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    The otherwise fairly anonymous town of Bodinayakanur in Tamil Nadu has an interesting secret – it’s India’s Cardamon (or Cardamom!) City. It’s location at the base of the Western Ghat hills in South India (where coffee, pepper and cardamon are grown) mean it’s now the main marketplace for most of India’s cardamon – a trade that’s worth millions of dollars per year.

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    Tamarind trees line the roads of Tamil Nadu, leading up to the Cardamon Hills

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    Cardamon is the fruit of a rhizome plant related to ginger and looks a bit like a big decorative leafy fern plant with the cardamon pods growing on stems at the base of the plant. They’re native to the south west of India and the best in the world is still grown in the Cardamom hills that rise up above the town of Bodi.

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    It’s a fickle plant requiring careful care and just the right amount of light and rain. Picking, sorting and grading is a laborious manual process so it’s always had a very high price (it’s known as the Queen of Spices) and is generally second only to saffron as the most expensive spice.
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    The cardamom plantations are tucked away deep in the hills, a couple of hours from the town and each large scale planter will farm a few acres giving a yield of a couple of tonnes or so each year.

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    The cardamom pods form on shoots at the base of the plant and are bright green with the seeds inside that turn from green (and tasteless) when underripe, to black and rich with fragrant oils when fully ripe.

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    The world’s worst Cardamon picker in action…..

    The pods are picked when they reach a particular size and weight, and are washed and dried overnight. At this point they’ve lost about 80% of their original weight as the skins of the pods are full of water.

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    They’re picked through to remove any stalks or debris then the planter will store them and look to the market in Bodi to try and judge when the time is right to sell.

     

    Every day at the official Indian Spices Board building, there’s an auction where the buyers gather, gossip over sweet coffee and curry puffs to discuss the latest news from the plantations, the weather and the state of the market. Each of these guys will spend many thousands of dollars each day on cardamon so it’s a very serious business.

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    Pinned to an inspection board are the samples of cardamom from each lot on sale. Each lot has a reserve price and a size – normally around 200kg upwards. The auction starts with the traders hushed behind their terminals. The auctioneer calls out the lot number and an assistant quickly walks past each trader, hurling a handful of cardamon from each batch into their sample bowls for inspection.

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    The traders have a few seconds to assess the sample – they’re looking for colour, size, scent, consistency and density (if they feel heavy for their size which indicates high seed content and so higher prices.

    The trading then happens in deathly silence as the price goes up incredibly quickly in 2 rupee increments. The bids are made through an automated system and within seconds, decisions worth tens of thousands of dollars can be made and each batch is sold.

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    Cardamon pods everywhere after the all the samples have been handed out and the auction is complete. All the various sample pods are collected at the end and sold as a discount mixed batch for grinding!

    The traders then transport the cardamon to their warehouses which are mostly just domestic houses in Bodi that have been converted to workplaces. On an otherwise ordinary residential street there might be 10 warehouses which combined could be holding hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock at busy times.

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    Behind any of these unmarked doors might be a fortune of Cardamon pods!

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    It seemed a pretty strange set up but on reflection I suspect that having the warehouses so close to where people live, and the fact that virtually all the traders were local family businesses who’d been operating for decades leads to a pretty powerful neighbourhood watch scheme!

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    The cardamom is sorted by size then graded by hand in an incredibly labour intensive process as the local ladies (it’s always ladies as I was told their small hands are better for this sort of work!), sort the cardamom leaving only the whole green pods for the prime product.

    It’s then transported across the country for sale in Mumbai and Delhi. Interestingly there’s no great fondness for the flavour of cardamon locally – it’s viewed as a cash crop only.

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    Europe isn’t a significant customer for cardamon (although it is popular in Scandinavia). The main demand is either from the Middle East where it’s used to flavour coffee, or within India as the biggest demand for cardamon is in flavouring Indian sweets, and prices peak around big festivals such as Divali as there is always such a huge spike in demand for these sweets.

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    Thanks to Senthil for being so generous and showing me his plantations, and the Indian Spices Board for allowing me to watch their cardamon auction!

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    The pepper gardens are hidden deep in the hills of South West India, in an area that straddles Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Everything is incredibly lush with deep green wild forest and it feels like one of those places that’s so fertile you can almost see the plants growing around you.

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    From a distance the hills looks full of impenetrable thick jungle but many areas are pretty intensively cultivated with  a monoculture of either tea plantations, coffee, cardamon or pepper which all depend on the exact nature of the soil, aspect and gradient.

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    The plantations are tightly packed in side by side and they stretch for miles around the hills with the best growing areas jealously guarded and handed down through families over the generations.

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    Colourful fabrics strung around the boundaries of a pepper plantation – I was told they were really effective at warding off wild boars!

