In Defence Of Vanilla

Dried Vanilla Beans on a plate.

Vanilla Doesn’t Deserve Its Bland Image

Last week I listened to a podcast.

It had nothing to do with vanilla — in fact, it was about a blogger who changed her rather bland writing into a vivid and personable style, thus attracting more readers.

But afterwards, the host commented that the writer’s former style was a bit vanilla.”

And I thought:

“Whoa! How did vanilla get such a bad rap?

Why do we describe things that are bland or boring as “vanilla’?

Because let me tell you, I’ve been finding out about vanilla lately and there’s NOTHING bland and boring about the world’s second-most expensive spice.

Difficult To Grow

For a start, it is an amazingly tricky crop to grow. It originally came from Mexico, where in the wild it will grow from seed. But that is a hit-and-miss affair so farmers grow the vine from a cutting.

Vanilla comes from the orchid family and has difficult-to-pollinate flowers that, it turns out, are pollinated in the wild by hummingbirds and the Mexican Melipona bee. Actually, even this fact is more of a theory. To be honest no one seems to know for sure exactly what insect pollinates the plant. To add to that, each flower only lives for one day and is fertile for just 8-12 hours of that time. So, whatever insect does the job, it has to be really on the ball.

But in other vanilla-farming countries — spread through tropical parts of Asia, Africa and the Pacific — the only way to pollinate is by hand.

Fortunately, the flowers are hermaphrodites (male and female)  so each flower can fertilize itself. Unfortunately, there’s a delicate membrane between the anther (male, pollen-producing part) and stigma (female, germinating part).

So you have to insert a small, sharp stick into the flower, lift the membrane, then rub the anther and stigma together without damaging any of the delicate flower parts. It’s a very labour intensive process.

So Much Time And Work

Nine months later the long, thin pods are fully grown and the tips begin to turn yellow. This is the sign they are ready for harvesting. Farmers now have to move fast. Once picked, the crop will deteriorate and go mouldy very quickly.

The freshly harvested green pods have nothing of the flavour and aroma we associate with vanilla. That comes a whole year later after the pods have been “killed”, sweated, dried and conditioned.

Most farmers don’t have the resources to process their own crop, so they sell to middlemen who supply the raw vanilla to big processing factories.

Farming Can Be Dangerous

Madagascar is the world’s leading producer of vanilla. It’s a big business there and that brings some dangerous problems.

All of a sudden it seems that the world can’t get enough of the stuff and that demand, coupled with short supply caused by cyclone damage to the crops, is causing some real headaches.

Theft is a major issue.

Vanilla thieves can strike in the middle of the night and decimate a farmer’s entire yearly income. So the farmers of Madagascar have taken to patrolling their ripening crops for up to 3 months of the year in a bid to protect them. It’s a dangerous job and people have been killed in the process.

Expensive Environmental Problem

But even worse, in my opinion, is the environmental damage that’s occurring as more of Madagascar’s precious and irreplaceable rainforest is cleared to make way for more vanilla farms.

It’s hard to blame the farmers. People have to feed their families, but where does it end? This is only one in a long line of lucrative crops that have motivated people to decimate the world’s vital landscapes.

We are all paying the price for that.

Vanilla Closer To Home 

In New Zealand, we are lucky enough to have access to sustainably grown vanilla sourced much closer to home. In fact, several South Pacific countries are now growing the precious plant. These are lead by Tonga, which started growing the crop in 2001 after a devastating cyclone wiped out many local businesses and infrastructure.

Heilala Vanilla began as a partnership between a kiwi family who wanted to help Tonga get back on its feet and a local farming family in Utungake. They produced their first, small harvest in 2005. Now they are not only providing employment and stability in Tonga but they are also mentoring groups in Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands to do the same.

After all this, you might be wondering how we actually use vanilla. Why is it worth going to all this trouble for?  

Some Uses

Vanilla is primarily used in cooking as a flavouring. The Aztecs used it in conjunction with cacao to produce a rich, chocolaty drink, and this was how it was first used when it came to Europe and England.

Many recipes, both sweet and savoury,  call for vanilla. In some it’s the hero — have you ever tried real vanilla ice cream? In other dishes, it complements and enhances all the other flavours, so that without it the meal falls a little flat.

My Recipes has some interesting dishes on their website.

It’s also an essential ingredient in some perfumes, cola drinks, and lends its aroma to candles, cigars, liqueurs… Turns out the world has many uses for the precious vanilla pod (or bean as it’s sometimes known.)

Vanilla and ice cream served with raspberries.

