Rows of nutmeg trees greeted Shebi Arun as she was ushered into her husband’s house on her wedding day. Arun’s family feasted on the fruit cultivated for its flavorful seed and seed covering. They ground the fruit into chutney, pickled it and even fermented it to a heady wine. Yet, the produce was way more than the family could consume.
Shebi was more into literature than cuisine but she wanted to try out something with the abundant produce. The graduate in English literature turned to the internet for inspiration. Surprise! She could not find many recipes using nutmeg fruit though the seed was an essential spice in hundreds of recipes.
Shebi, originally from Arpookkara near Kottayam, knew of nutmeg’s reputation as a home remedy for indigestion. She decided to try out the fruit in various ways. Out came from her kitchen nutmeg syrup, juice, pickles, chutney powder, jelly, jam, pudding, cake, toffee, burfi and other sweetmeats. Her relatives and friends were in awe. The positive feedback encouraged the new cook to make it into a business.
Nutmegs came king size in Arun’s house. Arun’s father K.T. Mathew owned a nursery at Pinnakkanad near Bharananganam. The trees bloom five times a year.
Shebi bought back the nutmeg pericarps from her father-in-law’s customers, who were only interested in the spices. Anyway, none used the fleshy part except to grind chutney.
Shebi processed the fruit before adding it to her own recipes. The initial trials were not easy. She had to test the processed food ingredient in a lab multiple times until she got it right. Once she got the process right, she could use it to make cakes and jelly.
She also realized that her jams and syrups tasted different in accordance with the breed of the tree and the volume of the essence. She made a lot of products. She even made a herbal brew but desisted from marketing it because it was slightly alcoholic.
She took her products to market under the brand name ‘Shebs’. They found a niche customer base as they did not carry any preservatives or food color. She chose not to use plastic containers for her products. Initially, she set up a sales outlet at the family nursery. Now, she has a license from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
The 36-year-old mother of four said she could earn Rs 20,000 per month from her business.
A fine balance
Nutmeg’s exotic quality is matched by the difficulty level of its preparation. Each product demands a different method of processing nutmegs. Shebi’s unit processes up to 70 kilos of nutmeg fruits a day, by steaming, boiling or frying it.
She runs the processing unit from the outhouse of her house at Bharananganam with the help of two employees.
She just started her second sales outlet in the family nursery at Mannuthy.
The Shebs line of products has a lower shelf life because they are bereft of preservatives. They have to be stored in coolers. So the entrepreneur keeps a strict leash on production to match it with the pace of consumption.
She sells her products through some shops dedicated to homemade products apart from the Kerala Agricultural Development Society’s shop in Ernakulam, Chaithanya in Kottayam and a shop in Moovattupuzha. She supplies the products along with the coolers.
She has not given online sales any serious thought because it would need cold chain logistics. The next items on her list are nutmeg vinegar and a ready-to-drink beverage. She also plans to start another outlet in the Mangalapuram nursery.
If business picks up, she might start a modest factory.
“I did not have any big plans when I started. I was waiting for people’s reactions. Now I get have orders from faraway places. I am happy that the business has picked up,” Shebi said.
Shebi and Arun have four children. Ruth is in the eight standard, Miriam in the third standard, Martin in kindergarten and Sara in playschool.
Shebi said anyone could start a small business if they had access to five or six nutmeg trees. For starters, she would recommend pickles.
Never compromise on quality, she said. Test your products in the government or private labs in Ernakulam. Wannabe entrepreneurs can buy driers, mixers and juicers through self-employment loans. Start modestly.