    Peppercorns are the berries of a vine that grows wild in Southern India (although India is no longer the biggest producer, it is the original home of pepper) and is the worlds most traded spice. There are stories of peppercorns being found in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs, and of course the history of peppercorn rent being charged in Britain and the Roman centurions being paid in pepper as it was more valuable than gold at one point.

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    These mysterious dried berries that first drew Europeans to India grow in long threads (a bit like a mini bunch of grapes), and the the vine itself grows up any supporting tree or post – in India they use Australian silver oak trees as supports because they grow very straight and thin.

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    Coffee is often grown amongst the pepper vines as the crops are very compatible to grow together and also spread the financial risk – if one crop fails at least you can earn revenue from the other

    Pepper can be picked green (slightly underipe) or red (fully ripe), and only turns black when dried in the sun. White, red and green pepper are all the same original berry – green pepper can be used fresh but doesn’t last very long, so is dried by either brining the fresh green berries or freeze-drying them. White pepper is made by soaking the ripe red berries for several days until the skins can be rubbed off, leaving the whole white seed inside that can then be dried. Red pepper is much rarer as the berries have to be left on the vine for longer (which is financially unattractive for the growers, particularly as the birds are so keen on them), and is picked as a larger riper berry that dries to a dark brown colour with a red hue. It’s worth getting if you have the chance (we stocked some from Vietnam recently) but it’s expensive and not easy to find.

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    The desire for pepper from Europe has been an incredible driver for exploration and trade over the centuries. It  seems bizarre now that something so small and perceived as such a mundane commodity in our modern kitchens was so significant, but the desire for the heat and fragrance of these little berries led to the discovery of America (Columbus was searching for a new shortcut western route to the spiceries), was responsible for wars, the building of empires and the creation of incredible cities such as Venice and Genoa, and turbocharged the European influence on global trade and culture by opening up the world to the exchange of people and ideas – quite a legacy for a little green berry!

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    The Indian Pepper harvest as imagined by a French painter (who’d clearly never seen it in real life!) in the 16th Century

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    A European King being given pepper in a painting from the 15th Century

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    Most villagers in the region grow a few kg of their own pepper at home and will keep the dried peppercorns as a source of income to be cashed in whenever the market is high. So many do this and their vines are so productive that their actions can really swing the market as such a huge amount of pepper can be held in stock.

    It’s a bit of a boom and bust market as pepper can now be grown in so many sub-tropical regions such as Brazil and Vietnam that the Indian growers have lost the dominance they enjoyed in previous generations. While the best family owned plantations in the Western Ghats can still command premium prices for their pepper which is considered the highest quality , for many pepper farmers in India times are much tougher and competition is increasing as low-cost countries produce higher yields and their previously dominant position is eroded.

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    Pepper vines growing up tall silver oak trees line the paths in a pepper plantation in Kerala

    For Europeans, the pepper gardens of Southern India represented an Earthly paradise – if they weren’t literally the Garden of Eden then at least what they produced must have meant they were something pretty close. Even now it’s still incredibly exciting to see these pungent green berries growing in the lush hills of Southern India, it has an extraordinary history and we hope that the pepper farmers continue their work for many centuries to come!

     

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    Chennai – Chicken 65 & the East India Company

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    July 5, 2016

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    The Chettiars of Chettinad

    February 21, 2016

      While Britain was being slowly submerged in rainwater over Christmas, I escaped for a few days to South India to soak up all the colours and energy as well as to discover some of the best food in the whole country. I was off to visit Chettinad – a small area south of Chennai that we’d come across […]

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    Mortar vs pestle: Thai home cooking

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    Bangkok street food: it’s all about shrimp

    November 20, 2015

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    Since colonisation by the Dutch East India Company in the late 16th century, the nation now known as Indonesia has been one of the spice centres of the world. Its top spice exports these days are pepper and nutmeg, but a huge variety are grown across Indonesia – turmeric, cloves, ginger, tamarind, lemongrass…the list goes […]

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    The Curry Mile, Manchester

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    Red or Green? – New Mexico’s hot love

    August 14, 2015

    Many of the southern states of the USA have a long history and love of Mexican food, but each state has its own focus and adaptation… and its own deliciousness factor! Over in California (Cal-Mex) there’s more Hispanic influence, so dishes tend to be more tomatoey, with more veg, and are a bit milder. California grows […]

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    Yangon, Myanmar – and now for something completely different

    June 24, 2015

    Every Myanmar guidebook seems to open with the same Rudyard Kipling quote  – “this is Burma, and it is quite unlike any land you know about”. Kipling might have been right when he wrote that in 1890, and it’s pretty accurate now as Myanmar really is completely different, particularly for our interest in the food that’s […]

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    Hanoi – streetfood highlights

    June 24, 2015

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    February 16, 2015

    By Navina Bartlett – guest contributor and owner of Coconut Chilli They were the freshest beans I’d ever seen and they were still to be picked by my own small hands. I was visiting my family as a child and it was nearly lunchtime. My uncle owns an agricultural farm, in Bidadi, just south of […]

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