Not All Vanilla Is The Real Deal

Now I bet you’ve had vanilla ice cream many times in your life. You know, those favourite Kiwi brands like TipTop, Deep South, Pams … they all have it.

“Plain ice cream” we called it when I was a kid, and we ate it with hot puddings or fruit desserts.

Oh-oh. It turns out that “plain ice cream” is an excellent description for those —  and other cheap ice cream brands — because there is not actually a skerrick of real vanilla to be found in any of them.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that any cheap vanilla product you buy contains imitation vanilla, which is made synthetically and comes a far distant second in flavour and aroma in comparison to the real thing.

Real Vanilla Is Expensive

If you want real vanilla, be prepared to pay for it. Premium ice cream brands — yes, the ones I checked use actual vanilla beans.

Vanilla Essence — if it’s cheap, it’s an imitation. Look for the words “real vanilla”, “seeds” and “alcohol” on the label if you want to buy genuine vanilla.

Vanilla paste is another alternative and I’ve noticed that many of my healthier baking recipes call for that. Some recipes use actual vanilla beans and seeds. Now that I know so much more, I might even try that too.

For now, I’ll stick to the essence though. It still costs me a small fortune each time I buy a new bottle, but after discovering just some of the amazing story behind vanilla, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.

P.S. — There’s No Vanilla Farming In Garston

After learning so much about the trials, tribulations and joys of vanilla farming, I’m slightly relieved that our grain crops and are somewhat easier, and certainly less dangerous to grow.

Our hops are less labour-intensive to harvest and process, and I still have time to gather the wild foods that grow around our farm.

Thanks to all the hard-working farmers who feed the world.

2019 Update:

Garston’s climate may not be up to growing vanilla but it turns out to be perfect for saffron. Steve Daley of Te Anau-based Kiwi Saffron planted a trial crop on our farm this year. It really is fascinating to see how this rare flower grows.

Read all about our latest crop in Kiwi Saffron: Proudly Growing In Southland

Sources for this article include:

factsanddetails.com

Fighting the Vanilla Thieves

Wikipedia

And the podcast comment that triggered this post came from one of my favourite podcasters Darren Rowse over at ProBlogger

10 Tips For Success When Using Your Bread Maker

Bread maker machines are advertised as easy to use — and they are, once you get to know them. But your first results can be disappointingly deflating. Small, dense and under-cooked loaves are often a problem for new machine owners. You can, of course, go with a bread mix, which has all the ingredients in one bag. Just add yeast and water and you’re ready to go.

But if you’d rather start from scratch, here are ten tips to make sure your loaves are the best every single time.

Continue reading “10 Tips For Success When Using Your Bread Maker”

Winter Memories: Feeding Out On The Farm

Highland cattle eating hay

Highland cattle eating hay
Our pet highland cattle love their hay. Photo courtesy of Jenny McNamee.

Winter is an interesting season on the farm. It gets cold down here in the South. Not frigid like Siberia, or Alaska of course, but chilly by New Zealand standards. The grass doesn’t grow much in winter and feeding out takes up a big part of the farmer’s day. Of course, it wasn’t always as easy as it is today.

These days Terry can handle the feeding out by himself. The tractor. a feed-out machine and our new, automated grain bin are all he needs to be a one-man-band. But it hasn’t always been that way. Continue reading “Winter Memories: Feeding Out On The Farm”

How To Make Perfect Cheese Scones

Cheese scones on a plate

Making a Savoury Cheese Scone

My daughters believe that I’ve always been able to make perfect cheese scones. When visitors arrive unexpectedly, or the family congregates, it’s no trouble to whip up a batch of scones and bring them out golden hot.

But, in reality, my road to the perfect cheese scone has been a long one. It started back in 1980 after a “bake off” with my boyfriend. At the time scones were the one thing I actually knew how to make. So when Neill showed me his scone recipe — which was very different from the one I used —  I was somewhat scathing about it. I distinctly recall saying “that’ll never work.”

Naturally he challenged me to a scone baking contest. He cooked every day. I could barely boil an egg. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking. Of course he won the contest, hands down. His scones were light, moist and HUGE. Mine were tiny and tasteless. Oh no! I buried the remnants of my pride and wrote down his recipe.

Since then, I’ve made countless batches of scones. And I’ve given out that same recipe to many, including my daughters. For some reason the results never seem to work out quite as well for anyone else. Last month, I finally realised why…

I don’t actually use that recipe to make my cheese scones.

Over the years I’ve slowly changed it to fit my somewhat haphazard cooking style. It’s similar, but with important differences. Oops!

