The Art of Making Vanilla
A three-mile drive on a curvy, country road along Hawaii Island’s Hamakua Coast will take the full weight of your foot to make the increase in elevation and deliver you to Paauilo, 2,000 feet above sea level. Here, you will relax your foot and step out into the crisp air and face the hefty wooden doors of bright, yellow building with a tin roof that was once a slaughterhouse, coffee mill and is now home to a vanilla farm.
Ah, vanilla. Who doesn’t like vanilla? It has to be the most comforting scent and flavor in the world, and as I would soon learn, it is also the second-most expensive spice in the world.
When I arrived the Hawaiian Vanilla Farm in Paauilo, the skies shone blue.
“Is this typical weather?” I asked a young, twenty-year-old man named Ian. He was light-skinned, fair-haired and well-spoken.
“No,” he said.
“What is typical?” I asked.
“Think London,” he said without missing a beat, without a smirk. “We average 140 inches of rain a year here.”
That may not be what some consider perfect weather, but for the first commercial vanilla farm in the United States, it’s a key ingredient in why the family-run vanilla farm, that started pretty much as a backyard hobby, has grown from six to 25 acres and marked 23 years in business in 2012. The highly finicky vanilla plant prefers temperatures from night lows of 60 degrees to daytime highs of 85 degrees. It likes humidity but not moisture, and it does not tolerate chemicals well, which is why you won’t find it growing anywhere on the island visited by the vog released from Kilauea volcano. Vanilla is an epiphytic vine, growing on another plant for support. “Its leaves are like pores,” Ian said.
GROWING UP ON THE FARM
Twenty-year-old Ian is running things—the day’s luncheon, the two farms tours, the kitchen and the gift shop—with some help from a couple siblings and employees while his father, owner and founder Jim Reddekopp, makes a Costco run to the other side of the island for more liquor. And when the Reddekopp’s make their vanilla extract and vanilla-infused bottles of rum, vodka and whiskey, they don’t just buy a pint. Or a fifth. Or, even, a case. They buy a truckload of booze.
Inside the open-ceiling, rafter-lined building, you’ll find a Forest Gump take on vanilla. Vanilla Lilikoi Curd. Vanilla Mango Chutney. Vanilla Pineapple Chutney. Vanilla Lilikoi Dressing. Vanilla Pepper Jelly. Vanilla Guava Jelly. Vanilla Cornbread Mix. Vanilla Raspberry Balsamic. Vanilla Barbeque Sauce. Vanilla Cinnamon Sugar. Vanilla Infused Gourmet Honey. Vanilla Infused Culinary Oil. Vanilla Infused Gourmet Maple Syrup. Vanilla Garam Marsala. Vanilla Mint Spice Rub. Vanilla Coffee Rub. Vanilla Mulling Spices. Vanilla Rooibos Tea. Vanilla Blossoms Tea. Vanilla Vineyard Blend Tea. Vanilla Cinnamon Sunset Tea. Vanilla Pumpkin Pomegranate and Papaya Body Butter. Vanilla Mango Body Mist. Vanilla Bean Sunscreen. Vanilla Bean Sugar Scrub. Vanilla Bean Gardeners Lotion. Vanilla Citrus Gardeners Hand Wash. Vanilla Kisses Lip Balm. Vanilla Ice Organic Aloe Sun Cooler. (Are you still with me?) And, of course, vanilla beans.
EATING ON THE FARM
I was here for the Hawaiian Vanilla Experience, a luncheon featuring the signature crop. “Vanilla is in every single thing except the salad greens,” said Ian.
The meal started with an appetizer of vanilla pineapple chutney and vanilla garam marsala shrimp atop a toasted baguette. (I ordered the veggie option; switching out the shrimp for brie.)
The main entrée consisted of vanilla bourbon citrus marinated chicken with carmelized onions and options of vanilla mango chutney aioli or vanilla barbeque sauce served on vanilla sweet bread. A side of organic greens topped with vanilla honey-peppered pecans and vanilla lilikoi dressing, and roasted potatoes seasoned with vanilla southwest rub and served with vanilla barbeque dipping sauce. (My veggie option came with a puff pastry of carmelized onions, brie and vanilla mango chutney.)
When it comes to cooking with vanilla, Ian recommended using extract versus the actual bean. “At $8 to $12 for a single bean, I don’t think it’s worth price,” he said. “I recommend making your own vanilla extract,” Ian said. Because thanks to a prohibition-era law, all store-bought extract is diluted with 60% water.
MAKING VANILLA EXTRACT
As we ate, Ian’s younger brother Isaac was tapped to give a presentation on making vanilla extract. Apparently, with their father in Kailua-Kona and Ian spending more time in Hilo taking college classes, it was Isaac’s turn take on more responsibilities in the family business. “This is Isaac’s first presentation, ever,” Ian said. He walked across the room, leaving his brother alone at the demonstration table. “I’ll be right over here in case he starts crying,” he said.
