The Spices of South India

A Tea Plantation

I just had the tremendous good fortune of being able to spend over two weeks traveling with a friend in the South Indian state of Kerala.  Among the many extraordinary experiences we had, I was particularly enthralled with the tea and spice growing mountainous region around the town of Kumily, that borders Tamil Nadu.  The steeply rolling hills are lush with enormous spreading clumps of tea bushes, with trees scattered here and there to provide shade and a prop for the black pepper plants that climb their trunks, producing delicate clusters of peppercorns that were harvested and laid out by the side of the road to dry.

Cardamom Plant - see pods at its base

Encountering tea and pepper in their natural environs was exciting enough, yet the real surprise was seeing how cardamom grows.  Cardamom is one of the main ingredients in the “masala” or spice mixture used to make the fragrant and sweet milky chai we enjoyed so much.  Here in the Galilee it is also used to give a special aroma and flavor to Arab black coffee.

That's what they look like before they get dry and shriveled

The plant is enormous – almost shoulder-height – compared to the demure green pods that are gathered on short little stems at its base.  Of course I had to pop one into my mouth and the flavor seemed to encapsulate everything that was delightful, exotic, and sensually in your face about India.  This is what the explorers of old set out to find on their voyages, and I can understand why. 

This Month’s “Fun Day”

As part of the tradition that my friend Miriam and I try and uphold, which is to devote the first Tuesday of every month for a “fun day” (a practice which I highly recommend), we spent this lovely winter day exploring the Carmel Mountains.  Such a day typically comprises elements of culture, shopping and eating, and we started this one at the Seeds of Zion Nursery in the beautiful community of Kerem Maharal, nestled in the hillside between Haifa and Zichron Yaakov.  Our mission was to find plants for Miriam’s garden that are not water guzzlers, and this particular nursery specializes in wildflowers indigenous to this region, which are necessarily modest in their water consumption.

 Avraham, brother of Zion, the nursery owner, took us on a grand tour of their rambling, mildly chaotic grounds to see the wild plants they are raising – wild cyclamens, narcissus and others – many of which were saved from construction sites and transplanted at the nursery until they can be restored to their native settings. So early on in the winter, few of the flowering plants were in bloom but the day was crisp and clear and being surrounded by so much greenery was exhilarating.

 I, of course, was interested in every plant that is edible, and Avraham assured me in one sweeping generalization that just about everything on the extensive grounds was good for eating. To make his point, he led us to a row of delicate purple crocuses which are the source of saffron. 

 With his thick fingers Avraham extracted the red stigmas from between the purple petals and handed them to us. “Let it sit on your tongue for a minute”, he instructed us. The aroma of perfume from that little crimson fiber filled my entire head.

Avraham loaded a plastic baggie with a smorgasbord of wild flower seeds, and packed up some bulbs, and that completed the shopping part of the day.  For culture, we visited the exquisite gardens of Ramat Hanadiv in nearby Zichron Yaakov, created by Baron Edmond Rothschild for the enjoyment of the area’s citizens. Then we had lunch on the patio of the chic new Kerem Zaytim (Olive Grove) restaurant, marveling at how lucky we are to dine al fresco on the first day of December.  

Eggs Florentine Israeli Style