Peppercorn Jungle - Sourcing Premium Peppercorns in India

November 03, 2012

As you know by now, entering the spice business wasn't my lifelong dream. But after tasting my friend Divakar's organic Tellicherry pepper, I became a lot less reluctant. I figured if I was going to start selling these amazing peppercorns, I better learn quickly how they're produced. Fact is, I didn't know a Tellicherry peppercorn from a telephone pole.

So, I planned a trip to India to meet Divakar and see the peppercorn farms firsthand. Rather than launching the company once I was ready to start selling, I decided to plan an educational trip first and bring you along for the ride. Since few Americans know much about peppercorns, I figured it would be more interesting if we learned together.

Since I'm starting The Reluctant Trading Experiment from a blank sheet of paper, I want to make sure that everything is done the right way from the source to your table. I want to be sure that I don't just sell superior tasting products, but that these products are sourced with fair and ethical business practices.

Our organic farms are located about 2,000 feet above sea level in the beautiful rolling hills of Wayanad. Actually, they weren't farms like the way you would imagine them in the US, flat and organized across a field. Instead, these farms were spread haphazardly across the jungle. It's quite a sight to behold the winding peppercorn vines wrapping themselves around 40 foot tall trees. It was also interesting to find the farmers growing several spices and fruits side by side with the peppercorns including everything from turmeric to vanilla. We even came across a demonic scarecrow in the ginger field meant to keep away evil eyes.

The peppercorns that we saw were still young and not ready to be picked. The berries sprout on the vines in May and are hand harvested in January and February by men on long bamboo ladders.

While other spices are produced in Wayanad, the star of the show is clearly the peppercorns. This region is known for producing the best varieties in the world. In fact, several wars have been fought over these very peppercorns during the last several centuries. When the British left India in 1947, they tried to steal some of Wayanad's vines to start their own plantations. Of course, it didn't work. The farmers proudly told me, "You can take our plants, but you can't take our soil or our climate."

Our farms are USDA certified organic. That means everything is grown naturally without using pesticides according to US government standards. Instead of chemicals, the farms are filled with mosquitoes, ants and spiders the size of dinner plates. Not good news for me, but excellent for growing organic pepper.

There are three types of organic black pepper produced from these vines, all based on the size of the peppercorns. The smallest is an excellent variety called Malabar Grade One, and it packs a big hot kick. It's not as complex as the Tellicherry, but it's fantastic in its own right for its punch. I will be sampling some of this and I'm considering adding it to the lineup to complement our Tellicherry.

The medium size peppercorns are sold as Bold Tellicherry. These have a bigger aroma or bouquet than the Malabar.

The largest variety is known as Extra Bold Tellicherry. Since these peppercorns were produced from the largest berries, they have the most sophisticated bouquet with hints of fruit and a somewhat less aggressive kick. The Extra Bold Tellicherry is what I've chosen for The Reluctant Pepper Company's signature offering. Ours is called Divakar's Organic Tellicherry No. 004.

I'm excited to tell you that the organic farms were very well run. They work under the Fair Trade agreement to ensure that the farmers are paid competitive prices for their organic pepper. My goal was to offer a USDA organic, fair trade product with an extraordinary taste right out of the gate. I'm happy to say that's what I'll be selling in just a month.

The farmers were incredibly friendly and took all day showing me the farms and answering my questions. Amazingly enough, they said that I was the first American to ever visit them. After learning from my experience with The Land of Nod, I know that you have to see thing with your own eyes to make sure everything is the way you want it.

While I will be a small player player in the spice business, I realize that we will all be consuming this product and I wanted to make sure that I felt extremely good about not only the taste of the pepper, but also how ethically it was sourced.

Sorry, but I have to run now and get some anti-itch gel for these mosquito bites. 

See more photos from this trip and others in the photo galleries. Shop Reluctant Trading Peppercorns and Icelandic Sea Salt here.