But Isaac didn’t cry. With a roll of his eyes, he retorted, “Eli Manning,” referencing an NFL quarterback with more Super Bowl rings than his older brother, also an NFL quarterback.
Isaac explained how one vanilla bean can turn any 12 ounces of alcohol into extract in six to eight months. And how one vanilla bean can infuse any 12-ounce bottle of liquor in three to five days.
“That was O.K.,” Ian said when Isaac finished. There was a lifetime of sibling rivalry going on here.
THE VANILLA MASTER
But, clearly, Ian was a master when it came to vanilla. He had his facts down, sharing his knowledge with such conviction that those of us who were two and three times his age followed him around like puppy dogs, tugging on his pant legs with questions. There are 250 compounds in the vanilla flavor matrix, he said. Vanillin is the flavor we crave. Imitation vanilla comes from a by-product of the paper industry.
For dessert, Ian and Isaac passed around bowls of Hawaii-made Roselani ice cream made with--need I say it--vanilla. And sure, the vanilla made it good. Quite good. But the real secret, according to Isaac, was the fat. Compared with your average grocery store brand of 6% butter fact, Roselani contains 20% butter fat.
“Yuck, what’s on it,” a freckle-faced girl with a plumeria blossom behind her ear said. The ice cream was drizzled with Vanilla Lilikoi Curd. She was sitting at a table next to me. As she spoke, her lip curled and her nose scrunched. But she scooped up a spoonful.
“This is the best ice cream ever,” she declared after the fatty goodness slid down her throat.
“Mom, remember that name. Roselani,” she said after her second bite. She continued, between bites. “I’m going to marry this.” And “I love this.” And “I swear I’m going to propose to this ice cream.” “And “A girl can propose, you know.” (As a writer, how can you NOT write that down, word for word?)
A HANDS-ON PROCESS
After lunch, Isaac walked us down the road to the shade house, where their vanilla vines grow in elevated beds, using poles as support. He shared more from his life experience working on a vanilla farm: Vanilla is an orchid. It grows as a vine. There are more than 200 species but only two are edible. It’s classified as a spice but grown as a fruit. It’s the only orchid that produces something edible. It flowers once a year for four hours. It is native to Mexico where a bee pollinates the flower. Elsewhere in the world, like at Hawaiian Vanilla Company, it has to be pollinated by hand and that explains its high price.
It helps if the fingers on your hands are small. Like a child’s. Do you see where this is going? Isaac’s child fingers got employed pollinating vanilla when he was eight years old. It’s fragile work. He had to remove the pollen from its sack at the tip of the anther and placed it at the back of the stamen. Today, he can hand-pollinate 350 to 500 flowers in one day, each one taking 20 to 40 seconds to pollinate.
Soon, though, the pollination effort will have to expand, as the company awaits the arrival of 12,000 new plants from Indonesia. The Reddekopps will need to produce more children or hire a few more employees when the time comes, and Ian may not be involved. He’s ready for his own venture. He has his own interests--aviation.
Soon after the flowers are pollinated, the orchid fruits—the familiar vanilla bean. But it won’t be ready for picking for another nine months.
Once the beans are picked, it will take another three months to cure. That’s a full year from flowering to pollinating to fruiting to picking to curing to ready to use in food preparation. That’s after waiting one to four years for a new vine to produce its first flower. A single vine is worth thousands of dollars. One plant can produce tens of thousands of dollars of vanilla during its lifetime. In a good year, Hawaiian Vanilla will yield 2,000 pounds of vanilla.
At Hawaiian Vanilla Company the entire process of making vanilla is done by hand. The pollinating. The harvest. The blanching. The drying. The curing.
THE FUTURE OF VANILLA FARMING
There were about a dozen of us on the after-lunch farm tour, each of us asking our own questions, and you can imagine that more than one question had to do with how to improve the age-old system that seemed so, well, manual. We were Americans, after all. We’re known for improving processes, reducing labor costs and maximizing production. Surely, traditional vanilla farming could use an update. With 12,000 new plants expected and a new 180,000 square-foot shade house, surely there was technology in the future for Hawaiian Vanilla Company. That is, automation. Surely.
Oh, no, Ian said. “My dad doesn’t believe in machinery. He’s eccentric.”
But, then, on further thought, he said. “Actually, my sister and brothers have it easy.” Unlike in Ian’s youth, when he watered by hand, these days the watering system is automated.
But without machinery, how will all those vanilla flowers that bloom for four hours on only one day a year get pollinated?
Luckily, “There are a lot of orchid growers in the area,” Ian said.