Saturday, May 30, 2009

Vanilla, the flavouring the world loves

Vanilla ice cream? Cool! Cakes, chocolates, biscuits, drinks using vanilla? Yummy! Perfume with vanilla fragrance? Wow!

Well, vanilla is the world’s most preferred flavouring. It accounts for a whopping 29% among all food flavourings, according to a 2006 study by the International Ice Cream Association.

Vanilla is an orchid, a climbing terrestrial one. Originally it grew only in Mexico. The natives used it for medicinal purposes, for making certain brews and also as an aphrodisiac. The Spanish brought vanilla to Europe in the early 16c.

Here I am reminded of a story about a former Maharaja of Travancore. His spies reported that the Western traders were planning to smuggle some pepper cultivars to their country. His Highness laughed and said, “They can’t take away our climate,” meaning that pepper wouldn’t grow in Europe.

But in the case of vanilla the problem the white men faced was different. The plant grew, but wouldn’t pollinate. They were to find out rather late that this critical function was carried out by Melipona bee. These insects were found only in South America.

So the vanilla languished, away from its homeland. In the 1830s Charles Fran├žois Antoine Morren, a Belgian botanist discovered a method to artificially pollinate vanilla. But it was not cost effective. A break came about five years later, when a 12-year-old slave in France, Edmond Albius, found a way to hand pollinate vanilla.

Today three major cultivars of vanilla are grown in many tropical countries including India (Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu). It can survive up to altitudes of 1500 above sea level. The vanilla orchid thrives in loose, well-drained soil with high organic content. 50% shade is required. Being a creeper, it requires support plants. Stem cutting or tissue culture can be used for planting.

The following photos from Olavipe shows different stages of the vanilla’s growth:

Once the pods mature, they are handpicked. Unless this is done at the proper time the quality would be badly affected and the commercial value would tumble drastically. Incidentally, other things being equal, the grading of vanilla is done according to length of the pods.

The plucked vanilla pods are cured and conditioned. Sun drying is a major factor in this process.

After the entire procedure is over, the vanilla is finally made available in the market mainly in three forms: whole pod, powder and extract.

And that’s the story behind vanilla, the ageless flavour.


Photos: TP, me. Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.

Related post:

An orchid from Olavipe

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Photos: More of pastoral Olavipe

Hello silverine, hopefully these include some of the photos you wanted.

Ducks searching for water. (Photo: TP)

Rushing to a canal. (Photo: TP)

Blissful in water. (Photo: TP)

Three ducks in a pond. (Photo: Dr. Sanjay Parva)

A butterfly. Name? (Photo: TP)

Emus in the sun. (Photo: TP)

Goose crossing a road. (Photo: Dr. Sanjay Parva)

This cow does not seem to like being photographed.
(Photo: Dr. Sanjay Parva)

Pigeons on the roof. (Photo: Dr. Sanjay Parva)

Frog spawn. (Photo: Dr. Sanjay Parva)

All photos from Olavipe. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

You might also like to visit:

Kerala photos: Village paths

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chakram: The wheel that turned agricultural fortunes

This photo from Olavipe brings a rush of memories to my mind. In the good old days when paddy cultivation was a way of life, this was the time to sow seeds in our area. The Chakram was the critical equipment to control water levels on which the success of the crop depended.

I request you to read Morning After the Storm - Part 1., the Unison-British Council Prize-winning Short Story which covers the changes in Kerala’s agrarian scene during the last seven decades.

Photo by Rejo. Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pastoral Kerala: Photos from Olavipe

Photos by Rejo. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

Also see:
Pastoral Olavipe

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Indian Elections 2009: Tid-bits

A joke heard in Kerala during the elections:

Son: Father, what is the Indo-American Nuclear Pact?

Father: I don’t know much about it, son. But it must be a good thing because the Communists are opposing it.

The Communists were opposing the Congress in the elections as well. Is that why the electorate thought the Congress-led UPA is good for the country and voted overwhelmingly for the alliance?

Most people in Kerala had believed that the UPA would win. On March 8, I met Prof. Robins Jacob at Cochin. He is the head of the Economics Department at St. Albert’s College. When he repeated the same prediction, I asked him why. He, being a senior academic, would not make such statements lightly.

The main reason that Robins gave was the impact of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). It guarantees 100 days of paid employment in a year to rural households. I was only casually aware of it, but Robins is a well-studied man. According to him, the project had made a tremendous impact.

