper, the clove buds will be put out in the sun to dry and the enzyme that naturally occurs in a clove bud will turn it black and create the volatile oil eugenol. Eugenol is a strong natural anesthetic and antiseptic.

While in the spice garden we were fortunate enough to be given an insight into one of the oldest forms of trade negotiations. 

The spice trade has always been surrounded in mystery, and one of the most fascinating rituals that prevails is the method of negotiating prices!

This video starts to explain the process of secret spice negotiation

What a secret negotiation looks like to the observer

 

 

This is what’s going on under cover!

 

 

For more information about spices and the spice trade, see The Spice & Herb Bible Third Edition by Ian Hemphill, published by Robert Rose Inc. Toronto, Ontario Canada.