Spice route

Sometime in 2015, Olivier Roellinger, a thin man with a friendly face from France, turned up at the office of Vanamoolika at Pulpally in Wayanad, along with his daughter Mathilde and son Hugo. He was in search of the ‘perfect’ spices for his business back home.

PJ Chackochan, founder and managing director of the charitable organization, took them on a tour –Vanamoolika’s manufacturing staff comprises entirely of women — during which Roellinger questioned the Kerala farmer’s practice of harvesting different varieties of pepper like Panniyur, Karimunda, Jeerakamunda, Neelamundi and Wayanadan together for processing.

“Why do you harvest them together,” he asked, and Chackochan replied: “They are all of the same taste.” Roellinger corrected him, “Each of them has ‘microtastes’. So, don’t mix them together.” Before leaving, he placed the first order for all the pepper varieties, including the ripened red berries of organically-grown Wayanadan variety.

A few months later, when another buyer from France came to Vanamoolika, Chackochan told him about Roellinger. The visitor could scarcely believe his ears, you mean “the Roellinger” he asked. “He is a celebrated chef, popular all across France. In fact, he is among the world’s top 10 chefs,” the visitor said.

Chackochan realized his unassuming client was Olivier Roellinger, a three-Michelin star chef. Michelin star honours the best in the culinary world and when Roellinger returned his Michelin stars in 2008 due to ill health, the news was splashed across newspapers.

Roellinger had wanted the dried berries to be red in colour, but what Chackochan could offer was brownish-red ones. However, once tasted, Roellinger loved it and sent an appreciation email. He continues to be Chackochan’s trusted buyer and has climbed the Wayanadan hills again to visit Vanamoolika.

The quality of Wayanadan spices made such an impression in Roellinger’s mind that two years after his first visit to Vanamoolika, when a cuisine magazine asked him what are the four items he would take to a desert, his fourth choice was ‘few black peppercorn of the Neelamundi variety’.

Vanamoolika, till recently an unknown supplier of organic spices, came into the limelight after it supplied spices to a distiller in Ireland for producing ‘Maharani’ gin. The three-decade-old charity, sources organicallygrown spices, coffee and rice from Wayanad and supplies to gourmet chefs and restaurants in Europe – meeting specifications set by the demanding clients.

Though founded in 1991, Vanamoolika had initially been focusing on preserving herbs and medicinal plants and making them available in the domestic market. But in a price-sensitive domestic market, their products were costly and to sustain the business, Vanamoolika had to look at European markets.

As a founding director of Indian Organic Farmers’ Producer Company (IOFPC), the country’s first such company founded in 2004, Chackochan had been familiar with meeting the tough specifications demanded by the gourmet food producers. When they started exporting cocoa in 2009, a Swiss firm that supplies chocolate liquor to major chocolate manufacturers, flew four directors of IOFPC down to Switzerland to teach them processing cocoa in a way fit for the demands of the chocolatiers.

“We understood that the way we had been processing cocoa traditionally was wrong – it has to attain a certain level of fermentation and drying to make tasty chocolates,” he said.

Further, when the same Swiss company began to source powdered green chilli (kanthari) from Wayanad, to give a hot twist to a line of their chocolates, the initial samples didn’t fit the bill. Chackochan, finally found the hottest chilli acceptable for them and before sending it, he asked them why they couldn’t use chilli extract. “They said the extract will only give the heat of chilli, but no other tastes, including the ‘micro ones’,” he reminisced.

Over the years, Vanamoolika’s commitment to quality and ability to adapt to the buyer’s demand earned trusted and long-lasting business partners. The major export destinations are the UK, Germany and France.

“Though we are into exports, our revenues are very modest. That is because we only sell organic products that meet quality standards, otherwise, we don’t. For instance, the idea of sourcing coffee from the local market is a tempting one, but once you do so, your buyers won’t come back next year,” Chackochan said.

The export basket of Vanamoolika now has coffee, pepper, turmeric, pomelo peel, mace, clove, ginger, cinnamon, long pepper, Malabar tamarind (Kudampuli), lemongrass and holy basil (Thulasi). Wayanadan Thondi and Gandhakasala rices are also being exported to Europe. The fact that Vanamoolika’s coffee, marketed in Europe by their German buyers, a group of coffee roasters, had been winning continuously the CREMA award for robusta parchment coffee since 2014 shows that the organization’s commitment to quality standards.

Though quite well known in organic and fair trade circuits in Europe, Vanamoolika hasn’t lost its original vision of preserving herbs. It now conserves 700 medicinal plants and markets 60 medicines produced by them in local markets. And all its staff in its manufacturing facility are women, a fact that spurred Bhagya and Robert Barrett to name their first-ever product from their Irish distillery ‘Maharani’, a celebration of the empowerment of Malayali women.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.