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

Choco-Banana Ice Dream

Bowl of soft-serve chocolate banana ice cream

Ice Cream is one of my favourite foods. Whether it’s summer or winter, in my mind an ice cream is a staple treat during an outing, and a must-have dessert.

Unfortunately, since it’s high in fat, sugar, cholesterol and sodium, and low in most vitamins and minerals, I can’t justify eating loads of ice cream  eating any ice cream now that I’m sticking to a healthy diet.

So I was thrilled to discover that you can make a delicious “ice cream” from frozen bananas.  Naturally, I immediately tried the recipe. And of course, wanting to get maximum healthy bang out of every treat buck, I changed it.

NB: If you don’t like the taste of bananas then, sadly, this recipe is not for you.

Before starting, you’ll need to prepare some frozen food the day before:

  • Slice 1 large or 2 small bananas into small pieces and freeflow freeze them.
  • Open, drain, rinse and freeze canned chickpeas.
  • Slice and free-flow freeze approx ½ small courgetteSlices of banana and courgette, plus chickpeas ready to freeze.

Choco-Banana Ice Dream

Frozen banana and courgette slices (see above)

2 tbsp frozen chickpeas

2 tbsp raw cacao powder or cocoa powder (a cheaper option)

2 tbsp peanut butter (optional)

½ cup almond milk

What to do:

Place all ingredients into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

The mixture quickly becomes thick and creamy and you’ll probably need to push it down and stir with a wooden spoon a few times during the blending process.

Serve immediately as a “soft-serve dream” or pop it into the freezer for more of a solid frozen treat.

Bowl of soft-serve chocolate banana ice cream

Notes:

Bananas contain a fair amount of fructose (sugar), that I can’t deny. But they are also high in potassium, fiber and vitamins B6 and C. Add in the antioxidant qualities of raw cacao, plus the extra protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber from the vegetables and I reckon my Choco-Banana Ice Dream is definitely on the healthier side of the treat-food-scale.

This is a pretty forgiving recipe; you can add or subtract all sorts of things to make your own variations. I’ve tried adding small amounts of frozen cooked carrot and cauliflower, and no one has even noticed!

Keep a container of banana and vegetable slices in the freezer. That way you’ll be able to whip up this yummy dessert (or breakfast) without delay.

The Yummiest Breakfast Ever

I’ve been known to eat this for breakfast. To allay any possible guilt, I make it even healthier by adding 1 tbsp of protein powder, and chuck in a handful of frozen blueberries and  another of spinach leaves. (Blend it extra-well to disguise any little green flecks.)

Why not give this yummy dessert a try?

Make some changes to suit your taste then let us all know your delicious variations in the comments below.

I can’t wait to try YOUR inventions!

Precious Pears

There are only 10 minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Harvest season is upon us here on the farm.

While my farming men are busy bringing in the grain, my own focus is on the bounty given to me by nature and the foresight of our pioneer ancestors.

This week the pears are ready to pick and preserve.

Bounty from the past.

When pioneering families settled their farms here in Garston 120 years ago, the land was devoid of trees. Grass, tussock and rocks were the main features of the narrow, river valley they would come to call home. Mountains lining both sides of the valley kept it freezing in winter and scorching in summer. Food was scarce and largely home-grown. The top priority was establishing a large vegetable garden beside a small, rough farmhouse. And next on the list was always planting the orchard.

For many years orchards, both small and large, were lovingly tended up and down the valley, but with the advent of sealed roads, speedy cars and modern supermarkets, the orchards have become overgrown and neglected in modern times. All the same, the sturdiest trees persist and each autumn they dot the valley with fragrant fruit for us to pick and be thankful for.

Harvest in the present.

So it is, that this week I’m harvesting the pears. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Sometimes the season is poor and there is scarcely a fruit to be seen, but this year there’s an abundance of pears on every tree. There are also birds, who can savour the best fruit on the highest branches which are impossible for me to reach. Not content with their share, however, they like to invade my territory on the branches below as well. They don’t eat the whole fruit: oh no! They would rather sample, leave a small hole, and move on to try the pear next door as well.

