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Pompona Vanilla from Peru

A cou­ple of months ago, I received an email from a a fel­low vanil­la grow­er in Peru named Ashley Britton. We have been exchang­ing knowl­edge and expe­ri­ences since then, and it has expand­ed my think­ing about what vanil­la is and how it can be grown.

Ashley is grow­ing vanil­la in the moun­tain­ous rain for­est region of San Martín in Northern Peru. In that area, the vanil­la orchid that is found grow­ing wild is vanil­la pom­pona, a species of vanil­la that ranges from south­ern Mexico through north­ern South America. That rep­re­sents rough­ly the same range as vanil­la plan­i­fo­lia, the main species for agri­cul­ture, which we grow here on Kauai. San Martín is known for its orchids, and they are fea­tured in the tourism of the area as well as pro­vid­ing a local agri­cul­tur­al prod­uct.

Pompona vanil­la was the first vanil­la to be record­ed by west­ern­ers and export­ed as a fla­vor­ing. It was grown com­mer­cial­ly, but was even­tu­al­ly sup­plant­ed with vanil­la plan­i­fo­lia because the lat­ter got bet­ter yields in a plan­ta­tion set­ting. Pompona vanil­la remains a wide­ly used fla­vor­ing in the regions where it grows nat­u­ral­ly: Peru and parts of south­ern Mexico. These days, it is almost com­plete­ly unknown out­side of these areas.

Helping the Awajún

Ashley is explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that pom­pona vanil­la could be a good cash crop for the indige­nous Awajún peo­ple, who live in the region. They had been bring­ing in cur­ren­cy with cacao, but they recent­ly suf­fered a set­back with this crop due to their cacao get­ting reject­ed for too high a cad­mi­um con­tent (the cad­mi­um is present in trace amounts in the soil, and cacao tends to con­cen­trate it in its seeds).

Pompona vanil­la can be wild­craft­ed, and so it presents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to engage in a sus­tain­able form of low-impact agri­cul­ture. Even cul­ti­vat­ed vanil­la tends to take up lit­tle space, tol­er­ant of shade (so you don’t have to cut down lots of trees to plant it), and does not deplete soil fer­til­i­ty.

There are sev­er­al obsta­cles to devel­op­ing pom­pona vanil­la as a agri­cul­tur­al export, but I think the first step will be in intro­duc­ing its dis­tinc­tive fla­vor and aro­ma to the bou­tique vanil­la mar­ket. Once that hap­pens, an appre­ci­a­tion of it will cre­ate a demand.

There is also the pos­si­bil­i­ty of exploit­ing the use of pure vanillin crys­tals, of which pom­pona is a good source, for use in per­fumery and med­i­c­i­nal prod­ucts.

Ashley has set up a Kickstarter for the Vanilla Pompona Project, it is about to expire, but on that page you can get a good idea of what he is plan­ning there. There is also the Vanilla Pompona web­site with more pic­tures and info, and even­tu­al­ly online sales.

The beans are huge and meaty

What is Pompona Vanilla Like?

I received my pack­age of pom­pona vanil­la yes­ter­day, and it is tru­ly amaz­ing. When I opened the pack­age, the beans were unex­pect­ed­ly large and fat. Each one weighs about 15 grams: com­pare that to our own beans at about 5 grams each! They have the famil­iar shiny, black (very dark brown) wrinkly sur­face, and have the same dried-fruit sup­ple­ness of a well-cured vanil­la bean.

The fra­grance is cer­tain­ly like vanil­la, but it has its own char­ac­ter­is­tics: smoky, sweet notes along with the famil­iar mel­low­ing fra­grance that makes vanil­la spe­cial. I will have more to report on this lat­er, I plan to make an extract and try the beans in my own cook­ing to see what it’s like in that con­text.

I am offer­ing pom­pona vanil­la for sale in my online shop, so you’ll have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to try it for your­self. It seems like it could be the wild, untamed ances­tor to the vanil­la we are so famil­iar with.

