A Week in God’s Own Country–Stop 1: Kerala Farm Organic Spices

When we told our friends in Chennai we wanted to do some sightseeing, they all said, “Go West–to Kerala!”

“Never heard of it,” we said.

“It’s beautiful,” they replied.

While we were mulling over this possibility, we met a fellow hotel guest who happened to be from Kerala. I told Sandhya we were thinking of visiting Kerala, and she turned travel agent on the spot.

“You must go. It’s like nothing else you’ll see in India. First you should go to Munnar, spend two nights, then to Thekkady, take a boat ride and stay a night in the tiger preserve, then Marari Kollam, and then a night on a houseboat.”

And so we had our itinerary. I did spend quite some time investigating possibilities, comparing hotels, and reading about destinations. In the end, we did pretty much what Sandhya had prescribed.

And I fell in love with Kerala. It reveals my Pacific Northwest bias to say that I called it “the  Oregon of India.” But if you replace old growth forests with tea plantations in the mountains and fir trees with coconut palms at the ocean, you’re not too far off. Common to both regions is the desire to preserve the treasure that is their natural beauty.

Chennai in the last week of September was still uncomfortably hot and humid when we took the overnight Trivandrum Mail train from Chennai Central to Ernamkulam. (More about the train ride and our lessons learned later). Sandhya had arranged for her father’s driver to meet us at the train station. He didn’t speak much English, but he was steady and reliable all week long.

We arrived impressively on schedule at 7:30 on a Saturday morning and drove for about an hour. We passed out of the city and through a toll booth that amounted to a row of young boys, each tending a lane and tossing his collected coins into a plastic bin at his side. Then we stopped for a long-awaited breakfast at the Royale County Hotel on the KRL Road in Tripunithura. The South Indian-style buffet was quite satisfying; the coffee was the best we’d had yet.

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The exterior walls of the restaurant and lobby of the Royale County Hotel are almost entirely glass, making the second-floor restaurant remarkably bright, if slightly … hygienic. Not a bad quality in a restaurant. Also good for keeping sleep-deprived train travelers awake.

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Cheerful and attentive servers. We were still adjusting to having waitpersons stand by and, well, wait. Just in case we discovered a sudden need for, say, another dosa.

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The quiet lobby with its modern decor was slightly spartan (aside from bright bouquets of flowers here and there) but sparklingly clean.

And then we were on our way up into the fresh mountain air of Kerala.

Stop at a falls--Adammali?

Stop at a falls–Adammali?

Pickled fruits and vegetables for sale at the falls, along with all kinds of local spice concoctions. I was particularly interested in the bottles of herbs for hair oil--just add your favorite: coconut, sunflower, sesame...

Pickled fruits and vegetables for sale at the falls, along with all kinds of local spice concoctions. I was particularly intrigued by the bottles of spices (cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and a host of others) for hair oil–just add your favorite: coconut, sunflower, sesame.

Our driver’s stop at an organic spice farm was certainly a marketing move, but we didn’t mind, particularly as we had signaled the need for a bathroom break some thirty minutes prior. We signed on for a tour of the Kerala Farm spice plantation, which turned out to be both interesting and educational. I’d never before seen coffee trees,  cocoa pods, cardamom, clove, allspice, turmeric, and nutmeg growing in the field, or the host of other herbal plants indicated by our able guide, Matthew Joseph.

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Matthew under a cocoa tree. The cocoa comes from the seeds inside the big green pods.

Evidently some cocoa pods are green and some are red.

Evidently some cocoa pods are red.

coffee beans

I always imagined coffee grew on a bush. These small, round, green, bean-containing pods dangled from a definite tree.

Smell the coffee.

Smell the coffee.

We learned that red, green, and black peppercorns all come from the same tree. The means of processing them determines the color. Black peppercorns, the hottest, are sun dried. White peppercorns, the least hot, are put into hot water and peeled. Green peppercorns are dried in a dryer.

Pepper berries

Pepper berries

Nutmeg grows on a tree, below. Matthew told us that the green exterior is used for medicine.

Nutmeg tree

Nutmeg tree

nutmeg

The brown nut is ground or grated for nutmeg. The red covering, dried and ground up, is mace.

all spice

Allspice, which to me tastes very similar to nutmeg, grows on this very different sort of tree.

Matthew told us that lemongrass is good for stomach ailments as well as repelling mosquitoes.

Matthew told us that lemongrass is good for healing digestive ailments, preventing body odor, and repelling mosquitoes.

cardamom tree

Cardamom plant

cardamom pods

Cardamom pods

Rice paddy

Rice paddy

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Why did I expect pineapples to grow on palm trees? I was amazed to find them growing right out of the ground.

There were plants I had heard of but never seen …

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This jack fruit won’t be ripe for many months.

And the totally unfamiliar …

Neela Amiri--supposed to be good for hair and scalp.

Neela Amari–supposed to be good for hair and scalp.

Sarpachanthi--Matthew says it is good for psoriasis and other skin problems.

Sarpachanthi–Matthew says it is good for psoriasis and other skin problems.

An especially unexpected attraction was the fish massage. For 200 rupees (about three dollars), you can sit with your legs in a tank full of little fish from Thailand, while they nibble away dead skin and generally rejuvenate you. Brianna put her hands in and, to my surprise, was quite keen on the experience. For several days she kept asking to go back for a full foot fish massage, but Kerala Spice Farm was well off our route by then. Next time.

Fish massage

Fish massage

Of course, after the tour we had the opportunity to purchase spices and herbal preparations in the outlet shop.

 

ayurveda store

The shop was full of customers eager to try the ayurvedic remedies.

 

Alas, the Neela Amari irritated my scalp, and the Ashwagandhadi lehyam gave me a stomach ache. But it was worth a try–and maybe they would help someone with fewer sensitivities. The cocoa powder we bought is quite good, and in the absence of a coffee maker, the instant coffee we bought is … not bad. We still have hopes for the arthritis ointment and headache therapy we bought for people back home.

In any case, natural agriculture is something we consider worth supporting, even if it is a tourist draw. Matthew Joseph told us that the farm has been operating as a destination for fifteen years and that they process all their products themselves in the valley below the hillside on which the farm is located.

We stepped out of the shop into a rain forest downpour. We had enjoyed  our tour, but by now we were eager to reach our hotel and some comfortable beds. Next stop: The tea fields of Munnar.

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2 responses to “A Week in God’s Own Country–Stop 1: Kerala Farm Organic Spices

  1. Hey Amanda. We loved the way you described your stay in Kerala. It was an interesting read. We just returned from our trip to Kerala and like all tourists we also ended up buying few ayurvedic medicines from the spice garden. I am using the Neel Amari hair oil and experienced the irritating sensation too. Not sure if it’s normal. I am particularly interested to know if you did see any improvement in your hair density/quality after using it. I bought the oil as I was told it would promote the growth of new hair in the bald patch that I have on my head.

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    • Thanks for getting in touch! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I was hoping for similar results from the hair oil, but I didn’t observe any. That’s not to say it couldn’t work for someone else. It could be that the sensitivity of my skin neutralized the benefits one might usually expect.

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