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The real story of Australian vanilla

October 26, 2010

When I told you about that vanilla grower I encountered at the Mossman markets in an earlier post and commented that he was ‘apparently the only vanilla grower in Australia”, turns out I was repeating a falsehood. (Why do people do that? Does it make their product more special if they are the ‘only’ one?). Driving along the road up at Cape Tribulation we spotted two more signs for vanilla growers. Hmm. We went into one and had a very interesting and informative chat with the woman there. She tells me that there are four growers that she knows of, and two of them tell everyone that they are the “only growers”. Some things I found really interesting about vanilla growing (from memory of my conversation – apologies if I get some of it wrong):

  • The plant looks like an orchid
  • The flowers open just once, for a period of about 4-5 hours.
  • They must be hand pollinated (only Madagascar has a little bee that pollinates vanilla, everywhere else that it is grown has to use hand pollination). They pollinate it with a toothpick – basically each flower has the male and female bits and they use the toothpick to slide along a part of the flower which causes a flap like bit to lift and the two bits can meet. Sounds painstaking!
  • For as long as the flower remains attached to the end of the bean (picture a zucchini growing with the dried flower bit attached to the end), the bean continues to grow in length. As soon as the flower drops off, the bean stops growing in length and starts fattening out.
  • The beans grow really fast – in just a few days they get quite long.
  • The green beans have no vanilla smell or taste. The grower told me that they taste like buttercups (!). It is not until they are nearly fully dried that they start to get the vanilla smell and taste.
  • The beans are blanched briefly before being dried.
  • This grower dries the beans slowly, wrapped in towels and placed on an old screen door! This apparently gets the beans to dry from the outside in, and keeps the inside squidgy with lots of paste. Commercial (imported) beans that we buy are dried quickly, using a dehydrator or similar – this is why they are often really dry and hard.
  • Up here in far north Queensland they end up storing them wrapped in greaseproof paper, then in a plastic zip lock bag (or cryovacced) and in the fridge. Glass is apparently no good – they sweat and she lost a whole year’s crop one year when she tried it. Ouch. After all that effort!
  • Vanilla is the second most expensive spice (after saffron).

Here are some photos of the plant and the beans at different stages of drying

One week into the drying process – the beans are still fat and moist and just starting to turn black:

Nearly ready:

“Graded” according to length. I bought the medium grade which are medium sized (I thought they felt squishiest – the most amount of paste in them! I also bought some powder that she makes up in a mortar and pestle.)

Contact details for this grower are:

Daintree Mountain View Vanilla Beans
Ph: 07 40989216/ 0429989216

21 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2010 9:28 PM

    How interesting! I was told to wrap the beans individually in clingfilm and then to unwrap them every three months to let them breathe! I hadn’t thought of freezing them. I have quite a lot as a certain person encouraged me to buy a big batch and they are mostly sitting in the garage still. Thanks for the reminder I’d better start using them or give them away!

  2. October 27, 2010 12:43 PM

    That’s so interesting. I’ve never come across Australian vanilla beans…duh. Of course we should be growing it. You really can’t beat a dish with vanilla paste in it….and that would be heart breaking losing your whole years crop.

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      November 4, 2010 10:03 PM

      I think they are only selling directly to customers, local shops and restaurants and local markets. Not enough of it to be a proper industry yet from the sounds of it. But it is getting there…so won’t be long I am sure before we can buy it in shops. Until then feel free to contact them as they assured me they were willing to post them anywhere!

  3. October 29, 2010 8:23 PM

    I wonder if I could get a plant of my own?

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      November 4, 2010 10:01 PM

      It would be tempting to try wouldn’t it? It sounded like those vanilla growers up there were pretty protective of their plants and territory so you might find it hard to source a plant. The other issue will probably be climate – apparently there is just that little area that seems to be ideally suited to growing vanilla. One of the four growers lives just a few kilometers to the south but has his plants up in that Daintree area (rather than further south) and he has apparently been trying to get a decent sized crop established for 27 years! It is an orchid though, and orchids seem to grow in lots of places. The grower I spoke to said they grow theirs in pots, in a mixture of coconut husks/fibre and well rotted chicken manure. I would be interested to hear how you go with growing some if you manage to get your hands on a plant or two.

