India: An Aromatic Tour

 

I first travelled to India age 24 for a friend’s wedding. I drove for miles and hours from Delhi to the North near the foothills of the Himalayas for a week of matrimonial ceremony, and I knew then that I didn’t make the most of the experience. Although I was in no rush, I always said I’d go back, but travelling to India is quite an undertaking, to put it mildly. The preparation is one thing; but it’s the presence of mind required for every sip and bite you take, and the total assault on the senses from every single direction, and then some.

Fast-forward eight years and that dormant feeling of ‘one day I’ll go back’ resurfaced with urgency after attending an evening course run by the Middlesex School of Complimentary Medicine (MSCM); The Essential Oils of India. A fascinating insight into alternative, more sustainable essential oils; it was there I learned about the yearly aromatic tour of Kerala and Tamil Nadu organised by the School. Hooked, I knew that I would have to make it on this tour sooner rather than later.

The year I first went to India, 2007, was a year of personal shifting sands. I made my first proper foray in to the world of essential oils, and for the time being, I ditched the green-washed brands that had excited me for a while, and bathed in oats for the first time to soothe my skin maladies. Eight years later, an expression of what had begun in 2007 found new life with the birth of Isla Apothecary, and two years after that, just after marking one-year of Isla Apothecary, I was on my merry way to India.

What better place to satiate one’s curiosity and thirst for knowledge in this realm? Well, travel in general feeds and serves endlessly, but in terms of a facts and figures snap-shot; India takes pride in being the spice capital of the world - responsible for more than 70% of spice production! Kerala itself produces 97% of India’s national crop of black pepper AND is one of the largest producers and exporters of lemongrass essential oil. The state of Tamil Nadu is famed for its aromatic flower markets and is the leading producer of jasmine in the country. With so many native ingredients that I use in my own blends across my product range, I had to get a look at the full picture, from harvest all the way to the finished article.

If natural perfumery is your thing, this is the place to train your nose. For many perfumers, they may never get to experience Tuberose in person, until they come here that is. The air is thick with one aroma or another, a spice, flower, or herb, along with the smell of everyday life that permeates and lingers constantly. Flowers are part of the everyday fabric of life in India, especially notable for their use in the Hindu religion for garlands and offerings.

Black Pepper

Black Pepper

Tuberose

Tuberose

Beyond the lush organic gardens, olde worlde tea plantations, the laborious work that goes on in ginger-drying godowns and by the black pepper ladies; commercial realities of harvest and production couldn’t help but disturb my utopic notions of small-batch, indie organic farmers that work in the same way today as they did a 100 years ago.

Ginger Godown

Ginger Godown

Industrial-scale distilleries, although working directly with farms, are not fussy about working with organic farms, and indeed needn’t be due to the processes they have in place to remove pesticides - how thoroughly and uncompromisingly to the subject of distillation, is dubious. This was in huge contrast to the small-scale, older and traditional distillation units I was fortunate to see at an essential oil research centre in Kerala.

Black Pepper Lady

Black Pepper Lady

Distillation Unit, Essential Oil Research Centre

Distillation Unit, Essential Oil Research Centre

Crossing over in to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu was again, hugely different to the rawness and chaos characteristic of the distinct Keralan landscape. Presenting picture-perfect pantone-Green lusciousness with its fields upon fields of perfect crop. It was as if two pieces of a very different puzzle had been stitched together. How? Tamil Nadu is an agricultural powerhouse, its crop perfected by an abundance of strong chemicals to ensure only the best yield. Seeing a pesticide-spraying worker in action really hit home our complicated relationship with nature. (I was told Keralans are known for their strong stance against eating fruit and veg from Tamil Nadu due to the use of these extremely harsh chemicals).

There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.
— Keith Bellows (Editor-in-chief, National Geographic Society)
Flower Market, Tamil Nadu

Flower Market, Tamil Nadu

From the fat of the land to the finished article, even as nature delivers its gifts in these favourable climate and soil conditions to create quality spices, herbs and oils, and with principles of Ayurveda still a huge part of daily life here, the reality is that market monopoly and profit margins all play their part in the level of adulteration, and quest for quantity over quality.

To MSCM’s great credit, the tour was all-encompassing; free of a whitewashed version of the harsher realties of what happens when commerce meets nature, even in a place where such distinct time-honoured practices are still alive and well. From seeing workers label small-batches of product at an Ayurvedic centre, in the same way that I do back home, to complex machinery churning kilos upon kilos of black pepper oil, they presented the full spectrum. It was positive to see that for now, there is room for everyone.

There is no question that India is a place of indelible impact for the majority that visit. Everyday experiences and sights that can shock you to your core mixed with many moments of saving grace. One such moment for me was a tour of an organic garden by owner, Abraham; the relationship with his land strikingly intimate. Under the canopy of banana and palm leaves, we sampled cloves from the bud, tasted nectar from a lady slipper orchid, and pulled rubber from a rubber tree, and so much more. No stone of his small, wildcarfted space was left unturned. His knowledge and generosity with that knowledge felt really special. Supporting his life’s work was more than a privilege. My loot included cocoa, cardamom, cinnamon, coffee and sandalwood, and when I got home, my suitcase was an explosion of ‘that smell of India!’

Abraham

Abraham

Coffee Bean

Coffee Bean

Lady Slipper Nectar

Lady Slipper Nectar

His garden, a mirror reflection of the perfectly imperfect, consistent inconsistency of nature; of the cyclical and unpredictable nature of nature, resonated deeply. Working with nature, sustainably and free of manipulation for commercial gain, was a welcome antidote to the level of commercialisation that hadn't been sitting well. 

I went to India to satiate my curiosity, but in the end, nothing about it possibly could. If I could add to Keith Bellows’ summary of India, I would say that India is utterly insatiable, forever keeping you in a place of always wanting more.