As a decidedly amateur grower of exotic and impractical food crops, I almost choked on my toast yesterday morning when I read about the big food news out of Tauranga – that a New Zealand company had achieved the impossible- growing and harvesting a vanilla crop outside of the tropics. This was enough to make a die-hard food-ophile and plant geek tear-up just a little. Well, nearly.
The Reunion Food Company, a New Zealand owned but mostly Kingdom of Tonga based vanilla producer (retailing as as Heilala Vanilla) has been operating an experimental greenhouse facility on the outskirts of Tauranga for around 5 years now and I have been quietly watching (yes, I’m a shameless food stalker) with high hopes and great interest. While modest in volume (at around 2 kilograms) this very first crop of 100% New Zealand grown vanilla is, according to Reunions’ Jennifer Boggiss showing distinctive flavour and aroma notes which set it apart from the company’s already highly regarded Tongan product, another example perhaps of the many nuances of terroir. The Tauranga crop is too small for general retail sales, but will be distrubted to selected local chefs in early 2010.
For those of you who don’t know (or missed Michal’s excellent article of a few months back), Vanilla is produced from the partially fermented and dried seed pods of a variety of tropical orchid- Vanilla planifolia. In its’ raw form, the vanilla pod is plump, emerald-green and completely lacking in the classic vanilla flavour or fragrance. Outside of its natural range (parts of Central America), where vanilla specific pollinator moths exist, all vanilla flowers must be hand pollinated (at night), then when the pods have formed hand-picked and carefully and very laboriously processed into the product we know as vanilla. The entire process takes many months.
At this stage , with a modest 300 plants it is likely that Reunions’ Tauranga operation will remain a research facility, benefiting the main Kingdom of Tonga plantations. However, scale is irrelevant here, this a massive achievement for both the Reunion Food Company and New Zealands’ standing as a world leader in horticultural practise and innovation. Truly something to be proud of.
I can personally recommend Heilala Vanilla products for both quality and value for money, further more the company – initially established as part of an aid programme for the impoverished Vava’u Island region- has helped to substantially improve the standard of living for the local community. What’s not to like about these guys?
To go into the draw to win a prize-pack of fabulous Heilala vanilla post your favourite ways with Vanilla below!