Know your everyday spices – Walk through the Spice Gardens of Thekkady, Kerala

Know your spices – a walk through the spice gardens of Kerala.

Christmas Eve, 1497, a European sailor, far away from his home in Lisbon, sat in a ship anchored at the coast of Natal after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, gazing at the endless stretch of water before him, and dreaming. Dreaming about the one place that was a part of myths and legends back from where he came. He had set upon this voyage 6 months ago, on July 8th, with four vessels. While he himself rode in the 200-ton St. Gabriel, his younger brother Paulo led the St. Rafael, and together they sailed with the very interesting and unusual company of thugs and criminals of Portugal.

You see, the journey this particular expedition was so infamous for having failed repeatedly throughout history, that the then King Manuel of Portugal deemed it fit only to risk lesser important lives for the journey. So on that fated Christsmas Eve as this sailor sat in his ship contemplating the possibilities of success and failure of reaching this destination, little did he know that in another 5 months he will not only fulfill his dream of finding this fabled land of the East, but also go down in history to be the man who changed the face of European trade, navigation and colonialism for many many years to come?

Spice paparazzi!

You already know the end of this unnecessary history lesson. More than 500 years ago, on 17th May 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first European to reach India via the Atlantic Ocean. When he returned to Portugal with spices and silk, it is rumored that he earned four times the money he spent on his entire voyage just by selling the spices.

And where was this enchanted land of spices, you ask? On the shores of Kappad Beach in Kozhikode, fondly called the “Jewel of the Malabar,” in present-day Kerala, India.

Kerala, a small state on the map of a vast country, with a terrain so beautifully vast and varied, that it makes you marvel at the cultural and geographic diversity you encounter at every step. From the gently rolling hillsides to the palm-laden beach-fronts, from calm and serene backwaters to the dense and enchanting forest covers – Kerala offers its tourists several worlds packed in one destination. God’s Own Country, they call it. And it all began with the quest of one Portuguese explorer determined to discover the fabled spice gardens of the East!

Cruising over the famous Alleppey backwaters in Kerala. PC – Jinson Abraham

Spice tourism is one of the major attractions for Indian as well as international tourists finding their way to Kerala. We visited one of the many hill stations in the state – Thekkady, known as the spice belt of India.  Situated on the Munnar-Thekkady road, the drive to reach the spice garden was nothing close to how beautiful the spice trail experience turned out to be, and trust me, the drive was one of the most scenic one’s I have experienced. One little walk under the pleasant coastal sunshine and we saw plantations of a very wide range of spices like Pepper, Cloves, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Cardamom, Vanilla, Ginger and Turmeric, along with many indigenous Ayurvedic herbs and beautiful lush-green coffee and tea plantations too.

Planting a mitti tree sapling at Greenwoods Resort, Thekkady.

Our tour-guide, a young and cheerful Malayali man, welcomed us to the spice gardens with warm greetings in every language. We were an enthusiastic group of 30 travel bloggers from over 20 countries, and I absolutely admired how comfortably he interacted with everyone.

Spice Tour at Thekkady, Kerala

We began with the King of Spices – Pepper, a flowering vine cultivated for the tiny fruits that are plucked and dried in different stages to be used as spices and seasoning. We were visiting in March, when the vine was filled with green pepper pods, which were ready to be plucked and sun-dried to procure the used Indian spice – black pepper. The same green pods if left unplucked, would eventually mature into red pepper, which can then be sun-dried to make white pepper – a crucial ingredient for the famous South Indian fish curries. Malabar Black Pepper, also fondly crowned “Black Gold” by traders, constitutes 75% of international trade of Kerala, and is historically famous for starting trade in India. On closer observation one will notice that these pepper pods are born between one male and one female leaf on the vine, and the pollination of the plant is favored by the mild showers of Kerala.

My “I’m confident this is pepper” face.

We then moved to another very crucial, and breathtakingly beautiful, spice of India. The tree is cultivated for two spices derived from the same fruit: Nutmeg and Mace, and is also commercially important for essential oils and butter. While Mace is made from the crimson-colored aril wrapped around the Nutmeg seed, Nutmeg spice is obtained by sun-drying the Nutmeg seed itself for six to eight weeks. Bloggers had a field-day trying to get the best picture of this colorful fruit that changed looks with every un-layering!

Blogger Patricia Schussel Gomes from Brazil admiring the wonders of a Nutmeg fruit

Next up was the world’s third most expensive spice – the Cardamom. Coming from the family of orchards, this Queen of Spices is used in two forms – black and green cardamom. A shorter plant compared to the others we had seen until now, we were informed by or guide that Cardamom is so expensive because not only does a simple Cardamom plant take 3 years to grow, it also has a maximum life-expectancy of 7 years, and it needs a special cover from sun and rains to truly flourish. This is why you will notice how the leaves of the plants grow in the form of an umbrella, thus protecting the flowers from the sun, and 3 meter tall plant is also grown in shade under another bigger plant. Cardamom picking and processing is also a painstakingly difficult process, as ladies sit patiently plucking one flower at a time, which are then dried using electric heat (not sunlight). The spice is not only used for seasoning and cooking, but is also sought out for medicinal purposes like teeth and gum healing, lung congestion, and digestive disorders.

