Sourcing Vanilla: A Trip Report Part 1
Food has the ability to tie people together no matter their race, culture, politics, religion, or other propensities. Food is the life-giving sustenance that ties us together.
What we eat speaks not only to who we are as people but even to how we value life itself. It takes just a few minutes more to make a good meal rather than a bad one. But those minutes are telling. Do we eat instant macaroni and cheese out of expediency? To simply carry us to the next meal? Or do we slow down and create a meal that we relish through sight, smell, and taste? Are we willing to spend an entire day creating a culinary masterpiece that will be remembered? The universality of food to speak to us ties people together across boundaries of all kinds.
As much as we can, we try to source all our ingredients directly from the farmer and producer. We value the relationships we develop as we acquire our ingredients. Good working relationships and lifelong friendships develop. Through our pursuit to create the perfect chocolate, we meet those in other areas who also are striving to be the very best.
One of the more minor ingredients used in the making of chocolate is vanilla, used in very small amounts to round out and enhance the naturally occurring flavors in chocolate much in the same way salt is used to enhance the flavors found in a perfectly cooked filet mignon. Its use in chocolate traces way back to at least the time of the ancient Maya.
Most manufacturers of chocolate use vanillin (not to be confused with vanilla ), an artificial flavoring known to some as 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde. It used to be created from wood pulp but today is made from Guaiacum trees or wood creosote. It is the chemical basis for the vanilla flavor found in vanilla beans. It does not have nearly the flavor complexity of natural vanilla but it is inexpensive, and that is why virtually every major manufacturer of chocolate uses vanillin instead of natural vanilla. When artificial vanilla is used, its selection has historically been based on price — after all, vanilla is one of the world’s most expensive spices — second only to saffron.
Olmec Head in Villahermosa, Mexico.
In the world of vanilla, one place is spoken of in hushed reverence: Tahiti. Tahiti is the source of some of the world’s finest vanilla and some of the world’s most expensive. It is also the source of the vanilla we use for much of our chocolate. In keeping with our goal to work directly with the growers, I packed up my things and booked a flight on Air Tahiti Nui. I spent time with each of my children, gave my wife a hug goodbye, and caught an afternoon commuter shuttle from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. My flight was to leave from Los Angeles at 11:30 p.m.
The flight from Salt Lake City to LA was uneventful, and I was able to catch up on some reading. I was right in the middle of a thousand-page book and my reading list was getting longer and longer as I moved through it. When the flight was over and we were just beginning to depart from the plane, a girl in the row behind me asked about my trip to Tahiti. I was shocked. How did she know? I didn’t remember saying anything to the people in my row — we had each read through the trip. As it turns out, she heard me when I checked in and was the wife of the son of the founder of the Miranda corporation. She was traveling with her husband and his family (sisters, etc.) to Bora Bora, where his family was from, for a family reunion. As luck would have it, we were all booked for the same Air Tahiti flight.
As a side note, Miranda is a multi-level sales company that popularized the sale of Tahitian Noni as a health-food drink. Today, noni is grown throughout the tropics, but it started in Tahiti, and as far as much of the world is concerned, it started with Miranda, who holds exclusive export rights to Noni from Tahiti. As we made our way to the other terminal. l was able to get the “inside scoop” on the Tahitian Noni story, something I had wondered about for some time.
The flight from Los Angeles was excellent. The chocolate business requires a lot of travel all over the world, and I have flown many airlines. Air Tahiti Nui is perhaps the most polished airline I have flown. The flight attendants were very polite and the attention to detail was outstanding — even for those of us in coach. We arrived in Papeete at around 4:00 a.m. Papeete is the main airport in Tahiti, and from there you can catch flights to the surrounding islands.
