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Published: January 5th 2019
Has anyone ever been to a Vanilla Bean Farm? I certainly had never thought to go before but today we were looking for something different to do on a hot day and The Vanillerie south of Kona beckoned so off we went. I have to say I was not particularly looking forward to the experience but I went along for the ride.....actually I had to go as I was driving!
The tour took about 2 hours and was most fascinating. I learned a lot and was really glad I had gone. The farm itself occupies 6.5 acres and is owned by a chap from South Africa. He initially came to the island as a forester but it wasn’t making him a sustainable living. During that time he met a fellow from the Philippines who had grown vanilla beans before. They started out with 100 bean plants, which are actually vines.
Vanilla plants are part of orchid family. There are three varieties propagated around world, in Tahiti, Mexico and Madagascar. The plants they started with came from Mexico.
To actually get Vanilla is an extremely labour intensive and lengthy process. From the time
of planting, it takes 3 years before the plant is mature enough to produce flowers. The flowers have to be pollinated by hand as experiments with bees showed that 1 in 100 attempts were actually successful. Apparently in the 1500's it was a 12 year old slave boy who started pollinating the flowers with a small stick. We learned that the pollination process is time sensitive. The flowers begin to open and they must be pollinated within a 5 hour window. After that time the flowers wilt and fall off and no beans will grow. If you miss this chance, you wait until next year for the flowers to come again.
The Planting medium for the vines are macadamia nut shells, crushed cinder and moss. As the beans grow, they look like the green beans we eat from our garden. They grow in clumps. At first they are a light green and as they mature, they begin to turn yellow. It is at this point that the beans are harvested. It is quite difficult as the beans in the clump do not mature at the same time so several pickings have to take place.
After the beans are picked, they are sorted, put into boiling water at 150 degrees for 3 minutes. This stops the bean growing. They are Taken from the boiling water and wrapped in cloth and put into a bin that resembles a cooler. They are left there for 48 hours. Afterwards they are put into plastic bags and put in the sun for 2 hours so that the warmth makes a condensation inside the bags. They are then Put back into the coolers overnight. The next day, the beans are spread onto parchment paper to dry. At the end of the day, they are placed on trays and placed in a shed that acts as a humidor box. They are left inside for 2 months, Then taken out and bagged and stored in a cool place for a further 6 months. When they come out they are dark brown in colour and quite dehydrated.
We learned that a vanilla bean has 171 flavour compounds whereas artificial vanilla has 1 flavour compound.
I don’t think I’ll ever complain about the price of pure vanilla again after seeing just how difficult it is to produce. To
make the extract they put 4 dried beans in a jar and fill it with either bourbon or vodka and leave it to ferment for 3 months. We bought a kit to make our own vanilla. It consisted of 4 beans in a bottle. No vodka included. Price $42.50 USD! You can order 4 beans on line for $40.00 if all works out well. This will make about 16 ounces of pure vanilla extract.
They also have about 2 acres where they are doing a re-forestation project with the government of Hawaii where they’re planting new Koa trees and two other varieties that I can’t remember and they ship the seedlings over to the Hilo side and plant new forest.
He is Also experimenting-with a tree called Jacaranda. It is a biofuel tree. The nut it produces dries and opens up. There is a high content of natural kerosine in the nut. They plant sweet potato vines under these trees which chokes out the weeds. It then dies off and provides fertilizer.
His wife also has a business where she grows orchids and other tropical plants and provides them for houses
where VIP clients come to the island to stay. They stage the house with these beautiful plants and then when these people leave and they go and take them out again.
At the end of the tour, we were given a dish of homemade vanilla ice cream. What a great way to end the afternoon.
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