A Weekend at the Pepper Farm March 3, 2020 10:06
I was extremely fortunate last month to travel to India for a 3 week holiday, during which we visited one of our suppliers, Parameswaran's Special Wynad Pepper. The pepper farm is situated in a lush valley in Wayanad distict in the far north east of Kerala, high in the Western Ghats and at the southern edge of the Deccan plateau.
It's an area of plantations, forests and wildlife, where elephants roam and tigers are still spotted (although sadly not by us!). It is a beautiful, tranquil and very special place - and oddly enough has strong links to Perthshire!
Para's pepper was first introduced to me in the early days of PB by a gentleman named Colin Hamilton, who I assumed at the time was acting as an agent. Actually, Colin had first met Para decades before when he and his partner were visiting India and hoping to purchase land to build a house.
Para was a young man, working in a hotel, whom Colin and Kulgin befriended and ultimately arranged for him to travel to Perthshire to work for them. Para spent 6 months living in Perthshire and judging by the photos he shared with us, seems to have been treated rather more as a guest of honour than as an employee.
In the meantime, Colin and Kulgin found their perfect plot of land which happened to be on a remote pepper farm. Their plans nearly fell apart when it transpired that only Indian nationals could own property, but they bought the farm in Para's name on the understanding that they could build a house for themselves. That was 35 years ago; Para has been farming the land ever since and, although Kulgin has sadly passed away, Colin still splits his time between Perthshire and India.
The farm itself covers about 20 acres and is extremely diverse, with mixed planting including bananas, mango, pineapple, guava and coffee at lower level and coconuts, jack fruit and arecanuts (betel) up above.
There are also rice paddies and a small herd of very well looked after dairy cattle. At the time of our visit, the coffee and arecanut harvests were in full swing.
Harvesting arecanuts involves shimmying 30-40 feet up the palm, yanking off the nuts and throwing them to the ground, before swinging the tree top to and fro and leaping to the next one! Needless to say, I was more inclined to try my hand at coffee picking!
Of course, it was the pepper we were really there to see. Peppercorns are the fruit of a flowering vine called piper nigrum. The vines wrap themselves around shade trees - teak, rosewood, jack fruit, coconut and areca palms, up to a height of about 15 ft (4/5m). The pepper grows in clusters, or spikes, a bit like grapes.
The fruits start off green and as they ripen they turn orange and red; most pepper is picked at the green stage, with the whole vine being picked clean in one go. They are then dried, at which point the outer husk turns black and they become what we would recognise as black peppercorns. Alternatively they can be treated in a variety of ways to retain the green colour and preserved (often in pickle or brine) as green peppercorns.
There are a number of factors which make Para's pepper different from the mainstream - Wynad pepper is anyway considered to be a superior product - but the key one is that he leaves the pepper to ripen further, until it starts to turn red. This results in a fruitier, more floral and fragrant pepper. Think of it like tomatoes left to ripen on the vine. This approach is considerably more time-consuming and costly - it involves the pickers going over each vine on multiple occasions and careful timing is needed to catch it at the right moment before it's taken by the birds.
It's inevitable that the birds do take an element of the crop which has resulted in wild pepper growing in the forest around the farm. What Para and Akash (his son) have noticed is that this wild pepper has enhanced woody notes and is stronger and more resistant to disease - which they attribute to natural selection of the best seeds by the birds - so they are using these wild plants as a source of new stock for the plantation and trying to harness these evolved attributes.
Para's philosophy is all about working with nature to produce pepper of the highest quality. The only fertiliser they use is their own bio-mix made from fermented cow and water buffalo dung and nut cake. Everything is done by hand - picking, stripping the berries from the spikes, destalking, raking and turning the berries as they dry in the sun, grading and packing. Even the paper labels and little unbleached cotton bags used to package the pepper are handmade and hand screen printed, helping to preserve an ancient art.
Given that everything is grown organically, I asked Akash why they don't label the pepper as such. He explained that in India, organic certification can be bought for as little as £6 and doesn't require any repeat testing and so is fairly meaningless. They prefer instead to have each batch tested in a laboratory in the UK and can provide the certificates on request (I have them!).
Only the best of Para's relatively small pepper crop is vacuum-packed and shipped abroad, where it has received widespread praise from Michelin-starred chefs, food writers and critics. Some of it even finds its way to the shelves of Provender Brown!