My flight from Papeete to the island of Raiatea left at around 6:30 a.m. — just before sunrise. Raiatea is the island where most of Tahiti’s vanilla is produced. There are many growers on the island of Tahaa. But in the end, most of the vanilla from Tahaa comes to Raiatea for curing and export. As we taxied down the runway, the sky started to lighten, and a mountain range could be seen in the distance. Upon takeoff, however, I found that the mountains were part of another island in the distance. As we reached cruising altitude, the morning sun lit up the clouds as if they were on fire.
As we flew past Bora Bora, I could not help but think that not too many decades ago, these same skies were full of Japanese Zeros as they fought the Americans for these specks of dust in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean. As we approached Raiatea, you could see the waves breaking upon the reaches of the outer reef and the almost fluorescent bright-blue inner reef. The plane dropped and dropped as I watched the island, and soon we were just over the water, even though the island was still a mile or two distant. Then without warning, we were on the runway, the wind buffeting the wings as we slowed. I quickly realized that the island that I and others on the plane were watching was Tahaa, the sister island to Raiatea.
Flying in the morning light over the outer reef that surrounds Tahaa
My host soon greeted me at the airport. She hung around my neck a beautiful flower lei she herself had strung from flowers from her yard. The intoxicating smell reminded me of plumaria found so frequently in Hawai’i. We drove to her house along the winding coastal road. The road was lined with multicolored croatin and bulganvilia, and flowers everywhere created an incredible rainbow of colors. We arrived at her house, which is right on the shoreline of a small bay no more than 20 feet from the water. We unloaded my gear and set off for a quick tour of the island.
Raiatea is very small. You can drive around it in as little as two hours and twenty minutes. There are two roads: one circles one-half of the island and the other the other half, in a figure eight fashion.
One of the most important stops was at the Marae Taputapuatea, one of the most sacred sites in all of Polynesia. Polynesians from all over the South Pacific and neighboring countries (such as Argentina) visit and leave stone carvings, flowers, and other offerings. They say you can come to Raiatea but you have never actually arrived until you visit the Marae on the east side of the island. It should be noted that historically, it was once used for human sacrifice. When professors from the University of Hawai’i did an archeological study of the area, they found human bone fragments, which testified to the area’s grisly history. I could not help but be grateful that today, I could simply visit such a site without becoming part of it.
One of the largest names in the Tahitian vanilla industry is that of Jean Chan. Jean’s grandfather, who left China to look for work in Australia. From there, he moved to Tahiti and started a small grocery store in Uturoa, the main town of Raiatea. He called for her father and mother to move from China to work in his store. From the age of three years, Jean worked in the store with her parents. She helped her mother pick the stems off of the beans and then sorted and graded them. Her grandfather and father taught her the ins and outs of the vanilla business so that when the day came for her to take over, she would have valuable skills that would carry her throughout her life.
Today, the store her grandfather had once started no longer carries the wide variety of groceries and other household items but now sells vanilla exclusively, and Jean Chan has built within the vanilla industry a name like no other. She has become a powerhouse in the vanilla industry and is well known as one of the best vanilla curers throughout the islands. A large percentage of the vanilla throughout the Tahitian islands comes to her small, unobtrusive store in Uturoa for curing.
Jean Chan’s store is one of the oldest in all of Uturoa and perhaps the most unobtrusive. I watched many tourists walk by her little store totally unaware that this store is legend throughout the vanilla industry. Her store has escaped unscathed from the recent renovations up and down the waterfront that have torn down the old buildings and replaced them with new ones. The store has no windows, and when it is open, so is her door, allowing the smell of vanilla to waft through the air. The intoxicating smell invites traders of vanilla and tourists alike to step into her hallowed chamber.
This small and unobtrusive store is one of the powerhouses in the world of quality vanilla.
When I met Jean Chan, I was impressed by her soft and gentle demeanor. Now quite elderly, she speaks with a very soft and kind voice. Her English is quite good, though she hides it and prefers that visitors use a translator, if one is available. We sat around the table in her store as she talked about her family and childhood, and what it was like to grow up around vanilla.