India: An Aromatic Tour
I first travelled to India as a 24-year old for the sole purpose of 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 know 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. It’s not just the act of getting there and having to be mindful of every sip and bite you take, it’s the total assault on the senses from every single direction, and then some.
Fast-forward eight years and that dormant old feeling of ‘one day I’ll go back’ resurfaced with urgency after attending an evening course; The Essential Oils of India, run by the Middlesex School of Complimentary Medicine (MSCM). This in itself was a course of fascinating insight, and it was there that I learned of the yearly aromatic tour of Kerala and Tamil Nadu organised by the School that happens every January. Hooked, I knew that I would have to make it on this tour sooner or later as a contribution to my ongoing research and education.
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. Eight years later, an expression of what had begun in 2007, had found new expression 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 seems to feed and serve 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 and 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 and you want to train your nose (as I am constantly doing), here is the place to do it. For many perfumers, they may never get to experience in person the heady treasure that is Tuberose, 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. It’s lovely that flowers are part of the fabric of everyday life in India, especially notable for their use in the Hindu religion for garlands and offerings.
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.
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, was unclear. This was in huge contrast to the small-scale, older and traditional distillation units I was so fortunate to see at a humble essential oil research centre in Kerala.
Crossing over in to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu was again, hugely different to the rawness and chaos characteristic of the Kerala 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? Well, Tamil Nadu is an agricultural powerhouse, its crop perfected by an abundance of strong chemicals that 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 that comes from Tamil Nadu due to the use of these extremely harsh chemicals).
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 not meant to be some 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 exactly the same way that I do back home, to complex machinery churning kilos upon kilos of black pepper oil, it was 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. There are everyday experiences 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 so 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 was just so enjoyable and felt so special. Supporting his life’s work was more than a privilege, having had the opportunity to bring home some bits for inclusion in future product batches. My loot included cocoa, cardamom, cinnamon, coffee and sandalwood, and when I got home, my suitcase was an explosion of ‘that smell of India!’
His garden, a mirror reflection of the perfectly imperfect, consistent inconsistency of nature; of the cyclical and unpredictable nature of nature, resonated so 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 particularly 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.