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Dream Big & Make Your Own Vanilla

(post, Trista Cornelius)

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I still cannot believe that a mistake made in 1936 has a tiny Hawaiian bakery still going strong selling something as elemental as stone cookies.  I still cannot believe that given three generations of success, Mt.View Bakery has not pushed stone cookies onto every Starbucks counter in the world.  Why does it seem that for any business to survive, it must grow and expand?  Because every quarter must show shareholders profit, our Kona-host Jennifer, a financier extraordinaire explains to me.  Sustaining a good thing when you bump into it does not sound like typical business protocol.  Nevertheless, a visit to America’s only commercial vanilla farm showed us it’s not only possible, it’s the only way to produce vanilla.

Near the end of our stay on the Big Island, our friends took us to visit the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in Paauilo.  As soon as we arrive at the yellow farm house, we’re ushered into a sunny dining area and served our choice of vanilla iced tea or vanilla lemonade.  Later, we learn that vanilla beans have tiny seeds—200,000 in one pod!  Dave, the manger of the farm, told us we’d see some of those tiny seeds in our lemonade.  They floated near the bottom, smaller than  ground pepper.  

Although we’d called ahead about a vegan option for lunch, it did not get noted in the reservations.  Dave told us not to worry as he rushed to the kitchen.  Others were served chicken sandwiches and salad featuring vanilla sauces as well as roasted potatoes seasoned with a vanilla rub.  I, on the other hand, received a colorful vanilla carrot curry soup with a deep black basil leaf floating on top, salad, and homemade foccacia bread.  (My husband and friend donated a few of their potatoes to me—generous indeed because they were perfect!)  If I thought about vanilla, I could taste and smell it in the curry and the salad dressing.  If I didn’t think about it, I simply enjoyed a super-fresh plate of healthy, comforting food.  

For dessert, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and our choice of either no topping, vanilla caramel, or vanilla lilikoi (a sour passionfruit that smells like grapefruit but tastes like extra-sour Meyer lemons).  I decided I’d just ask to taste a little of the lilikoi topping, but Kris, Dave’s wife and the kitchen manager, came over to me and asked if I’d like a white wine, lilikoi, vanilla granita instead.  I could not nod my head more vigorously.  She returned with a champagne glass filled with glistening gold ice decorated with a sprig of thyme.  The vanilla in the granita sweetened the lilikoi flavor just enough, and sniffing the sprig of thyme cleared my senses and enabled me to absorb the vanilla wafting all around us.    

Ironically, as one of us admired the huge, immaculate kitchen, Dave explained that it used to be a slaughter house.  He pointed to the ceiling, “See?  You can still see the hooks.  Somebody painted the tips red to be funny.”  As an almost-vegan, I thought I’d find this disturbing.  However, the space glows with such warm vanilla scent—real vanilla, not some synthetic candle fakery—buttery yellow walls, windows looking out onto gorgeous banana trees with purple blossoms hanging low, and produces such lovingly tended and nutritious food, I felt no sense of the place’s previous purpose, except relief over how it had been resurrected.  

On our way to tour the farm, Dave told more of the story of this tasty place.  How many employees?  Two.  Dave and his wife, Kris.  After working as industrial chemists, they quit their jobs and moved to Hawaii.  Not long after, they saw an ad from the vanilla farm looking for a kitchen manager and a business manager.  Dave thought, “We could do that.”  Dave and Kris got the jobs and then became best friends with owner Jim Reddekopp and his wife Tracy.  “Staff meetings are great,” Dave says with genuine pleasure.  This small crew grows 400 pounds of vanilla beans a year.  That’s “small potatoes” says Dave when compared to the world market, which Madagascar dominates.  It’s not small, however, in profits.  A freezer-size Ziplock bag of vanilla bean seeds is worth thousands of dollars.  My friends and I sigh, talk about entrepreneurship, and say “dream big” to each other.  Dream big.  Really big.  The owner, who previously worked in tourism, I believe, bought a defunct slaughter house and property in Hawaii and turned it into a vanilla farm even though he had no prior farming experience.  When people wondered if he could do it, he pointed to his five children as proof of his ability to grow things!  Dream big.  Really big.  

