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Spare time: Follow your nose to India

The taste of ... cardamom, that sweet and suddenly fashionable spice.
You don't have to go far to find cardamom in the state of Kerala, in the south-western tip of India; you just follow your nose.

The pungent spice grows wild in the rich, moist soil of the Cardamom Hills, around Thekkady and Kumily, where you can smell from afar the cardamom auction in the market-place. Check into a hotel such as the trendy, eco- conscious Spice Village, and you'll find the thatched huts and pool surrounded by cardamom bushes.

Although Guatemala now exports more, Indian cardamom is still deemed to be superior in aroma and taste. It is produced on plantations mainly in the three southern states of Karnatakan, Kerala and Tamil Nadu; it is the pods from Kerala that set the benchmark world-wide for both price and quality.

Harvesting takes place between September and November, just before the fruit are ripe. The pods are dried on open platforms under the sun for four to five days, or in modern kilns and curing plants, which takes a mere 48 hours.

Cardamom is the third most expensive spice in the world (after saffron and vanilla), which may come as a surprise to people who were unaware of its existence until it started to crop up in fashionable recipes.

Green cardamom (the black variety is bigger, stronger and something else altogether) is stocked by most supermarkets, but it can be a little overwhelming. Cardamom can be added to curry dishes, and even to tea.

Cardamom days

Spice Village is one of a number of places to stay in the Cardamom Hills, listed in The Rough Guide To India (Penguin pounds 14.99). It is also featured in the Cape Travel Company's brochure on Kerala (0181-943 4067).

For a taste of Kerala, the award-winning Indian restaurant, Chutney Mary, 535 King's Road, SW10 (0171-351 3113) is offering a special menu until 12 April.

The Wiltshire-based food company Hill Station has launched cardamom ice-cream, price pounds 3.95 from Harrods and specialist delis (01249 816596 for stockists).

Uses for cardamom

Cardamom crops up in both sweet and savoury recipes.

In Germany it is added to some pungent sausages, and used in roll-mop herring marinades.

The Swedish use it as a flavouring for buns, cakes and milk puddings.

In the Middle East it is added to strong black coffee. In fact prices on the world market fell dramatically in 1991 due to the lack of demand from the Middle East following the Gulf War.

Cardamom is said to have medicinal qualities. The Spice Board of India lists remedies for stomach ailments and sore throats, and quotes an elderly lady as saying "For the past 65 years I've been eating cardamom mixed with honey at least once daily ... I'm 80 now, I read without glasses, I walk without a stick and I am disgustingly healthy."