  4. Sarah - For the Love of Food permalink
    October 31, 2010 3:18 PM

    How fascinating – it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder why they were so expensive but I guess it’s the hand pollination that does it. Must’ve been nice to buy some directly from the grower.

    • Dave permalink
      March 29, 2018 4:56 PM

      Actually its not the pollination that is time consuming its the curing of the green bean into finished Vanilla, that can take over 3 months of daily handling.

  5. November 2, 2010 5:20 AM

    That is interesting, thank you SG! I’ve always been told the opposite – never store vanilla in the freezer, so we’ve just kept our cryovacced. I can understand it might all go mouldy in humid FNQ though!

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      November 4, 2010 9:55 PM

      The vanilla grower said that she has found cryovaccing the beans the best storage method so far as well. I think the fridge part of the equation is to compensate for being in the wet tropics!

    • March 13, 2011 4:59 PM

      Hi Celia have only just seen your post we are the growers referred too and we do not recommend keeping your Vanilla Beans in the freezer we either wrap our beans in grease proof paper and then store in a glad zip lock bag in the refrigerator or we cryovac our beans for longer storage
      Hope this helps you with your storage of Vanilla Beans
      Kind Regards
      Teresa& Russell

  6. November 3, 2010 2:41 PM

    That’s so fascinating! Does each plant only produce one vanilla bean?

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      November 4, 2010 9:53 PM

      No, the plants appear to produce quite a few flowers and beans (assuming you manage to pollinate them). The beans also grow really fast….I think it is just the hand pollination that makes it so labour intensive and therefore expensive.

    • March 13, 2011 5:03 PM

      Most vines can produce up too 70-80 beans

      • spiceandmore permalink*
        March 17, 2011 9:11 AM

        Interesting. Thanks for sharing that with us.

  7. tastetravel permalink
    November 9, 2010 3:41 AM

    Many thanks for info on vanilla beans, we once had the opportunity to see them growing in the jungle in the north of Manado in Indonesia. Just bought back from Paris some Madagascan beans – reputedly best in world, maybe because of natural pollination as you mention. Bought dozens years ago in Bali, super cheap but really dry.I still have them stored in a glass jar and they are same as day I acquired them.

    • spiceandmore permalink*
      November 11, 2010 10:50 AM

      Ooh…lucky you!
      One of the growers I spoke to told me that the vanilla they are growing has the highest vanillin content. But I since discovered that he told me a couple of other porkies so I am not sure I believe that claim now! I am sure the beans from Madagascar would be the loveliest of all!

    • Dave permalink
      March 29, 2018 4:59 PM

      Madagascar has to hand pollinate also, its only Mexico, where vanilla originates, that has the bee to pollinate it.

  8. Christian permalink
    August 18, 2014 10:15 PM

    How far south do vanilla beans grow? Anyone tried NSW?

  9. Russell permalink
    May 20, 2016 8:48 AM

    Hi Guys, sometimes people misunderstand what I say,I have said I was the first to grow and manufacture a vanilla essence and the first to grow commercially.There are other people growing small amounts of vanilla as there has been for nearly a hundred years in australia. Not all vanilla is cured correctly by everyone so you do have to be a little careful . and to spiceandmore ,I was tested to be the highest vanillin content and madagascar beans are good and some say madagascar origin but are grown in PNG. I try to tell the truth but there are always people who don’t like what I’m doing,and put their name on imported product,I
    don’t understand. I’m trying to do the best that I can and so thats all I can do! I love growing Vanilla. Russell @ Vanilla Australia Port Douglas.

  10. Russell permalink
    May 20, 2016 9:10 AM

    Hi spiceandmore , Please tell me what are the porkies i’ve been telling you? there are a lot of things about vanilla and growing and extraction , paste, depolT40 , corn syrup that people will just never know about because most manufacturers won’t and don’t have to tell you . Before you go putting people down maybe you should do some research.wouldn’t it be nice to know what goes into the food that you eat. all vanilla varies in quality. most essences and extracts are chemically extracted these days .

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