Blogger Veronika Tomanova with a cardamom bud

Cloves were the easiest yet the most surprising spice to guess. To an untrained eye, what look like a beautiful cluster of crimson flower buds waiting to blossom, on closer observation reveal the presence of tiny little fragrant cloves wrapped inside. The buds have to be picked before they mature into flowers, and once processed, are used extensively for culinary as well as medicinal purposes.

Clove clusters

We went on to see many other spices like Cinnamon scraped off the bark of the tree, or turmeric procured from the roots. We also saw Cocoa and Coffee plants, and learned about the many types and processes that go into procuring the right quality harvest!

Cinnamon bark.

Photographing a Cocoa fruit.

Coffee plantations at Thekkady.

 

Blogger Raul Armando examining a ginger root.

The entire trail, which took us approximately 3-4 hours to complete, was a whirlwind of exciting trivia and surprising facts about the simple things we use regularly in our everyday life. We were promised a “Trip of a Lifetime” when we went to Kerala, and it was experiences like this one that really added meaning to that phrase! Now more confident about what we have to look in our spices, we ended our walk by stuffing our shopping bags with all the spices available at Spice Shop located on-property.

And of course, before we leave, one glass of fresh coconut water please!

We left after having a refreshing glass of fresh coconut water!

Details of the Spice Trail:

Location: Periyar Spice & Ayurvedic Garden, Munnar Thekkady Road, Thekkady
Email: periyarspicegarden@gmail.com
Best time to visit: Post monsoons
Duration: 3-4 hours

For more from my Kerala travels, I am sharing some of the older posts. This trip was a part of the Kerala Blog Express organized annually by Kerala Tourism.

Humble reminder: Travel responsibly. Keep your travel trails clean! Respect the local culture.

 

Unforgettable memories from magical Kerala!

From peaceful getaways to adventurous haunts - Kerala has something for every kind of traveler! PC: Patricia Schussel Gomes
From peaceful getaways to adventurous haunts – Kerala has something for every kind of traveler! PC: Patricia Schussel Gomes

I am writing this article while combating severe flashback scenarios taking me back to my two weeks in Kerala, back in February 2016 – which were nothing short of a fairytale! When I signed up to participate in Kerala Blog Express 3, I only expected an all-sponsored trip to the state that I had seen only through Mani Ratnam’s eyes, but what I received in Kerala was so much more! I was the only Indian on the trip, and traveling in your own country with 29 international bloggers hailing from 24 nationalities, each curious and some absolutely clueless about your culture – is an experience words cannot describe!

So, flashback to 15th February 2016 – when 30 strangers from 25 countries set upon one epic road-trip, to a strange land in a strange continent, to the world’s biggest democracy, with nothing in common but an intense craving for adventure – and the rest, as they say, is history! Here are my top 10 unforgettable memories from this amazing adventure:

  • The traditional welcome we received at every resort

Dancing to the beats of the Theyyam artist welcoming us at Vythiri resort, alongside Betty and Patricia! PC: Jinson Abraham
Dancing to the beats of the Theyyam artist welcoming us at Vythiri resort, alongside Betty and Patricia! PC: Jinson Abraham

It all began at the official press-conference where we were swarmed by the paparazzi – it was a teaser of the two weeks to come. And sure enough, the Kerala Blog Express made each and every one of us feel so special at every step of the journey. Every resort we stepped into, would have a red carpet laid out just for us, with traditional aarti, live drums, traditional dance and welcome drinks (coconut water, obviously)! By the end of the trip we were so used to this royal treatment that when I returned to Mumbai, I was a tad disappointed at the sheer lack of recognition from the airport authorities! Let me show them my Instagram…

  • Our very own luxury floating house

Cruising over the famous Alleppey backwaters in Kerala. PC - Jinson Abraham
Cruising over the famous Alleppey backwaters in Kerala. PC – Jinson Abraham

I don’t know who (and why!) named those gorgeous waterbodies “backwaters” (it just sounds so wrong!) But I’ll stick to the common term. The famous Kerala backwaters – easily the crown jewel of the state! The one experience I was most curious AND skeptical about – because once any place is too famous, it usually ends up as a disappointment as it never matches up to the high expectations. But not true in this case. We stayed on a luxury houseboat owned by Spice Routes at the Alleppey Backwaters, and that one evening was easily the most peaceful sleep I had throughout the trip!

  • Village experience in Kumarakom

Learning traditional mat making as part of the Village Experience at Kumarakom, Kerala. PC: Jinson Abraham
Learning traditional mat making as part of the Village Experience at Kumarakom, Kerala. PC: Jinson Abraham

My blog, Untravel, is all about off-beat travel and learning a little from every place I visit. And so, our little village life experience in Kumarakom had me jumping around with joy like a little kid at the candy store! I volunteered to do every activity, including climbing a palm tree, and while I failed miserably at choir making (thrice!), I’m proud that Amma passed me in my mat-making tutorial! She didn’t speak much hindi, but she told the organizers in Malayalam – “She’s good. Let her stay here with me!” Mission accomplished, I’d say!

