At Little Flower Farms, a lush biodiverse site in Kerala, they serve guests fresh produce from their garden. They speak to The Locavore about windy Vagamon, the flavours in their kitchen, and the land they nurture.
When friends found out that Rekha Thomas was going to settle in Vagamon, many of them told her what they knew of the place, especially if their families owned farming land in Kerala: nothing ever grew there. Too windy, too wet, they’d heard, a hill station with extreme weather conditions, and far from ideal for cultivation.
It was nearly two decades ago that the late KJ John had acquired land in Vagamon, not just for his post-retirement years, but also to support his botanist wife Kochuthresia’s passion for gardening. Lush, and containing varied ecosystems, this is the land that Rekha and Thomas look after today, and run their homestay Little Flower Farms out of.
When I speak to Rekha, it’s evident that she feels grateful for the richness that surrounds her, all of which she attributes to Kochuthresia Thomas, a committed botanist, also her mother-in-law. To Rekha and Thomas, the farm is only one of the offshoots of her life’s work in botany and gardening. Kochuthresia’s outlook and ideology remain central to how the farm functions even today.
Since they grow their own food, I’m curious about what they eat, and serve guests at the farm. Rekha is compelling as she describes the incredible difference in taste and flavour when it comes to food that’s cooked using homegrown ingredients. “My mind is just blown by how the flavour profile changes when you add a little bit of spice that’s grown on the farm, or aromatics like pandan leaves to a marinade for a slow roast pork.”
At the farm, they grow cinnamon, cardamom, pepper, ginger, turmeric, among other things, part of which finds its way into their daily meals. In Rekha’s view, the flavours stand out, in particular, because of how they’ve been grown—with a deep understanding and appreciation of plant life, and without the use of pesticides. This is also what gives her the confidence to cook freely, to let herself be guided by the flavours, and her senses. When the ingredients are of such high quality, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong with a meal, she tells me.
It’s easy to tell that it genuinely matters to Thomas and Rekha that their guests get to taste fresh offerings from the garden. “We dig deep to make sure that at least two things on the menu, two of the vegetables, should be entirely ours,” they tell me. For guest meals, they rely a lot on local varieties of spinach and gourds, especially what’s in abundance.
What they eat and serve at the farm is closely tied to the changing seasons, and the state of their garden. It’s been a long monsoon this year, and it’s common for vegetables to start rotting. “We’ve come to the last of our papayas now, and all of our red spinach are tired of being productive for us,” Rekha shares, laughing.
Which also means that the kitchen staff occasionally bring produce from their own backyards, depending on what’s on the menu, and how fruitful the harvests have been. “Sometimes, we’ll see Sindhu and Sini with their handbags full of curry leaves and chow chows that they’ve picked from their garden.” Both Sindhu and Sini are a part of their small and efficient kitchen team.
In the farm’s kitchen, work is led by their two main chefs, Sindhu Krishnakumar and Saijimon VA. Sini Suresh and Shanthamma Pushpraj assist them in their everyday tasks. There’s an easy sense of camaraderie, and the team has a natural way of looking out for each other. As one would imagine, it’s essential for a small team that works in the kitchen to also feel nourished. A late breakfast that they enjoy together, on a typical work day, is a big bowl of kanji along with vegetable thoran, a sweet and sour curry, and fiery chammanthi.
I ask Rekha what she and Thomas like to eat. What is the sort of meal that they look forward to? “Thomas loves his kanji. I like the experimental days—when Saji gets fed up with our regular fare, and cooks something new and radical,” she says.
As we make our way towards the end of the year, they’re busy planting for the next season—beans, brinjal, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, tomato, celery and oregano—hoping for just the right amount of rain. A good time to visit, if you are eager to see the fruits of their hard labour is between the months of February to April. Our conversation has left me longing for the hills from my dusty corner of the world. I give in to the feeling, and despite not having had the best luck with growing plants, I decide to begin again. I put my faith in curry leaves.