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  • Writer's picture5 Senses CulinaryTours

Looking for Beans

I love the rich mellow flavor of the vanilla, sometimes you can hardly detect it being there – except to the trained palate there is a certain roundness. Both used in sweet and savory dishes. I always keep a large jar of vanilla beans in their liquid in a dark corner of me cabinet – every time you open the jar the aroma is strong and heady. I know that it will add something special to my recipe. I used to buy five inch rubber banded bundles of beans at the local markets in the Caribbean. Ladies that would have grown them for years sold them along with their other garden vegetables and peppers for 10$. I would be greedy and buy two. That would fill my jar at home and provide some gifts of vanilla sugar or salt for my chef friends.

Real vanilla is worlds away from artificial vanilla, which is made from a synthetic version of a natural compound called vanillin, a chemical that can be found in wood pulp. It even sounds bad.

From Martinique, Grenada, India, Mexico, Madagascar, and now my travels to Tahiti, I seek out vanilla. Raiatea is known as the Vanilla Isle thus I went directly to the source, a plantation thinking it might be less expensive than what I found at La Marche in Papetee. It wasn’t but I learned so much and how time consuming growing, precise pollinating only for 6 hours in one day, harvesting and curing. The waiting nine months until the bean is ready. A full nine months! Okay, I understand now what it takes to produce even a single vanilla bean, you will understand why it is the second most costly (about $120 per pound) and valuable spice in the world – second only to saffron.

The orchid and the vine is a story, a little history, up until the 19th century vanilla was pollinated by a particular bee. It was in a French colony in the Indian Ocean, the island of Bourbon that it was finally revealed how the vanilla pod could be hand-pollinated. This was thanks to a young 12 year old slave named Edmond Albius who discovered that with a sliver of wood he could pollinate the flower. This painstakingly flower by flower pollinating today allows it to be grown elsewhere in the world. However, its range is still limited to tropical destinations within 20 degrees to the north or south of the equator. More than 70 percent of the world’s vanilla still comes from the Indian Ocean region. The vanilla produced in the Réunion can also be referred to as Bourbon vanilla and has a slightly different taste and aroma compared to Tahitian vanilla. The bees that used to pollinate vanilla are not native to the islands, thus it takes a steady and dedicated hand of the farmer to quickly and accurately pollinate by hand before the orchid closes and withers away.

While it is possible to hand cultivate Vanilla planifolia in other places, Tahitian vanilla is unique even among these hand-cultivated varietals due to the fact that it is actually a hybrid of two species which were bred together to create Vanilla tahitensis or Tahitian vanilla. It is a unique species of vanilla bean that has a thinner stem, oval leaves that are longer than they are wide and also has a darker green color. As I saw them grown, I thought I grow orchids my weather is perfect for this orchid vine. So three months ago I bought my first cutting, called Vanilla Pompona. The nursery owner said “you can’t kill it,” just attach it to some lattice in a shaded area and it will climb. I am babying this vine on a daily basis, watching excitedly as it is sending out root tendrils. It is a slim possibility that next June or July that I might see a small white orchid.

Just heard about an organic vanilla farm in the San Carlos region of Costa Rica. Looks like a trip to Costa Rica is coming up.

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