  • Kayaking on the Kumarakom backwaters

Kayaking over the gorgeous Kerala backwaters in Kumarakom. PC: Jinson Abraham
Kayaking over the gorgeous Kerala backwaters in Kumarakom. PC: Jinson Abraham

While kayaking can be fun no matter where you choose to do it, I would highly recommend doing it at Kumarakom backwaters! Kerala is so breathtakingly beautiful in so many ways, kayaking in Kumarakom was another gentle reminder of the same. As we made our way through the picturesque water alleys, we were greeted by locals residing by the banks of these canals, just as the sun blazed an amazing red getting ready for sundown! The canals was choker-blocked with waterplants for most parts, and while that does make kayaking here a little difficult as you have to really use all your strength to wade through the heavy roots, it also makes it all the more memorable!

  • Planting a tree in Thekkady

My mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty TravelsMy mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty Travels
My mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty TravelsMy mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty Travels

How many places can claim of keeping a part of you even after you’ve said your goodbyes? Thekkady does now, because the lovely folks at Greenwoods Resort got us to plant a sapling, which they will name after us. This way, any time I return to Thekkady, I can go check how my lovely “mitti” tree is doing!

  • Seeing elephants in the wild!

No caption needed! PC: Jinson Abraham
No caption needed! PC: Jinson Abraham

Strangely, the day I entered into an argument with the organizers about using an elephant to welcome us at a resort, also turned out to be the day when I saw one happy family of elephants in the wild! OH YEAH! BEST THING EVER! I also saw a wild boar, deer, several exotic birds and a bison! All while we cruised in our boat over the manmade lake in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary!

  • Meditation and camping amidst the tea-gardens of Munnar

Our beautiful campsite in Munnar! PC: Jinson Abraham
Our beautiful campsite in Munnar! PC: Jinson Abraham

Being a mountain child at heart, I was delighted to be back in familiar territory when we reached our campsite in Munnar. Cozily tucked amidst lush green tea-gardens with a mesmerizing view of the western ghats, our campsite was a scene right out of a dream. I thoroughly enjoyed catching the sunset away from the crowd with two fellow-bloggers. It was so serene and calm, we just sat there admiring the beautiful landscape, opening our hearts to different sounds of nature.

  • Winning the lucky draw to Pranavam Homestay

All heart at Pranavam homestay! PC: Betty Travels
All heart at Pranavam homestay! PC: Betty Travels

Ah, yes, that had to happen! Anyone who has read my blog will know how I prefer homestays over any other accommodations, and as much as I was enjoying the unfathomable luxury of the many resorts we were staying at during this trip, I was way out of my comfort zone! And luckily for me, I won the lucky draw (yes, we picked chits) to win a stay at the only homestay that was a part of our itinerary – Pranavam Homestay in Pozhuthana, Wayanad! I had the greatest time in the company of our affable hosts – Mr. Ravichandran, Rema Amma and Anwer – as we discussed politics, our families, local stories, their royal connections, India’s partition and Ravi-ettan’s Gandhian principles! Homestays are meant to offer a home away from home, and that’s exactly what Pranavam will do for you!

  • Appreciation of traditional arts at Kerala Kalamandalam

Lost in the beauty of traditional South Indian dance forms! PC: Jinson Abraham
Lost in the beauty of traditional South Indian dance forms! PC: Jinson Abraham

You think of South India, you think of classical dance! And so, when we visited the Kerala Kalamandalam in Kochi, the only government authorized arts preservation/promotion university in the state, I was excited like a little kid in a candy store! I remember how famished I was because we had not had lunch, there was no water or fan / AC, but that didn’t stop me from running around with my camera! We saw demonstrations of some of the best Indian classical dance acts like the best of South Indian dance forms like Kathakali, Mohiniyattom, Kudiyattom, Kuchipudi, Shiva Vandana, Bharat Natyam, among others!

  • The paparazzi and the celebrities

Don't we look like a gang? ;) We sure were difficult to avoid! PC: Jinson Abraham
Don’t we look like a gang? 😉 We sure were difficult to avoid! PC: Jinson Abraham

Last but not the least, in fact the most important of them all – THE EXPRESS! Like I said before, and I can’t emphasize enough, the experience of traveling with bloggers from across the globe is what truly made this trip one to be remembered for a lifetime! It’s amusing how we were the paparazzi as well as the celebrities on this trip. While we were the most excited about capturing every moment with our cameras; everyone else – from locals on the street to hotel staff to the media itself – seemed equally excited about getting us on camera! I’ll give all credit for this attention to our super-attractive bus that got all heads turning no matter where we went. We started this trip as 30 strangers and left as 30 friends. Rest assured, our love for travel will ensure we do cross paths very soon…after all, this world is a little too small for people with restless feet!

 

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