Where the pepper grows
Taking a taxi from Kozhikode, we wound our way up narrow roads through subtropical broad leafed forests. Grey Langur monkey’s crossed the newly built roads as Bollywood music played quietly in the air conditioned car. We were on our way to Wayanad, in India’s Southern state of Kerala. Or more specifically Nadavayal, the home of Pepper farmer NJ Thomas. Who along with his wife Tangama are members of the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala.
Touring through NJ Thomas’s Garden, he explains to us how the age old tradition of Homestead Gardening works. Firstly they produce for themselves and their family and the surplus is then traded through the Fair Trade Alliance Kerala. This means that their interest lies not on the production of 1 or 2 cash crops but rather an entire array of different foods and spices, thereby protecting biodiversity and shutting out the concept of Mono culture.
Malabar Black Pepper
The pepper plant piper nigrum is a perennial woody vine growing up to 4m in height on supporting trees. A single stem bears approximately 20-30 fruiting spikes. In total NJ Explains that he is cultivating 15 different varieties of Pepper on his small farm. These will all be mixed together and collectively names ‚Malabar Black Pepper‘.
Harvesting season for the ripe drupes of the P. Nigrum plant begin in approximately December and end in March. At this time NJ Thomas and Tangama hire laborers to come and collect the fruits with them.
We then head to a nearby home stay named Enteeveedu. Here we meet the owner and learn that she also has her own cultivation of Black pepper that has just freshly been harvested and ready for processing. Over the next few days of our stay here, we get to observe the de stemming and drying process up close.
First the peppercorns are separated from the stems by rubbing them between the two feet, whilst supporting oneself with a ladder or wall. Apparently someone decided it was easier and faser to do so than with the hands… reminiscent of an Italian pressing grapes with his/her feet.
The laborers start the next day early by spreading the peppercorns out over a large concrete surface to slowly bake in the hot sub tropical sun. They chatter among themselves as they work, the energy is calm and concentrated.
In the evening to protect the peppercorns from being damaged by moisture, they are collected again by hand and stored in jute bags overnight. The process of spreading out over the concrete and collecting again is repeated the following day.
After the second day the peppercorns color has changed to the desired dark brown to black. They are then collected, stored, sold or sent away for further processing.