Food, travel and lifestyle writer Johanna Derry has joined the Kerala Experience to explore the colour and taste of South India’s culinary heartland.
There’s a magic about spices. Each has its own unique flavours, pungencies, and potencies, and each works differently in combination with another.
The curators and discovers of this magic are the spice gardeners, men like Abraham, who is a sort of herbalist-cum-apothecary, curating a garden filled with a whole host of different plants, established by his father, who learned from his father, who learned from his father before him.
On the road down from the mountains towards the backwaters and lagoons and then on to the coast, we stopped by Abraham’s spice garden.
In it he grows cocoa, coconuts, bananas of several varieties, cardamom (of course), tea, coffee, chillis, turmeric, ginger, and a whole host of other herbs and spices I either can’t remember or have never heard of. Abraham knows which part of each plant is useful – the root, the stem, the bark, the leaf, the flower, the fruit – how it can be used for food, and for medicine.
It was like a small garden of Eden, but even in Paradise, there are signs of the trouble of a changing world. Abraham grows vanilla, which he pollinates by hand.
‘Why?’ we asked.
It seemed like an awful lot of trouble. Vanilla comes from an orchid with a particularly deep trumpet flower, which means for many insects it’s impossible to get to the nectar inside. Impossible for all but one kind of bee. And that bee is extinct. So vanilla is produced by human hand. All of a sudden the price of spice makes more sense.
Abraham is a guardian of nature, of ancient plants, and long-held knowledge. People come to visit and learn from a true spice master.
Johanna is a freelance journalist, writing for publications including The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.