And then, we have the wind. Autumn can be a windy season around here, and this year is no exception. Many of the pears end up on the ground before they are ripe. These windfalls are often the ones I collect. They are easy to reach, and being still quite firm, have not taken any harm from their fall. However, danger lurks below. There’s a wasp nest somewhere around the orchard and the wasps begin feasting long before I arrive. They go for the half-rotten fruit, preferably already holed by the birds. So I tread very carefully under the trees, and restrict my haul to the unripe pears, preferably well away from the busy wasps.

The windfall pears are poles apart from Emerson’s perfect 10 minutes, and unfortunately, they are most unlikely to reach that happy state. For years, no matter how carefully I stored them or what ripening tricks I tried, many pears ended up going bad before they’re ripe enough to eat.

But I’m ever hopeful and this year I’m trying a new trick. I read some helpful pear hints in “This NZ Life” and they shed some light on my past pear problems.

Apparently, pears ripen from the inside out, so that even if a pear feels rock hard on the outside it may well be ripening on the inside.  So the best thing to do is to chill the pears as soon as you pick them, then bring out a few to finish ripening as you need them.

Pears and bananas in a paper bag to ripen
Apparently bananas and apples emit ethylene which will help to ripen, or at least soften the fruit.

Pears are a-cooking for the future.

Fortunately, if these new ripening ideas still don’t work, cooking will save the day. Poaching the pears in a sweet and delicious liquid will add flavour and soften the unripe fruit. I don’t have the time, skills (or quite frankly the inclination) to spend hours this week preserving multiple jars of fruit. I’ve tried it before and failed miserably every time.  So now I pick a little every day, and while the evening meal is cooking it’s often joined by a pot of pears bubbling gently on the stove. To preserve them, I’ll simply portion the cold pears into containers with the syrup and freeze.

Soft pears are cooked in a matter of minutes. I don’t trust these to the cooktop: they go into the microwave, with a little maple syrup, a knob of butter, cinnamon, vanilla essence and lemon juice for just a few minutes. They form their own delicious juice and taste exquisite. I’ve just finished cooking up the latest batch that did manage to ripen successfully.  I can’t wait to serve them up for dessert tonight.

But most pears will not be so ripe, so here’s how I’ll treat the main crop of windfall pears.

Pears poaching in a pot.
Pears in their sweet poaching liquid.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears

8-12 firm pears            4-5 tbsp brown sugar or coconut sugar                

1-2 tsp ground cinnamon            1 lemon

Water                                                     Raisins or sultanas (optional)

What to do:

    1. Cut the pears into quarters, discarding core and stem. There is no need to peel.
    1. Put them into a deep saucepan on the stove (cooktop).
    1. Finely grate the lemon rind.
    1. Juice the lemon. (Use a lemon juicer to get as much as possible.)
    1. Add these to the pot.
    1. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon into the pot and add water until the pears are almost covered.
    1. Cover and bring to the boil.
    1. Simmer gently until the pears are soft but not falling apart. This could take 20 – 30 minutes, or even longer depending on the size of the pieces and the temperature of the cooking liquid. Slow is best.
  1. Once cooked, add a handful of raisins or sultanas if desired. Leave everything to cool in the pot. The pears will increase in sweetness and the dried fruit will plump up and add more flavour.

To serve:

I love these pears with maple-walnut ice cream. The walnut flavour goes so well with pears, but really any ice cream would be nice. Sometimes I add an extra topping of chopped, toasted walnuts. Cover the pears and ice cream with spoonfuls of the hot cooking syrup.

To download this recipe as a PDF click the link below.

Simple Sweet’n’Spicy Poached Pears PDF

There’s something deeply satisfying about eating food you’ve gathered and cooked yourself. It hearkens back to our hunter-gatherer roots perhaps? Or maybe nostalgically to what we think of as a simpler time.

Your Turn To Talk

Are you a forager who enjoys finding food in the wild?

Or are you, like me, lucky enough to have an orchard nearby, or random trees growing in the backyard? 

Maybe you have hints or recipes to share.

Let’s start a fruitful conversation in the comments.

Harvesting Stories Abound On The Blog

Mushrooms Galore.

Walnut Trees On The Farm

The Old Apple Tree

Hops In A Hurry

Gathering In The Grain