Kerala’s hill districts are a historical hub of trade and culture – George discussed a bit of that history in his previous post. But spice plantations, which are one of the region’s main economic assets, are not very similar to most people’s view of agriculture. Enormous flat fields of rigidly regimented plants are not a common sight here (except for rice paddies), and spice plantations are quite different from this doctrine.
Similarly to tea plantations, cardamom is grown at high altitudes, but unlike tea and pepper (which is generally grown alongside tea), cardamom plants need a great deal of shade. So tea plantations cover clear swathes of rolling hills in a way that you can see it all, but an uninformed individual in a cardamom plantation might mistake his surroundings for a slightly strange forest.
The cardamom is grown in individual clusters in close proximity, which when amassed, creates the illusion of a thick undergrowth. Cardamom is frequently grown alongside coffee, a less lucrative crop which requires similar conditions to grow.
Unfortunately, cardamom planters have strayed from traditional values and turned to chemical-intensive methods for the sake of upjumped productivity, at the expense of quality and wholesomeness. As such, there is a considerable shortage of organic cardamom available in the hills, although practically all spice vendors will claim their wares are organic (they obviously know their target audience well), and sometimes even certified! Of course, each certificate of authenticity is different, and probably made in their uncle’s print shop, but they get credit for the effort and creativity.
With some professional guidance, we were able to determine that while organic cardamom is of higher quality and has a cleaner and less acrid flavor, inorganic cardamom has the advantage of bigger and brighter pods, as well as fewer abnormalities. The market wins – bigger, more beautiful pods have a tendency of fetching a higher price than the gnarled and occasionally stunted natural ones. It’s all a matter of aesthetics for visitors, of course; which would you choose?