Over that weekend I happened to get firsthand information on NREGS at my village, Olavipe. Many families had benefited by the scheme. And it covered long overdue jobs like cleaning of canals.

The next four snippets are based on reports that appeared on The Times of India:

Youthful Parliament? That seems to be the general impression about the new (15th) Lok Sabha. It is, when compared to the previous one. But it is interesting to compare it with the first two Parliaments:

Age groups





1st LS:





2nd LS:





14th LS





15th LS





Ladies to the fore. The new Lok Sabha has record breaking presence of women members – 58. That is more than 10% of its total strength. Sounds good, does it not? But it is far below the proposed 33% reservation for women.

Rich man’s Parliament. If the crorepathi (multi-millionaire) Members of Parliament were to form the government, they would have more than sufficient majority – 300 out of 543. That is a 95% increase over the previous Lok Sabha. An example of India continuing to shine? Congress leads the BJP 137-58 in this aspect.

Parliamentarians of different hues. The new Lok Sabha has about 150 members who have pending criminal cases against them. This is approximately 22% more than the 14th Lok Sabha. And here, BJP (42) just pips the Congress (41).

Lawbreakers turned lawmakers?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kerala fruits: More photos

Junglejack fruit (anjili chakka).
This palm sized fruit is a cousin of jackfruit.

Cashew fruit & nut.



Passion fruit.


Njaval (jamun). Tender fruits are green, and changes
color as they mature. The deep purple one on
the top is fully mature.

Green mangoes on tree.

Ripe mango.


Photos from Olavipe by Rejo, me.
Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

Also see:
Photos: Kerala fruits

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gardening photos: Flowers from Olavipe

Photos from Olavipe by Rejo, AT. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

Also see:
Flowers: Olavipe blooms

Thursday, May 14, 2009

J.J. Murphy: An Irish jewel on the South Indian High Ranges

The first half of the last century. A rainy day at Ooty, South India’s famous hill station. Some nuns were walking along a road in the cold.

Suddenly a car stopped by and the gentleman driver offered them a lift. He asked why they did not use a vehicle in such inclement weather. The answer was that their convent did not have one.

The next day, a local dealer delivered a brand new Dodge car at the convent. The astonished nuns thanked the donor. They also told him they could not keep the vehicle, because there was no money to engage a driver or to buy petrol.

That was no problem. The Irish gentleman assigned a driver on his payroll to the convent. He also instructed a petrol bunk to forward the convent’s bills to his office. That was John Joseph Murphy (1872 - 1957). He was the proprietor of Murphy Estates, Yendayar, which was India’s first commercially successful rubber plantation.

Another scene. An old man in a remote village receives a Money Order at the beginning of the month. That had become a routine for him and others who had retired from Murphy’s service.

A strange thing was that the message ‘This is the last payment’ was written at the bottom of every Money Order form. But the recipients were confident that the pension payment would continue till they died. Only Murphy knew the purpose of the message.

Murphy had a workforce of about 1000 people drawn from the three South Indian states. His concern for their welfare and that of their families was amazing. He was almost a century ahead of the labour unions and the government in providing amenities to the workers.

Murphy Estate had a small but pucca hospital, with a few beds for inpatients. In complicated cases, specialists were brought from outside for consultation. Patients in severe condition were taken to major hospitals far away from Yendayar. All expenses were met by Murphy.

Every married person in Murphy’s employment was provided free housing with piped water. When the couple had children, one more room was added to the living quarters.

The entire country faced severe food shortage during World War II. But the people of Yendayar were fortunate because Murphy ensured regular supplies of quality rice and other items at a great personal cost. Sub-standard stuff was destroyed.

One of Murphy’s passions was racing. He had a large stable and his horses brought him laurels from many courses in India, England and Ireland. The trophies were proudly displayed at the Yendayar bungalow.

One day Murphy found a gold cup missing. He was furious and called the police. The cops suspected an insider job and wanted to take the house staff to the police station for further questioning. That upset Murphy. He did not want his servants to face the ignominy of the police procedure. He withdrew the complaint.

Murphy’s philanthropy was legendary. No person who went to him with a genuine need had to return disappointed.

But the principal of St. Berchman’s College, Changanacherry, who approached the Irishman for a contribution to the college building fund, had a rough time. Murphy told the priest that he did not believe in college education. According to him, vocation-based technical training was more important.

