Did you know that vanilla is an orchid? That it originated in Mexico? That a select few Maui farmers are starting to propagate this aromatic plant and sell the beans for anywhere from $60 to $320 per pound?
Yes, it's the second most expensive spice in the world, behind saffron.
For all of you green thumbs out there doing the math right now, perhaps thinking you'll see a lot more "green" if you grow vanilla, think again. It's takes a long time to flower and it's super labor-intensive.
Landon, (left) and Duwayne Kerbow of Honopou with their vanilla plants
The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo
But that hasn't stopped a few hardy vanilla growers on Maui from crawling out of the woodwork. Or should I say jungle?
"A neighbor gave us some vanilla plants a couple of years ago and we planted them next to a mango tree and they started to climb, like vines," says Duwayne Kerbow, who lives deep in the jungles of Honopou Valley on the north shore of Maui.
With five strong sons to help him around his farm that he worked part time after his day job, Duwayne thought, "It sure would be nice not to have to leave the ranch."
So he asked his son Landon Kerbow to climb the mango tree and made 100 starts. A year later, they made 1,200 more. The plantings have turned into a fledgling business called Maui Finest Tropical Vanilla.
But the Kerbows, who had a menagerie of animals such as a domesticated pig, ducks and dogs follow us on my recent tour of the taro and vanilla farm, certainly have their work cut out for them.
That's because vanilla's natural pollinator, a particular type of bee, isn't present in Hawaii. So they use thin bamboo skewers to pollinate each flower by hand.
They delicately transfer the ball of pollen from the stamin to the ovary. But there's just a small window of time to do this as the flower opens in the morning at sunrise and then starts to close after noon.
As if that's not enough, the curing process takes months of sunning and aging. You must watch it carefully to know when it's ready, as the secret of vanilla's intoxicating aroma is only in the curing of the bean.
"All of the vanilla in the world started in Mexico," says Duwayne, showing me packets from the main areas. "Madagascar is the largest producer of Bourbon vanilla. But it has nothing to do with Kentucky liquor. It's just grown in the Madagascar islands. Indonesia and Tahiti are big growers. Tonga and India grow it. Yet it's best grown on the 21-degree parallel above or below the equator."
The first time I saw vanilla being grown was on Sulawesi, formerly called Celebes, or the "spice islands," in Indonesia.
After a tortuous 10-hour bus ride over the "Swiss Alps" of Indonesia, from Ujung Pandang to Tanah Toraja, we were enveloped in aromas of vanilla, cloves and nutmeg drying on mats in the sun and were wide-eyed at cacao hanging from trees.
The natives made us chocolate croissants and gave us cocoa and vanilla crispie puffs from rice they grew in the paddies. We were in spice heaven. I never thought in my wildest dreams it would be a reality here.
"I live just down the street from Duwayne and unbeknownst to each other, we both started growing vanilla," says farmer Mike Appleby. "Duwayne has the potential to make something really big happen."
Right now, Duwayne wholesales to Mana Foods and other store, does online business with beans and extracts, and puts vanilla beans into Honopou Jungle Honey. But his website is currently being updated, so it's down. Chefs may call 280-9649.
"The Maui Orchid Society held its monthly meeting recently and President Bert Akitake, M.D., gave a power-point presentation to about 100 members on vanilla orchid propagation and hand-pollination techniques," says member Becky Speere of MOC.
"We were also treated to a demonstration on the use of vanilla beans, how to infuse your own vanilla extract, and the night ended with a yummy Cuban vanilla flan tasting and vanilla orchid plant giveaway.
"If you have any questions on growing vanilla orchids or would like to purchase some vanilla orchid plants, come check out the next MOS meeting at Wailuku Community Center on the third Tuesday in April."
Another company, Maui Preserved, serves as a purveyor, using an Upcountry vanilla-bean farmer. "We sell the vanilla beans wholesale and in bottles," say owners Anthony LaBua and Maleta Van Loan. "Since Maui-grown vanilla is a product of the USA, it does not have to go through customs or an irradiation process. It is available to the consumer in a timely manner, plump and full of flavor."
"There are also a few people in Huelo who grow vanilla for wholesale. Andy Stoneman in Huelo has been raising the pods for the last 10 years, perfecting his fermentation techniques," says Speere.
Luluk and Mike Rich of Haiku are also in the vanilla biz.
"I've tried growing the plant and I think this time I may be successful!" Speere continues. "I think it's exciting that one day soon we'll see a huge Maui vanilla cooperative business develop out of this backyard hobby. Remember to buy local whenever you can!"