So here — with apologies to Steph, Debbie and Jenny for not realising the truth earlier — is the ACTUAL recipe that I now use for making light and delicious, perfect cheese scones.

scones, cooked, in the oven

Lyn’s Perfect Cheese Scones

2 heaped cups of plain flour         

4 heaped tsp baking powder

2 cups tasty cheddar cheese (shredded)    

1 egg

1 dessert spoon sugar

50g butter (melted)                        

Approximately 1 cup milk*               

pinch salt

*You may need a little more milk than this, depending on how much you’ve heaped the cups of flour.

What to do:

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.  I use fan bake.
  2. Combine flour, baking powder, salt and cheese into a large bowl.
  3. Make a well in the dry ingredients. (A well is like a hollow or depression.)
  4. Mix egg and sugar in a cup and pour into the well. Don’t mix it in yet.
  5. Melt the butter and add it to the well. Still don’t mix.
  6. Pour 1 cup of milk into the well. Now you get to mix.
  7. Use a spurtle (see Tip No. 1) to combine the ingredients so they form quite a sticky dough (see Tip No. 3). Add more milk if necessary. 
  8. Turn out onto a floured surface and gently squeeze the mixture  with both hands to further combine. (See Tip No. 4)
  9. Press, roll and pat with your hands until you’ve formed a long, fat rectangle.Raw scone dough
  10. Cut in half lengthways, and then cut each half into 6 pieces. Place the 12 scones onto a metal baking sheet, slightly separated. They shouldn’t stick to the tray.

Bake at 200°C for 13-15 minutes. Makes 12

Notes:

Perfect cheese scones are best served warm, with your favourite toppings. I like lashings of butter. Others prefer to add jam; my Farmer always tops his with honey. Some of the family love to add slices of tomato and ham, and —  if you’re in New Zealand — you can always add some Vegemite. (A special savoury topping, loved by New Zealanders and Australians.)

These scones will keep for a day in an airtight container, or can be frozen up to 3 months. You can refresh them in the microwave, wrapped in a dry paper towel.

Five Tips to Make You a Scone Expert

4 essentials for making scones: cheese, heaped cup of flour, an egg and a spurtle.

# Tip 1 — Use a spurtle to mix your scones.

A scone mixture shouldn’t be stirred. Instead you pull a spurtle through the mixture, almost as if you’re cutting it. As you cut, turn it over to mix. Stop mixing as soon as the dough comes together.

If you don’t have a spurtle, a blunt knife is the next best option.

# Tip 2 — Be generous with your measurements.                              

Scones respond well to generosity. My cupfuls look like mini flour mountains.

# Tip 3 — The dough should be somewhat sticky and moist.  

It should still be dough-like, but dry dough equals dry scones. It’s better to make it slightly too wet than too dry. You can always add more flour to the board when you tip the mixture out, to counteract any excess stickiness.

# Tip 4 — Don’t over-mix the dough.

As soon as it comes together, turn it out onto a floured surface. Squeeze and pat it with your hands until it forms into a long, fat sausage. The less you have to handle it the better. Having said that, over-mixing is not a catastrophic mistake. The scones will still taste great but might not be quite as light.

# Tip 5 — Practice makes perfect.

The more you make these, the better they—and you— will get.

Thanks are due

To Jessica, from A Taste For Living   who taught me a lot about recipe writing while we edited this together.

Collaborating in real-time on Google Docs was an experience we both had fun with.
Cheers, Jess.

Autumn or Fall

Yellow leaves frame a boat marina at Lake Te Anau.

A Breathtaking Season By Any Name

Autumn: It conjures colours in my mind. Deep reds, brilliant oranges and bright yellow; vivid hillsides or fiery avenues; these are the scenes that await in the South Island during March, April and May. Time to bring out the camera or the paint brushes. How to capture so much splendour?

Fall — the American name —  brings a later time to mind. Leaves gently floating, one following the other. Or a windy night, followed by a red-gold and brown crunchy carpet — all the leaves downed at once. This is playtime: children shouting, laughing, scuffing through the leaves and building great heaps to leap into and to toss in the air.

Autumn Down Under

In the Southern Hemisphere everything seems topsy-turvey to those from northern parts. When we have winter — you have summer; we’re in daylight — you’re in night. Ideally, Our houses face north, if they can,  because southerly weather in New Zealand comes from Antarctica and it’s COLD.

You might think that being such a small country our climate would be the same throughout, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Living here in Garston we are closer to the South Pole than to the equator, and the weather is quite different to that of New Zealand’s northerly provinces. So are the seasons.