Murphy’s experience with university education was rather short. He had enrolled at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD). But without completing the course, he sailed to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to seek his fortune. For some reason, he struck out on his own, though he belonged to a prominent Dublin family of shippers and bankers.

St. Berchman’s principal was rattled by Murphy’s reaction and mumbled defensively that they were running a weaving school also.

Anyway, Murphy donated Rs.5,000 – a princely sum those days – to the college fund. Later he made enquiries about the weaving school the principal had mentioned and sent a cheque for Rs.7,500 for modernizing it.

During World War I or shortly after it, an estate supplies company filed a case against Murphy alleging that he had smashed several bottles of liquor at their outlet in Mundakayam. The legal advice to Murphy was to deny the charge. But he refused, claiming that he would never tell a lie.

Murphy argued the case himself. He told the judge that his (Irish) blood boiled when he saw some German products on the liquor rack. He was let off with a warning.

In writing this I have relied heavily on an article about Murphy titled ‘Princely Planter’ by K. V. Thomas Pottamkulam. It concludes with the statement “I would like to think that if, instead of coming to India, he had emigrated to the United States, he might well have become the first Irish Catholic President decades before J. F. Kennedy.”

Tail piece. A few days back, on May 8 , when I checked into Lotus Club, Cochin, an young fellow named Siby brought my baggage to the room. I asked him where he was from. “Yendayar,” he answered, and added, “Murphy sahib’s place.”

I thought that his voice had a tinge of pride.


Related post:
An Indian village remembers its Irish ‘father’.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Gardening photos: Green and cream leaves

Photos by me. Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.

Related posts:

Photos: Leaves by Isaac

Gardening photos: Beautiful leaves from Olavipe

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Sri Lankan situation

A friend forwarded to me an interesting article titled ‘Chinese billions in Sri Lanka fund battle against Tamil Tigers’ by Jeremy Page from TIMES ONLINE dated May 2, 2009.

You can read it at:

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Pandanus fascicularis: A tropical shrub of many uses

Have you seen this plant?

It is common along the coastal areas of India, and also in SE Asia. The botanical name is Pandanus fascicularis (syn. P. odoratissimus, nom. illeg). In English it is called screw pine or umbrella tree. Local names in India include Kewra, Kaitha, Ketaki, Kevadaa, Tale hoovu, Bonnong, Kia, Kaethakee, and Thazhai.

We have Pandanus fascicularis in abundance in Olavipe, my village in Kerala, India. In fact, all the photographs on this page are taken at Olavipe. The shrub grows wild, usually along the canal banks, by the lake shore and on the edges of the rice fields. It is an invasive shrub which spreads quite extensively unless controlled.

The blade like leaves are about a meter or longer and have spikes along the midriff and the edges. They used to have economic significance our area. Large mats which were mainly used for drying paddy were made from Pandanus leaves by a particular caste. They were sold at the church feasts just before the harvest. Now plastic sheets have replaced them.

But elsewhere, like the South Eastern countries, the leaves have an important part in the local cuisine. They are eaten raw, or cooked and also used as flavoring agent.

Other uses of the leaves include making of bags and decorative items. It is also said that good quality paper can be made from screw pine leaves.

An excellent perfume is made from the spadices of male screw pine flowers. These blossoms are beautiful. When they open the wet musk smell lingers in the area. The Ganjam District of Orissa is one of the places where Pandanus is cultivated commercially. There are about 130 distillation units producing aromatic oil in the area.

The entire plant is considered to have great medicinal value. The range of health problems treated with different parts of the shrub is amazing. Here are examples from a long list: leprosy and other skin diseases, antiseptic, brain problems, diabetes, ulcers and wounds, cardiac conditions.

A major benefit of planting Pandanus is that it offers protection against sea erosion. This aspect is often overlooked.

Pandanus fascicularis grows to a height 2 to 3 meters. The common method of propagation is by planting the offshoots. Seeds can also be germinated.

Pandanus fruit has great resemblance to pineapple. But I don’t think many people eat it.


Click on photos to enlarge. Copyright reserved. Photo credits: Top: Karthiki. Second: TP. The rest taken by me.

Related posts:

A pineapple story, with photos

Medicinal Plants: Noni (Morinda citrifolia) planting for profit?