For this edition of the Go There drive, we headed down south to God’s own country, Kerala. It all started back at the office over a sumptuous meal of delicious South Indian pepper-flavoured biryani â€“ a discussion on the origins of pepper ensued and ended with the conclusion that the only way to confirm what we vaguely knew was to head to the Munnar and Thekkadi regions of Kerala. Why? Well, these areas are well-known for tea plantations and the intercrops to these are pepper vines.
In Chennai, we took delivery of a Datsun Go+ and started our eight-hour drive to Munnar. OVERDRIVE reader and winner of the #GoThere contest, Harshith Ramesh, joined us midway in Coimbatore. The route from Coimbatore to Munnar is quite scenic as it passes through the Indira Gandhi National Park and chances are that you will spot animals like the sambar, bison, musk deer and even elephants on your way up. The road is quite narrow but the compact Go+ was easy to manoeuvre around.
We reached Munnar by nightfall and since the winters were still receding, there was a slight nip in the air. The next morning, we woke up to a misty landscape with the clouds settled on the hills and the aroma of freshly brewed tea. Even if you aren’t a tea person, you can’t resist the refreshing brews from this region. And if you are a tea connoisseur, then you are in for a treat, as the market is not only abundant in green, white and black teas, but also a special variety flavoured with vanilla, chocolate, cardamom or mixed spices. A lot of shops in this town sell tea and spices under the same roof.
Facts about black pepper
|1) Black pepper was first discovered in southern India and attracted traders from all over the world
ï€½ It's also the most traded spice in the world
2) Vietnam is the largest producer and exporter of the condiment
3) India is the third largest producer of pepper and produces over 50 tonnes of it every year
But we were more interested in exploring the pepper plantations and so we continued our journey to Thekkadi. Our friends at Thekkadi’s Kofiland Resort had agreed to let us into one of their many tea and spice plantations and take a closer look at how the black pepper we use everyday is cultivated, prepared and packaged. The paths to the plantations were narrower still and strewn with jagged rocks. But despite its long MPV-esque wheelbase, the Go+ managed just fine. The parking camera accessory that the Datsun dealer had fit on our car, was extremely useful too.
Sibi Churakulav, the estate manager at the plantations, showed us around the plantations where we learnt a great deal about our subject. For example, the pepper vine can climb any tree, but the most commonly used base in Kerala is the silver oak. And just like our ride for this trip, these vines are maintenance free. They don’t demand additional fertilisers or nutrition over and above what is supplied to the plantation. They take about six to eight months to bear fruit and one spike of pepper contains over 100 drupes. An average vine that grows to be about ten-feet high can bear around 8-10kg of fruit. The common black peppercorns are the sun-dried, unripe drupes, while the green kind is sun dried too but ripened.
Depending on the variety, the pepper spikes are picked from the tree in January or February. The drupes are then separated by hand or machine and then spread out for drying through the day. They are then heaped for the night and covered with Hessian cloth to absorb any moisture. By morning, the pepper darkens in colour. The process is repeated until the pepper dries out to the optimum level, after which it weighs about one-third of the original fruit. It is then packaged for sale and supplied to the local markets first. The quality of the pepper is rich and not only do these plantations cater to the domestic market, but they also export a large quantity of the spice.
We came away rather impressed with what we learnt. Back at the office, we’re going to appreciate our South Indian biryani a lot better.
|The Kofiland Resort is spread over an expanse of 110 acres in the heart of Periyar. The resort has 20 cottages that are surrounded by silver oak and coffee plantations. What adds to the beauty of the resort is a rivulet that flows through the property. The expanse of the resort cuts away the noise of the urban surroundings and makes for a serene environment perfect for a rejuvenating vacation. The resort also has a multi-cuisine restaurant and an open-air amphitheatre overlooking the rivulet. Since Kofiland is a part of Kerala's famous MMJ Group, you can also sign up for a visit to their plantations and learn more about the spices, plants and processes like we did.