New Zealand native trees are mostly evergreen so their colour comes from beautiful flowers and berries. But our English pioneers missed the trees of home and planted many, many deciduous trees, especially in the South Island where they’ve flourished.

A Stunning Season

So autumn is a beautiful season down here. The awareness that cold weather is on its way causes the deciduous trees to withdraw the green chlorophyll from the leaves back into the branches and trunk where it will wait out the winter, ready to be used come spring. Now it’s time for other pigments in the leaves to shine, and what a glorious show they make.

My Class Loves Painting in Autumn

I’m not a great artist myself, but I love teaching art to my class of 5 – 7 year olds at Garston School.  We love the autumn colours around our school. Last week we learned one way of showing reflections with autumn colours.

Here are 3 of my favourites:

Another post in the series Autumn Harvest on the Farm.

 

 

 

 

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

Muscovy Ducks swimming on a farm duck pond.
Muscovy ducks on the pond.

How It All Began

Our son, Chris, arrived home from university three years ago. Parking on the front lawn, he produced out of the battered depths of his rusty Toyota two bags and a big box. One overflowing with dirty washing, another filled with hardly-used books and, finally, 10 tiny ducklings —  closely followed by their disgruntled mother and a couple of large, surprisingly mellow, drakes (males). Yes, you read that right, our son brought home some Muscovy ducks.

“These were on the duck pond outside my house,” he casually explained. “The owners didn’t want them anymore. I kinda like them, so I brought them home.”

The big question in my mind, however, was “Who’s going to feed them?”

It was obviously a rhetorical question, you can guess who fed the ducks. And their offspring. And the next generation too. Because now the ducks have made themselves well and truly at home.

Close-up of two muscovy ducks.
The ducks are well and truly at home on the farm.

Muscovy Ducks On The Farm

Muscovies are fascinating birds. They may look alike but their personalities are quite different. Some are shy, others pushy: always arriving first to the grain bucket. Some stick close to the pond while others range far and wide over the paddocks. One duck is a loner and likes to potter up the gravel road far from home.

In Spring and Autumn, the ducks and drakes pair off and begin to prepare their nests. These could be found anywhere: under a bush… in the rushes… between two hay bales… But the one place you’ll never find them is up in a tree. Muscovies are big, heavy birds. They can fly but tend to stay low to the ground. They would never dream of doing anything as precarious as nesting in a tree.

Close-up of Muscovy duck on a nest in the hay barn.
Nesting quietly in the hay barn.

One peculiarity of Muscovies — and this is truly bizarre — the ducklings cannot get wet!  

Say what?  Hey back up — these are water birds that can’t get wet?

Yes, strange as it may seem, if Muscovy ducklings get their backs wet and cold in the first few weeks of life it can be fatal. However, neither ducks nor ducklings are aware of this fact and they scramble to dive into water whenever they see it. I’ve been known to administer life-saving first aid in the form of a warm hairdryer and a towel by the fire when, despite all our care, three ducklings managed to fall into a small bucket of water last spring.

Close-up of mother muscovy duck and day-old ducklings.
Safe from the rain and predators in the sturdy hutch, built for us by the local school’s woodwork class.

Caring For The Ducklings 

So we keep the mothers and babies in sturdy hutches for the first month or two. After that, they are free to enjoy the pond on fine days, but we still shut them in at night or when the weather is rough. The cages protect them from more than the weather. There are plenty of stoats, wild cats and even hawks around, all looking to snaffle a tasty treat.

Group of muscovy ducks eating grain.
The ducks love their grain.

Twice a day we head up the paddock to feed the ducklings. I take the early shift as part of my morning walk. The Farmer takes the evening shift. That’s when all the ducks congregate. When they hear the little Polaris chugging towards the pond, they rush in from far and wide to gobble the scattered grain.

Too Many Ducks

Muscovy meat is tender and sweet, and the eggs are huge and tasty. Both are considered delicacies amongst the duck-connoisseurs in our community. But these birds are our pets, and although we eat the eggs, somehow we just can’t bring ourselves to eat the ducks. However, they are prolific breeders and we can’t keep too many of them because the pond won’t stay healthy and clean if it’s overpopulated.

Mum, Dad and the kids. The fifth and final batch this autumn.

 

So the first time the population rose above 40 I put an ad in the local paper. “Muscovy ducks for sale.” I couldn’t believe how fast they sold. We haven’t had to advertise again. Those same customers now phone up every season:

“Are the ducks for sale yet?”

And when the answer is yes, they can’t get here fast enough. I don’t ask what they do with their ducks. I don’t want to know.

 

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