It took a few years and some strategy to get to the first and most successful vanilla farm in the U.S. but I recently made it. Nestled in the verdant jungles of the Hamakua Coast on the Big Island of Hawaii where King Kamehameha once walked, this pioneer farm is an inspirational story of a dream made true. Of course there was lots of hard work and ingenuity to make this dream come true, but that’s what makes it such a groovy story. As we drove up the curvy jungle road to the farm, my tummy growled, I had been looking forward to this for a long time.
The “Hawaiian Vanilla Company” as it is called, serves a delicious “vanilla” luncheon with vanilla in every dish and drink and then an informational (and very entertaining) tour of the orchid farm itself. Jim Reddekopp, co-owner and “head bean” as he calls himself, seats everyone himself and brings them vanilla lemonade or tea, beaming with pride. His children (called the little beans) weave around the tables, helping out and bringing a homey feel to the function. As we dig into the delicious food, their story begins to unfold.
Jim and his wife Tracy Reddekopp hatched this concept during dinner, one fateful night. They had just purchased 10 acres on the big island to raise their 5 children and something else, but that something else hadn’t been made clear yet. Tracy’s mother, an orchid enthusiast, suggested they start a vanilla farm. After all it is the perfect warm climate for the humid loving vanilla orchid. Jim looked bemused as he shared with us. “Something about that idea just clicked in my brain. Little did I know what I was getting into.”
How lovely is that, to raise kids and vanilla orchids on the same land? A dreamy idea alright, but the doing part, not so dreamy. Vanilla is a mysterious finicky creature which was born in the jungles of Mexico and is the second most expensive spice (just under saffron) in the world. It is expensive because it is difficult to grow and pollinate. The flowers only open for a few hours and if you do not hand pollinate it in that time, you’re out of luck till it blooms again next year.
“Someday I’m going to write a book about growing vanilla” Jim Reddekopp told me as we toured his vanilla farm with a full vanilla filled tummy, “and it could be called, ‘Vanilla, the book of failures.’ I mean we had to start from scratch. When Tracy and I bought this land back in 1998, you couldn’t just google, ‘how to raise vanilla’ you had to figure it out.”
“I finally found one old Japanese guy, here on big island that had been researching and growing vanilla beans for over 25 years.” He smiled, amused, as he continued, “Mr Kadooka was my real-life Mr. Miyagi,” (the martial arts mentor in the Karate Kid movies) “He was my like my vanilla sensei and he would make me set there for HOURS until he gave me one nugget on how to grow vanilla.” Jim finished “What he was ultimately teaching me was patience and that is most important in growing vanilla and children.”
Back up at the bright yellow “Vanillary” which was an abandoned slaughter house they transformed into a light filled restaurant and store, Jim explained to us some of the culinary principals of vanilla. “The flavor of vanilla is lost in our mouth unless it is carried by a courier that delivers it to our taste buds. The three couriers are acid, (like citrus) fat (like cream and butter) and alcohol. Alcohol tears down the cell structure of the bean pod and seeds and takes the flavor from it all and makes extract.”
Jim went on, “Now to make your own vanilla extract is very easy, except you need patience. The way to make your own bottle of never ending vanilla extract is to take a 12 oz bottle and split your vanilla beans down the center, put them into the bottle and add your favorite alcohol.” (I use a leftover bottle like a salad dressing bottle)
He continued, “First time in doing it, we recommend you use vodka, as it is truly lets the flavor of the bean shine, but you can use whatever alcohol you like.” (I have used them all and I prefer good ole cheap whiskey. It makes the best vanilla extract hands down! And I don’t even like whiskey, so go figure.) Jim looked at us here and smiled wryly, “Here is where you need your patience, if you add one bean to the bottle it will take you and year and a half to get a good extract, 3 beans takes 6 months and 6 beans take 3 months, wait till you get that nice amber color.”
“Now this is your mother bottle, you never want to use it directly in cooking” he said shaking a bottle of vanilla extract at us, ”You take it out of the cupboard, fill another 3 oz bottle with 1/3 of the extract which you will use, then refill your mother bottle with the same alcohol and put back in the cupboard and put the date of the refill on it. The average baker goes through about 4 oz a year, and at this rate, if you use 3 vanilla beans, your mother bottle could last 12 or more years.”
This is such a better way of having vanilla extract! Not only is it cheaper but the store bought ones can have questionable ingredients, like “vanillin”. Vanillin which is the compound most present in vanilla pods, was created since real vanilla is so expensive. At first it was made innocently enough from wood, then modern science got ahold of it and now it is made from waste produced by the paper making industry. It is toxic and doesn’t contain the 249 other compounds in vanilla that form its complex flavor.
Jim finished up with us by saying, “When you make your vanilla extract, you are choosing to make an ingredient that you and your family will treasure and you are also supporting a small business with a big dream. Remember,” and he pointed to a sign hung in the window, “Dreams come a size too big so we can grow into them.” You can have this dream without all the hard work and patience by just making your own vanilla extract. Vanilla pods and lots of amazing vanilla products can be bought at Hawaiian Vanilla’s website . And hopefully someday you can make the pilgrimage out to visit this amazing place too.