Spice route

Vencatasubramanian Photo: R. Ravindran   | Photo Credit: R_RAVINDRAN

There are many legends associated with the Vencatachellum family and their signature condiment the Madras Curry Powder. An Englishman named Sharwood once dined in Madras and was so taken by the curry served that he began to import it to England from the curry master, P. Vencatachellum. A governor, who had sampled the Mulligatawny soup, fell in love with it and took the mix to England. These blends that were, at one point, supplied to even the Buckingham Palace were made in the 1860s at No. 26, Kutchery Road under the brand Peacock (named after Mylapore).

Six generations down, P.V.S. Vencatasubramanian continues the family business of condiments, even though it is no longer available locally. “When riots broke out in our villages, my great grandmother left the village with two of her sons. They came to Madras, and her son Vencatachellum, who was working under a bishop, learnt to make condiments.”

Turn of fortune

The bishop gave Vencatachellum a few pagodas to start his first shop in Mylapore, and so it began — with a capital of 500 pagodas. When the curries that Vencatachellum prepared weren’t selling well locally, the captains, travellers and those who stopped by became his patrons. Vencatasubramanian mentions that a horse trader (W.M. Burt), who visited Madras often, took samples of the curries to Australia, which was their first export. In 1871, a few samples were sent to England through Gordon Woodroffe, and in 1893, came J.A. Sharwood, who became their agent and made their mixes popular in England. “Of course, our signature dish was the Madras Curry Powder,” he says, “It’s a family recipe that we continue to use at home even today.”

Vencatachellum soon shifted operations to No. 1, Popham’s Broadway (later, it expanded to become No. 1, 2 and 3), where, along with his son P.V. Subramaniam Pillai, he began manufacturing pickles and chutneys. The factory was in Umpherson Street. In 1870, Subramaniam Pillai had taken over the business. “When the queen’s golden jubilee was taking place in 1887, a lot of money was spent decorating Broadway and Victoria Hall and on fireworks,” says historian V. Sriram, “He became a prominent social figure and the Peacock brand, produced by P.V. Condiments, was used in curry in restaurants such as Veeraswamy in London.” P.V. Condiments also began to supply to the Buckingham Palace.

As business grew, the line of products was expanded to include jams and jellies. Their exports too, grew to include Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and the U.S. Eventually, the family came to own around 100 properties in Madras, with a line of them on Greenways Road. Some of the chutneys were even named after their tenants, remembers Vencat. “We had Skinner Chutney named after Colonel Skinner, Tapp Sauce after General Tapp, and so on,” he says.

Subramaniam Pillai was also the first to import Australian flour to India and began a bakery that also grew popular. Their ice factory too became the sole distributor of ice to the Government houses, clubs and hotels. “The cold storage division was in Egmore and the business was a success,” says Sriram, who also points out that a lot of their properties were rented out to Government officials. “They had a garden house on Atkinson’s Road, where the family lived, and it almost stretched across the entire road. This road, later, was named Jothi Vencatachellum Road. Their bungalows included Cran Leigh, Somerford, The Grange (which still exists) and Bishop’s Garden.”

In the 1930s, P.V.S. Vencatachellum took over the reigns of the business. “P.V.S. Vecatachellum married Jothi, who took active interest in politics. In 1952, during the Rajaji ministry, Jothi Vencatachellum was a minister. Between 1978 and 1983, she was the Governor of Kerala,” says Sriram.

In 1933, he mechanised the business. This allowed them to produce 40 more kinds of chutneys and pickles, due to which he started a manufacturing unit that made tins for packaging their products. When the next generation came in the 1960s, the local sales and exports were doing very well. The business has won 32 gold and silver medals at different exhibitions too. But, in the 1970s, as more competition began to arrive, P.V. Condiments started to decline. “Distribution was not our forte, and we had just one store. This became a problem later,” Vencat says.

Unchanged, for generations

Now, Vencat, who has taken over the business, does mixes for other brands here. But Vencatachellum’s condiments still sell in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. “The recipes we use today are the still the ones my great grandfather started the business with.”

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2021 4:09:47 AM |

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