Ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, coffee, cakes, and shakes – these are all places where you expect to find vanilla beans or vanilla flavor. But what about lemonade, BBQ sauce, chutney, cornbread, maple syrup, jelly, or salad dressing? And would you expect to find a vanilla farm (the first & only commercial vanilla operation in the US) in Hawaii?
The Big Island continues to surprise me and today the surprising secret ingredient is….”Vanilla!”
Big Island Vanilla Farm
Today is my day to learn all about one of my favorite flavors in the world, vanilla. I don’t think that I’ve ever met someone who doesn’t like the taste of vanilla; it invokes thoughts of comfort food, warmth, sweets, and pure flavor. The simple thought of vanilla makes me salivate in hunger which is a good thing because I’m at the right place for lunch – the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.
I park the car next to the cheery yellow house with white trim. It’s shaded by big trees and trimmed in flowers. It looks picture perfect as I walk up the stairs to go inside for my lunch reservation. As I pull open the screen door with a creak and walk inside the smell hits me – vanilla. I stop and take a big deep breath in, close my eyes and a little grin creeps onto my face as my stomach rumbles.
Other couples are milling around and soon we are all called into the dining area in the back where a waiter asks me if I’d like vanilla ice tea or vanilla lemonade. A vision of Willy Wonka passes through my head and I think if Willy had a vanilla room, he would have vanilla lemonade – I’m sure of it. I order the vanilla lemonade and settle into my table for one, ready to eat and be educated for the next 2 hours.
Jim Reddekopp, the owner of the family run farm, introduces himself and starts to tell the story of how he and his wife started growing vanilla. The first thing I learn which surprises me is that vanilla is an orchid and it’s the only orchid that has a flavor associated with it.
I love hearing the story of an entrepreneurial dream. Jim grew up in Oahu and married Tracy and they have 5 kids. This is a family operation for sure; the kids are involved in all areas of the business from working in the kitchen to working in the Orchid houses. Plus, vanilla was not something that Jim or Tracy knew anything about originally, instead they came up with the idea since the Hawaiian climate was right for raising vanilla orchids and they built their knowledge and business from the ground up.
Hawaii Vanilla Lunch
As Jim talks about the science behind raising vanilla orchids and making extract, he simultaneously fries a skillet full of shrimp in butter served with vanilla mango chutney. He says, “Everything here is fattening. It’s the way food is supposed to taste!” As he places the vanilla shrimp appetizer on my table I can’t help but feel his enthusiasm about food. He exudes joy for bringing the farm to table movement to Hawaii and clearly is a leader and innovator on the Big Island. I think to myself, this is what passion is. When you can find your passion, everything falls into place. My first bite of shrimp with vanilla chutney is full of flavor; a fabulous start to my Vanilla Experience lunch.
Jim continues to explain to us how to make vanilla extract with a variety of different liquors, which is surprisingly simple once you have a good vanilla bean. He also gives us a demonstration of how to remove the seeds from a vanilla bean. The waiters bring out our main course consisting of bourbon citrus marinated chicken breast on a vanilla sweet bread roll with vanilla caramelized onions and organic greens. It is served with a salad with dusted vanilla pecans, feta, and a vanilla raspberry balsamic dressing. Vegetables also get the vanilla treatment; we have Okinawa potatoes with a vanilla southwest rub served with vanilla BBQ sauce.
The vanilla flavors are subtle and not overpowering, and I consider licking my plate. Would anyone notice? I think that Jim would probably give me a standing ovation if he saw me do it!
After all of the new, creative vanilla dishes that I try, it is time for a well known favorite – vanilla bean ice cream.
This. Is. Heaven.
Vanilla Farm Tour
All of us are now fat and happy and full of vanilla, but there is no rest, we have more to learn and see. Doug, one of the managers, takes over the tour and has us get up and walk around a bit, which I’m quite thankful about.
Doug explains how the orchids are grown and most importantly pollinated. He walks us down to the shade houses on the farm and points out various plants along the way. From Doug I learn about the rich and proud farming community on this part of the Big Island. As I listen to Doug talk about the surrounding ranches and people doing amazing things on the Big Island I wonder if it’s possible for me to love this island any more?
The shade houses are the home to many new baby orchid plants. Doug explains that a baby orchid takes 4 years to flower; patience is a necessary trait for vanilla farming. Plus, farming vanilla is incredibly labor intensive, the vanilla orchids are pollinated one by one by hand. This explains why vanilla is so expensive.
The tour comes to an end back at the yellow house in the gift shop where you can purchase your beans and various products to take home and try your own vanilla recipes. The last piece of advice that Jim leaves us with, “Anyone who thinks that vanilla is ‘just plain vanilla’ hasn’t tasted pure vanilla. It’s divine.”
I can’t agree more. Now it’s time to make my way to the beach for a big vanilla coma nap.
• The food was phenomenal, and service was great.
• The 2 ½ hours was very educational and took you through the whole process of vanilla production.
• I walked away with knowledge on how to make my own extract!
• I loved the fact that Jim, the owner, was involved with the luncheon. His enthusiasm and love for vanilla and the Big Island was infectious.
• I liked the fact that the group was a manageable size. There were place settings for about 15 people so it was intimate and easy to see and hear while on the tour.
The Could Be Better:
• It would be nice to get some of the recipes from the luncheon or to have some of them available on the website so that we could recreate the dishes we ate.
Would I Recommend It:
Yes! I highly recommended a stop at the Hawaii Vanilla Company as a great afternoon to get out and see another part of the island. My lunch was a true farm to table experience; I not only ate an amazing meal with the key ingredient grown down the road, but I was educated and entertained throughout the whole process. If you are visiting the sites of Waipio Valley or Akaka Falls, then this is a great stop to make, even if it’s just to come to the gift shop or for one of their Afternoon Tea tastings. I felt like the price ($39 for lunch, drinks, tour) was very reasonable in comparison to eating on other parts of the island.
Hawaiian Vanilla Company Website: www.HawaiianVanilla.com
Information on the Vanilla Experience Luncheon (Reservations are required!)
Hawaiian Vanilla Company Inc.
P.O. Box 383
43-2007 Paauilo Mauka Road
Paauilo, Hawaii 96776
Phone (808) 776-1771
Fax (808) 776-1661
Toll Free (877) 771-1771
Disclosure: The Hawaiian Vanilla Company hosted my Vanilla Experience Luncheon and Tour. However, all of the opinions expressed here are my own – as you know how I love to speak my mind!