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2019 Season Vanilla Beans are now Available

The beans we har­vest­ed late last win­ter have now cured and aged enough to be sold! There will only be lim­it­ed quan­ti­ties at first, as beans that were har­vest­ed lat­er in the sea­son are not done aging yet.

A Small-ish Harvest this Year

For prob­a­bly sev­er­al rea­sons, flower and fruit set last spring (2018) was not as strong as the year before. I don’t know if this expe­ri­ence was shared by oth­er vanil­la farm­ers, but we cer­tain­ly had a lot of rain last spring. The cur­rent the­o­ry is that rain dur­ing the pol­li­nat­ing sea­son can affect pol­li­na­tion rates.

Anyway, this year we are going to have some­thing like 2/3 the amount of beans we had last year. And with less avail­able stock, prices will inch up slight­ly. An ounce of grade A beans is now going to be $35, up from $33 last year.

Even with that, we still offer a real­ly good price for Hawaiian vanil­la beans com­pared to oth­er grow­ers in the state. We are a bit of an out­lier in that we sell our beans by the ounce (instead of by the bean). This is because we want to be a sup­pli­er of vanil­la to peo­ple who real­ly want to use the beans, they are not just a sou­venir.

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The 2018 Vanilla Harvest is Ready for Sale

Putting the retail packs togeth­er

It’s final­ly time to start sell­ing our 2018 vanil­la har­vest! I’m putting togeth­er the retail pack­ages today and soon we’ll have them in the store to sell. I’m pret­ty excit­ed about the vanil­la we have to offer this year, it is with­out ques­tion the best qual­i­ty vanil­la we have ever pro­duced.

This year, we will be sell­ing the beans two ways: First, for the best, largest, and most beau­ti­ful beans, in small priced-by-the-bean pack­ages of 2. We’ll also be sell­ing our grade A and grade B beans by the ounce, so even if there are a few small­er beans in there, you’ll know you’re get­ting all the vanil­la you’re pay­ing for. The qual­i­ty is just excel­lent either way.

If you’re a whole­sale cus­tomer for whole vanil­la, let me know, and I’ll get a bulk price sheet out to you.

Visit our Shop to see our currently available vanilla products.

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Sorting the Cured Beans

The beans are ini­tial­ly sort­ed into 3 groups.

As the beans com­plete their cur­ing, they need to be inspect­ed, sort­ed, and pack­aged for long-term stor­age. We’ve been doing this for 2 months now, and some of the ear­li­est beans to go into stor­age are ready for sale or to be made into one of our vanil­la prod­ucts, such as extract or syrup.

The beans are ini­tial­ly sort­ed into three groups: Grade A, Grade B and Extract. This is accord­ing to mois­ture con­tent and appear­ance. They are then vac­u­um-packed and will be aged in that state for 1–6 months.

This year’s har­vest is our first big har­vest and we’re not quite sure how it’s all going to get mar­ket­ed. Of course there will be online retail sales, and per­haps a cou­ple of shops on the island will car­ry our vanil­la prod­ucts.

We are engag­ing our con­tacts in the culi­nary world, too. We’re inter­est­ed to know how the qual­i­ty of our beans mea­sures up with peo­ple who know vanilla…and of course, we will be sell­ing whole­sale to pro­fes­sion­als who are look­ing for arti­sanal Hawaiian vanil­la.

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Hand-Cured Vanilla Beans and Extract from Kauaʻi

Today we’re rolling out our first prod­ucts for sale! Over the years, we’ve sold these beans through friends, at local farmer’s mar­kets and to local culi­nary pro­fes­sion­als, and though we always intend­ed to make our beans wide­ly avail­able, we always seemed to be too busy to make that hap­pen. Well, now it’s time to offer our unique prod­uct to every­one on the inter­net.

Our first offer­ings will be very sim­ple: Grade A and Grade B whole vanil­la beans and 2‑ounce bot­tles of our home­made Kauaʻi rum vanil­la extract.