In the wonderland of cardamom, a spicy lesson on a trade
For the weary traveller, the undulating and washed landscape of the plantation town of Kumily in Idukki district of Kerala is a sight for sore eyes.
Besides being clean and lush green, it’s the heady fragrance of the cardamom that instantly envelopes the senses here. After all, this region is the home of the aromatic spice that many traditional deserts and rice preparations cannot do without.
A comfortable three hour drive from Cochin or Madurai and one is transported into this cardamom wonderland. Indeed, 60 per cent of India’s cardamom grows in Kerala, while neighbouring Karnataka accounts for 30 per cent of the production and the remaining comes from Tamil Nadu.
At first glance, the plantations that stretch across the picture perfect hills of Kumily have a certain air of romance about them. It is not just the steady drizzle that brings a song to the lips; the bees that hover around the slopes literally create the special buzz that sets the mood. And one really doesn’t have to wait too long to experience all the magic first-hand, as a guided spice tour can be arranged quite easily.
Of course, walking along the often narrow and winding pathways witnessing the hard work that happens at a quiet but furious pace every day can turn out to be quite an eye opener.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before taking a closer look at how and who harvests the precious cardamoms, here’s some basic information that’s always good to have before beginning an excursion.
How does one identify a cardamom plant? Well, for starters, from far it looks very similar to sugarcane. It has long, fresh green leaves and grows quite tall – around two to four metres in height.
And on what part of this plant does the cardamom grow? Is it a berry that sprouts on the branches in bunches? Certainly not. To spot the cardamoms, one needs to train one’s sights towards the ground where, among the shallow roots, small tendril-like shoots grow with little flowers that eventually turn into cardamom.
What makes Kumily the perfect habitat for the cardamom? The secret is in the trees, the raindrops and the bees. Cardamom thrives only when it gets an even supply of rain – not too much, not too little. It needs the shelter of the evergreen forest to grow strong.
Incidentally, it takes about two years for a single plant to start yielding and it has an average lifespan of 30 years. Where do the bees come in? They aid in the cross pollination process, which is absolutely essential to get the right kind of fruit.
It is in this absolutely dreamy setting that women like Muniamma have spent their whole lives working day in and day out. Fact is that without women like her there would be no cardamom in several kitchens around the world.
Across acres on acres of plantation land one can see these diligent local women working tirelessly to ensure that India remains the second largest producer of cardamom in the world - just behind the Central American country of Guatemala. According to trade estimates, India’s production during 2012-2013 was roughly 12,500 tonnes and exports were 2,400 tonnes.
“It is mostly a woman-oriented industry,” says Muniamma, who has plucked cardamoms for 30 years now. “Even my daughter and daughter-in-law work on the plantations,” she adds with flourish.
The men do get employment on the plantations, but they are confined to jobs like carrying the plucked cardamom to the warehouses or guarding the fields.
What ultimately matters is the plucking, which requires the skilful touch of a woman’s hand. “We generally have three rounds of plucking,” informs Vasanthan of NMR Plantation in Kumily.
“The ripe ones are soft and come off easily. But because it is such a gentle job only women can do it. When plucking season begins they initially cover the entire area once in a single round. They go back for a second round after a gap of time. It generally takes 90 days for the fruit to mature. So this process of doing two rounds works well,” he adds.
Donning special boots and a plastic sheet that works as a makeshift raincoat, these women smoothly glide through the cardamom trees bending down to pick the fruit before dropping it into a tin holder that is in the shape of a watering can.
It’s such a well practiced drill that it almost looks effortless although it certainly isn’t as simple as it seems. The truth is that spending years on end crouching over the shallow roots eventually takes a toll on their physical well-being.
Rosy, another farm hand, enjoys demonstrating how the cardamom is picked. As she talks enthusiastically she reveals that she has recently re-joined work after a gap of two years because her back was giving her problem.
Despite the forced lay-in, she does not see the connection between her constant bending on the job and her ailment. “We keep one leg in front and the other at the back so the angle of bending is not really so strenuous,” she says. “We begin work by 7.30-8.00 am and finish by 3.30-4.00. There is a short lunch break in between. We wear special boots to walk through the fields. For generations we have plucked cardamom and so we know instinctively the ones that are ready. They fall off at a gentle tap,” she elaborates.
Even as the cardamom plant flowers all year round the maximum production takes place between November and March since the flowering happens between February and October.
Once the fruit is plucked it is brought to the warehouse where it is put in a drier. The heat has to be just right so that it does not burn the cardamom and make it yellow. Thanks to advanced technology and modern day machinery, this happens without a hitch.
However, the fun doesn’t end there. There is the cardamom auction that can be interesting to sit through. Till recently cardamom was sold loose.
But just as loose tea came to be branded, so too the cardamom planters are branding their product. “This has happened at the initiative of many young planters like me,” remarks Vinayagamoorthy of KG Plantations, which is leading the move to modernise this age old industry.
From romance to tradition to hardcore commerce, a trip to the cardamom plantations of Kumily can offer a plethora of unusual experiences. - Women's Feature Service