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Sunday December 4, 2011

Precious pods

Vanilla has been holding court over the world’s palate for centuries.

ANY fancy notion I may have harboured about a vanilla farm vapourised the moment I set foot on one.

For starters, there was not even a whiff of the world’s favourite ice-cream flavour. All I can smell was the smouldering paper egg-tray that was kept alight at our feet to keep off a swarm of winged insects, hungry mosquitoes included.

I had half-expected wondrous strings of vanilla pods hanging from branches, ripe for the plucking. But all I can see are strands of vines entwined around tree trunks. And these vines were not even particularly pretty.

To extract the vanilla ‘caviar’, slice the pod with a small, pointed knife and scrape its contents using the knife.

Parts of the farm are virtually off-limits, unless you don’t mind wading in knee-deep undergrowth. The plant that bears the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) is not picky at all, preferring growth of all sorts all around it.

“The wilder, the better!” exclaims K.K. Yong, who owns the farm, Vanilla KK Plantation, in Jerantut, Pahang. Gesturing to the tangle of weeds, he says that just about anything is allowed to grow unfettered. From time to time, he will rip these from the ground and squash them into the vanilla pots by the trees. “They act as a natural fertiliser when they decompose.”

Thick undergrowth is also ideal because the extra foliage keeps the environment cool. “Vanilla grows well in cool, shady environments. The more humid and moist, the better,” says Yong, adding that one of the best places to cultivate vanilla is on a semi-wild hillside.

If semi-wilderness is what vanilla needs, Yong has been pretty good at recreating it. Walking around the half acre (0.2ha) nursery, we cross paths with toads that are about the size of an adult’s palm. These olive green creatures with mottled skins hop brazenly in our paths and, from a corner or behind a plant, keep a watchful eye on the giant human trespassers.

“They come here for the food,” says Yong. And indeed, they must have; mosquitoes are so bountiful that the toads only need to stick out their tongues to get a good dinner.

But Yong is not concerned in any way. “On the contrary, I’ll be worried if there are no mosquitoes. A big mosquito population means you’re doing something right – the environment is damp enough.”

Water sprinklers go off twice a day for an hour to provide the vanilla plants with enough water to keep them happy and healthy. These sprinklers, over 20 in total, were installed at a cost of close to RM30,000.

Can the vanilla plant be watered to death?

“No,” says Yong, stressing that the plants need a damp environment to thrive. “Only vine cuttings should be watered with care. Spray it with some water from time to time. That will suffice.”

Vanilla is among the most popular ice cream flavours in the world.

A cutting is a part of the parent plant that has been cut off and left in a bag of soil to take root.

Yong’s enthusiasm is admirable, considering that none of his vines have flowered since he started the farm in 2009. This means he has not seen a single vanilla pod on his farm and all his efforts and investment of RM200,000 have yet to bear fruit.

Money plant

The vanilla belongs to the orchid family and blooms only once a year. The green pods which resemble fleshy French beans hanging from the plant, are much sought after. Cured, they become the fragrant and leathery black, shrivelled pods from which vanilla seeds (tiny black dots that are sometimes called “caviar”) are extracted.

Although it is a commodity that is beset by volatile pricing, these black pods can fetch US$15 to US$250 (RM48 to RM795) a kilo, depending on the country of origin and grade. In Malaysia, most of the vines planted here are the Vanilla planifolia variety, which sells for up to US$60 (RM190) a kg.

A kilo is made of about 300 vanilla pods. A single plant can bear about 6kg–8kg of pods at a time. This means that if you have 100 vanilla vines in a small nursery, you can earn as much as RM152,000 year. Sounds great, right? Except that biology dictates that the flowers from the vanilla orchids have to be pollinated first before they bear pods. And sometimes the flowers never appear.

In the book Vanilla: Travels In Search Of The Ice Cream Orchid author Tim Ecott describes the anguish that 19th century planters of Réunion (a French island in the Indian Ocean) expressed at the sterility of the plants: “They became resigned to the idea that outside its native Mexico, vanilla would never bear fruit except by chance”. One farmer laments: “Of a hundred vanilla vines on our island, we would be lucky to see 10 flowers, and even fewer fruits, in a whole year.”

The main issue was pollination. In Mexico, the vanilla’s country of origin, the plant is pollinated in the wild by a type of native bee, the Euglossa viridissima. There are also two other bees that are believed to be pollinators.

Although vanilla grew in suitable environments outside Mexico, it remained as useful as a blade of grass without any pollination agents.

Vanilla grows from vine cuttings like these that vanilla planter K.K. Yong sells at RM14 each;

However, the eureka moment came in 1841 when a planter’s slave named Edmond Albius made a momentous discovery: there was a way to efficiently hand-pollinate the flowers using a small pointed stick. From then on, vanilla plantations became viable and till today, the same method is being used everywhere.

Still, just because it is possible doesn’t mean it is easy. Upon planting the vines, it takes up to three years for its pale yellow and green flowers to appear. And these flowers only appear once a year, over a period of two months.

It remains open from morning till noon and must be pollinated within the day. Woe befalls the farmer who misses that tight window of opportunity because the flowers will shed the following day. This process of hand-pollination is what makes vanilla one of the most labour intensive crops in the world, hence the hefty price tag.

And even after it has been successfully pollinated, there is still a waiting period of nine months before the green vanilla pods are ready to be plucked and cured.

Ripe for Malaysia?

In 1516, Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés was introduced to the heady spice, mixed with liquid chocolate, in the courts of the Aztec king, Montezuma. When it was brought back to European shores, the Spanish named it vainilla (little pod), after the Latin word “vagina”, which means “sword-sheath”.