In order to make any profit from his farm, however, he had to wait at least three years.  Vanilla beans come from an orchid, one particular orchid, and it must be three years old before it blossoms.  Once three years old, it blooms for only four hours each year.  Four hours, not days, hours.  In four hours, the flower must get pollinated, but there’s only one known natural pollinator of orchids, and it does not exist in Hawaii.  Besides, no professional grower would depend on the natural process, which has something like less than 1% chance of pollination!  So, every orchid flower must be pollinated by hand, a delicate process demanding a level of patience and awareness I imagine only the most advanced monks and gurus capable of doing.  

Nevertheless, the farm plans to offer “eco tours” soon, and guests will get a chance to move one barely-visible speck of pollen to the right spot inside the orchid all on their own, a generous offer from the farm considering how much the farm needs each blossom to grow into a bean.  Nevertheless, after waiting three years for their plants to bloom, they pollinate only about 7 out of 20 blossoms per plant so they don’t overwork the plant and “draw it into disease.”  They sacrifice more than half the potential beans in order to maintain the health and longevity of the plant.  

 “We don’t do anything more than we can do” Dave said at least twice during the tour.  He might have been referring only to the kitchen that serves a maximum of 50 guests, or maybe he meant the whole farm.  If so, they can do a lot—lease land to a local company to produce organic greens for the farm and to sell at market; a weekly volunteer opportunity for teens to learn about business, financing, and agriculture; cabins to build for eco-tour guests who will stay on the property and do some work in exchange for their amenities; fundraising dinners for arts and cultural groups on the island; and all of this with two full-time employees and an owner with five children, plus an octogenarian father who lives in the house beside the kitchen.  He keeps an eye on things, Dave tells us.  While I waited for the restroom attached to the side of the father’s house, I admired a neat and abundant garden.  I’m sure he grew the pungent, deep purple basil I found in my soup.

In spite of the scrumptious lunch, in spite of the vanilla beans we bought to make our own lifetime supply of vanilla extract (see below), and in spite of the rare and fascinating orchid plant itself, I was most struck by the story of the company:  a couple wanting to do something different with their lives that left room for lots of children; another couple quitting their professions with no plan for what was next; the resulting friendship that exudes warmth and vitality all throughout the place; and their natural acceptance of the vanilla orchid’s slow, meticulous process that seems to have taught them how to live the good life.  “We don’t do anything more than what we can do.”  

I’m going to try to adopt this attitude in my life.  Rather than striving and straining and extending toward the future, I won’t do anything more than what I can do.  My equivalent of the stone cookie awaits if only I can be present enough to see it.  Like the Mt. View baker, maybe I’ll set out to do one thing, end up doing something else and be satisfied.  Perhaps one day you will find me on the Big Island contributing health and well-being the world!  

How to Make Your Own Vanilla  Extract

 Buy sleek, black, dried vanilla beans, preferably from Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  Two will be enough.
 Slice each bean in half from top to bottom so the liquid can reach all parts of the bean and the seeds inside.
 Put inside a clear, large glass bottle (like a fifth, or a wine bottle)—one that pours easily into a smaller bottle for measuring out your vanilla extract.
 Fill the bottle with pure alcohol.  According to Dave, vodka has the “cleanest flavor”; rum has a “spicy sweetness”; and brandy is “smooth.”  Dave and his wife especially love using spiced rum.  
 Let the beans sit in the alcohol for about eight weeks.  (Roughly one bean per six ounces of alcohol.  If you use less bean and more alcohol, it simply takes longer.)
 Once alcohol has turned into a dark, vanilla extract, use in all recipes calling for vanilla extract.  As soon as the bottle is about 1/3 empty, pour in more pure alcohol. 
The two vanilla beans should give you extract for 15-20 years.  Yes, that’s years.  We all asked Dave to clarify several times, and 15-20 years is a conservative estimate.  He has no motive to lie, since the fact could put vanilla-makers out of business.  

Post a picture of your vanilla as a reply here if you make it from scratch.  See you in eight weeks....