The real story of Australian vanilla
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
“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