Isla Apothecary is a small-batch aromatherapy-inspired collection of natural body products based on essential oil remedies and rituals. Designed and made in their London studio, founder Kate Protopapas hand-blends these natural body products in true apothecary fashion. Read about Kate’s most recent trip to India to get an inside look at many of the ingredients used within the range.
“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”
— Keith Bellows (Editor-in-chief, National Geographic Society)
India takes pride in being the spice capital of the world, responsible for more than 70% of spice production. Kerala itself produces 97% of India’s national crop of black pepper AND is one of the largest producers and exporters of lemongrass essential oil. The state of Tamil Nadu is famed for its aromatic flower markets and is the leading producer of jasmine in the country. With so many native ingredients that I use in my own blends and across my product range, I had to get a look at the full picture, from harvest to the end.
If natural perfumery and natural body products are your thing and you want to train your nose (as I am constantly doing), here is the place to do it. For many perfumers, they may never get to experience in person the heady treasure that is Tuberose, until they come to India that is. The air is thick with one aroma or another – a spice, flower, or herb – along with the smell of everyday life that permeates and lingers constantly. It’s lovely that flowers are part of the fabric of everyday life in India, especially notable for their use in garlands and offerings in the Hindu religion.
Beyond the lush organic gardens, “olde worlde” tea plantations, the laborious work that goes on in ginger-drying godowns and by the black pepper ladies, commercial realities of harvest and production couldn’t help but disturb my utopic notions of small, indie organic farmers that work in the same way today as they did a 100 years ago.
Industrial-scale distilleries, although working directly with farms, are not fussy about working with organic farms, and indeed needn’t be due to the processes they have in place to remove pesticides. Though how thoroughly and uncompromisingly to the subject of distillation was unclear. This was in huge contrast to the small-scale, older and traditional distillation units I was so fortunate to see at an essential oil research centre.
Crossing over in to the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu was again hugely different to the rawness and chaos characteristic of the Kerala landscape. Presenting picture-perfect pantone-green lusciousness with its fields upon fields of perfect crop, it was as if two pieces of a very different puzzle had been stitched together. How? Well, Tamil Nadu is an agricultural powerhouse. Its crops are perfected by an abundance of strong chemicals that ensure only the best yield. Seeing a pesticide-spraying worker in action really hit home our complicated relationship with mother earth. (Keralans tend to take a strong stance against eating fruit and veg from their neighbours due to the use of these extremely harsh chemicals).
Even as nature creates quality spices, herbs and oils in these favourable climate and soil conditions, and with principles of Ayurveda still a huge part of daily life here, market monopoly and profit margins are still present. They all play their part in the level of adulteration and quest for quantity over quality.
To MSCM’s great credit, the tour was not meant to be some whitewashed version of the harsher realities of what happens when commerce meets nature, even in a place where such distinct time-honoured practices are still alive and well. From seeing workers label small-batches of product at an Ayurvedic centre, in exactly the same way that I do back home, to complex machinery churning kilos upon kilos of black pepper oil, it was the full spectrum. It was at least positive to see that, for now, there is room for everyone.
There is no question that India is a place of indelible impact. There are everyday experiences that can shock you to your core mixed with many moments of saving grace. One such moment for me was a tour of an organic garden by owner Abraham. His relationship with his land so strikingly intimate. Under the canopy of banana and palm leaves, we sampled cloves from the bud, tasted nectar from a lady slipper orchid, pulled rubber from a rubber tree and so much more. No stone of his small, humble space was left unturned. His knowledge and generosity with that knowledge was just so enjoyable and special. Supporting his life’s work was more than a privilege. I had the opportunity to bring some things home for inclusion in future natural body product batches. My loot included cocoa, cardamom, cinnamon, coffee and sandalwood. When I got home, my suitcase was an explosion of ‘that smell of India!’
His garden was a mirror reflection of the perfectly imperfect, consistent inconsistency of nature. It was the cyclical and unpredictable nature of nature that resonated so deeply. Working with nature, sustainably and free of manipulation for commercial gain was really humbling and beautiful to witness.
I went to India to satiate my curiosity, but in the end, nothing about it possibly could. If I could add to Keith Bellows’s summary of India, I would say that India is utterly insatiable, forever keeping you in a place of always wanting more.