From then on, the aromatic, sensuous spice began to hold court over the world’s palate and eventually become one of the most-used flavours.

Driven by this hungry demand, many plantations in a number of tropical countries are zealously churning out these black pods. Madagascar is a notable producer, as are our regional neighbours, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Based on these examples, coupled with the fact that vanilla grows best in a hot, humid climate with moderate rainfall, it is fair to believe that Malaysia can become a vanilla producer, too.

As it is a climbing vine that needs support, it is planted at the base of a tree trunk.

Using the same rationale, a company (incorporated in 2004) named Rentak Timur Sdn Bhd began introducing the crop to Malaysian farmers. They ran a contract farming scheme that guarantees returns for participating parties.

But this company is understood to have ceased operations two to three years ago. While its website is still up, its phone lines have been disconnected and farmers who took part in the scheme were not compensated as promised. Sources in the industry say that the venture was rife with issues.

Says a source: “It is not so much a crop failure as it is a problem with the management of the company. Farmers who bought into the scheme did not receive technical assistance as promised. For example, they (Rentak Timur) said they would help pollinate the plants but phone calls went unanswered; the flowers simply wilted the next day!”

Bitten badly, many farmers now shy away from vanilla altogether.

Still, there are some who persist like K.K. Yong whose crops are one generation removed from the ones sold by Rentak Timur. “The market and price for vanilla is excellent. With so many people quitting the business, there’s a chance that I can be a major player if my plants start bearing pods!” says an optimistic Yong.

To ensure that he is ready when the flowers finally appear, Yong has made a couple of trips to Bali in Indonesia, to learn how to hand-pollinate the plants. At present, Yong says there is minimal work required on the farm. “I walk around for a quick inspection and fertilise, trim, and plant new vine cuttings when necessary.”

Yong is not one to sit idle while waiting for his vines to flower, though. As part of his efforts to promote vanilla to the local market, he is reselling vanilla pods that he imports from Indonesia. His company is also producing vanilla coffee, available in 3-in-1 satchets. “We need to show people that vanilla can be used in many ways,” explains Yong.

Vanilla in sambal!

Given the sweet aroma of vanilla, it is most often used in pastries and cakes as opposed to savoury dishes. My query on whether anyone has tried using vanilla in a curry was met with raucous laughter. I guess that means “no”.

The vine cutting is tied to the trunk with a raffia string for further support, though the string will be removed when the plants are tightly entwined around the tree.

The market in Malaysia is, in a way, limited to bakers, connoisseurs and gourmands who appreciate the full flavour of real vanilla. Still, even if a producer fails to find local consumers, it is not hard to find international buyers.

Take the case of 36-year-old Helwa Juffri who started selling vanilla via an online portal ( seven years ago. Reselling vanilla from Papua New Guinea, she counts Americans, Italians and Norwegians as among her customers.

Why would people buy vanilla from a Malaysian website? And at such prices! Her vanilla pods start at RM290 for 500g. In comparison with other premium vanilla that retails for about RM220 a kg, her price is more than double. Why are her buyers paying so much more?

The mother of three explains: “It is difficult to source for good vanilla. I’m selling organically grown, single-source vanilla, which is prized for its consistency in characteristics (taste, moisture content and length) and, of course, snob value.”

This consistency, says Helwa, may be absent from some vanilla sold in the market: “They come from many different farms but are sent to a single curing house, from which they are packaged and sold.”

Although Helwa concedes that vanilla’s main uses are for pastries and such, she says it can be used to prepare savoury dishes, too, and is a great replacement for MSG.

“Using vanilla salt (vanilla-flavoured salt) for cooking makes the flavours rounder,” Helwa enthuses. “When I use it to make sambal, the chilli tastes more piquant and sharper.”

At Butter Tree, a newly opened bakery in Ara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, vanilla plays a huge role in one of their bestsellers – the vanilla mille crepe cake.

Pastry chef Sean Wong, 34, says that the fragrant vanilla flavour comes from the Grade A vanilla beans that they buy from a cake supplies shop in Taman Megah, Petaling Jaya, for RM210 per kg.

Yong is optimistic that his vanilla vines will flower someday and he is still tending the fleshy stalks daily.

Wong points out that the vanilla flavour is derived from three sources: pods, extract and essence. “Vanilla from the pods taste the most pure and original. Extracts can taste ‘heavier’ while the essence (which is just artificial flavouring) can taste fake.”

To make custard with vanilla, Wong boils the vanilla seeds with milk so that the taste will surface. He uses one vanilla pod to make a 5kg bowl of custard. “This amount of custard can be used in about eight to nine cakes,” says Wong.

However, he cautions against using too much vanilla as it may taste bitter.

Butter Tree demi chef Melanie Chong, 24, says that using vanilla-flavoured sugar is an easy way to add undernotes to coffee and other drinks. “It can be put into just about any pastry; apart from blending well with other ingredients, it also brings out other flavours.”

Chong enjoys making home-made ice-cream with vanilla. Only real vanilla will do, she says, because the essence and extract will make the mixture too watery. This will cause ice crystals to form when it is frozen and the ice-cream will lose its smooth and creamy texture.

If you would like to introduce vanilla into your culinary creations, do not be duped into paying more for low-grade vanilla. Here’s a quick way to check vanilla’s quality: If the skin is smooth and almost oily, it’s good grade. Twirl it around your fingers. If it breaks, that means it is dry and brittle – an indication of low quality.

And watch out for any white, powdery sheen on the vanilla as it means that it has become mouldy.