The last couple weeks leading up to Hawai'i I was questioning some things I wanted to do. Through my farm tour searches I came across Hawaiian Vanilla Company. They are the only commercial vanilla producer in the United States since, like cacao, vanilla goes in a few places and Hawai'i is the only state that can grow it at this scale. Again, as a chef I really felt it was right for me to learn more about the ingredients I use. Plus I was looking to get some vanilla beans to use at home.
Along with normal farm tours at the farm they also do a luncheon with a tour. The meal included a graham marsala shrimp starter, citrus bourbon chicken sandwich with salad and potatoes, and ice cream to finish off the tour. Since it's a vanilla farm, vanilla was in every component of the meal, even the sauces. Most people associate vanilla with sweets but it can be used in savory foods and the whole meal sounded amazing and got Ben and I interested.
We decided to go ahead and sign up for a day we are there since it would be a fun lunch to do together along with the tour. The day of the farm visit we packed in the car and heading about 45 minutes north of Hilo to the village of Paauilo. Following the GPS, we took the small side road in the village and started to quickly climb up the side of the mountain. As we wind through the trees we come across the bright yellow building from their website and I knew we had found them. We pulled into a parking spot, got our things together and we were ready to go.
We walked into the building to find a wide array of various vanilla products on display for sale. To the left you can see through a small window into the kitchen where you can hear the hustle and bustle of a meal being prepared. A young man comes and welcomes us to the farm. We let him know we had signed up for the lunch and he guided us to our seats with the other guests were we could wait for it to start. He quickly took an order for a drink, vanilla ice tea, vanilla lemonade, or a mixture of both. With a drink in hand we sat and relaxed while the rest of the group trickled in.
Once everyone had arrived it was time to eat and learn. We started with an introduction to the farm and the family. Hawaiian Vanilla company is a family business. They started in the 90's after Jim Reddekopp bought a small building on some land in Hawaii. He was originally in the tourism industry but wanted a change for his small but growing family. After purchasing the land, he talked with his family and they concluded vanilla would be the crop for them. With very little knowledge and a lot to learn, Jim worked with Tom Kadooka to learn more about vanilla, get some samples to work with, and start a new company. Over the years they have grown to have multiple growing houses on their land, and have high expectations of expanding their company and brand to include more on the farm.
Once the foundation was laid, it was time for a quick cooking demo and our first course. The entire time we were at the farm, it was being run by the kids of the family. When I say kids, they were all around my age so they weren't young but adults helping the family run a kickass farm. The first course was a graham marsala shrimp. It started with some butter (of course) where a fresh vanilla pod was opened, seeds scraped, and the whole things went into the butter, seeds and all. To the butter, they added their vanilla graham marsala spice blend (yes I bought some before leaving) that contains powdered vanilla. Once they base was done, they cooked the shrimp in it and finished it off with a flambé of pure vanilla extract. They definitely know how to make a show of their meal. The shrimp was served a toasted bread slices with a vanilla pineapple chutney.
After course one it was time to talk more about vanilla and its use in the culinary industry. First off vanilla doesn't have much flavor on its own. If you eat a vanilla pod or it's seeds you well smell a lot of vanilla and get some flavor from those smells but it won't be that distinct vanilla flavor we all know. Vanilla needs something to enhance and carry the flavor. This can be done with a few kitchen staples, alcohol, fat, or acid. Typically we use vanilla in an extract form where the bean is infused into alcohol and then cut with water to allow for more product but still has flavor. In the first dish we depended on the fat in the butter to bring those flavors out.
Our second dish came out soon after. Vanilla citrus bourbon chicken on a house made vanilla brioche bun with vanilla caramelized onions and a mango vanilla chutney aioli served with vanilla southern rub potatoes, salad with a vanilla raspberry balsamic and vanilla candied pecans. It was amazing. We sat and enjoyed our meal chatting with others around us. As people started to finish up it was time to get ready for the tour. We had a little time to browse the store beforehand to get an idea of what I might want to get. I knew I'd want some of the graham marsala blend. We headed out the front door to meet the rest of the group and prepare to go down to the grow houses.
Some new people that had signed up for just the tour joined the group at this point. We gathered out front then one of the boys guided us down the hill to a grow house. They aren't full houses but more of a large netting surrounding the top and two sides of the area the vanilla grows. There were rows and rows of vine plants stretching and growing around. We were brought into the middle of all the plants where there was one that had a bundle of fresh vanilla pods.
Here we took the time to dissect the process of growing and producing vanilla. They explained that their father knew very little about vanilla at first but took a mentor to learn and figure it out. There are over a hundred types of vanilla that exist but only two are grown for commercial use. The farm does grow both types but their plants are slightly different. To help with the local climate their father worked with his mentor to breed a Hawaiian vanilla from the main verities that grow well in their area. They also have gone through a long process of trial and error losing plants to learn the best way to keep them happy.
Vanilla is a very difficult plant. It is a type of orchid that grows as a vine. Through the years they have found the vanilla grows best hanging in a netting with their roots covered by a mixture of bark, soil, nutrients, and stones. Elevating the plants allows for water to drain and air to flow to avoid mold. They have also learned that covering the main root section of the plant helps it not to drown when too much water comes into the area. The repurposed growing buckets that they originally started the plants in and cut them in half to surround the roots.
The plants are very much spaced out. This also helps to prevent the spread of disease if any of the plants catch something. They have lost crops in the past when the vines are too close and spread the diseases. It's really remarkable to see how they have created this system that works so well for them overtime. The largest part of the operation comes into play when they are in bloom though.
Vanilla is hand pollinated. Someone is out there in a field going flower to flower spreading the reproductive parts to create the bean that we use. If you ever wonder the reason vanilla is so expensive that’s a huge factor. Even in other countries someone is out there pollinating the vanilla we eat. At Hawaiian Vanilla Co. their mother is the best at this game. You don’t have to be fast just for the amount you do but also for the restriction of when to pollinate. Vanilla blooms for a day and has a 12-hour window to pollinate. If you miss it the flower falls off and no bean will grow. It’s very difficult and it blows my mind how this family has adapted their lives to take care of and produce such a difficult product.
After taking some questions from the various people on the tour we were brought back to the top of the hill and invited inside for some ice cream as a nice treat after the small hike. While enjoying ice cream we watched a small TV clip that featured the farm back in the early 2000’s. We got to see their father and mother in some shots along with a few of the kids playing. Learning about the company and the family that runs it really makes me appreciate what they do and the quality products that they produce. At the end I walked out with the spice blend to make that shrimp dish and three vanilla beans to make my own extract…
Fast forward a few weeks. Been home for a little bit and got back into my schedule. Finally have some time to make this vanilla extract. Hawaiian Vanilla Co. sells a small bottle with three beans that you split and fill with a hard alcohol. That’s it. I wanted a pure flavor so I chose a flavorless vodka but I would love to one day try it with a bourbon or brandy. I split the leaves down the middle but did not scrape the seeds. The farm says not to and just leave it split. I dropped them into the bottle and topped it off with vodka.
Now for the wait. It will be about six months before I can start using the extract. But at the same time I can make more once I reach that point. At six months I will take the top third of the extract out for use and top it off with more vodka. I wait six more months and repeat this process producing pure vanilla extract from those three beans for the next five years. It’s only going to get stronger and stronger and I can’t wait to start using it in some of my baking!