Published on November 12, 2010
The pre-dawn toll of a church bell and the roof-raising chorals of devoted parishioners are about the only things that mark time in the Tongan village of Utungake. Across a causeway, on the edge of town, a hand-painted sign announces Heilala Vanila (sic). Named after Tonga’s national flower, the plantation is a world away from the boutique grocers and five star kitchens in which Heilala has become a well-known fixture. But there’s no mistaking the source of the delicately sweet aroma that permeates the air from somewhere down the end of the rugged two-track driveway.
That beguiling bouquet is something US pastry chef Natasha MacAller believes is particular to this plantation’s vanilla. “It’s one of the defining qualities of Heilala vanilla,” she says, “it is fragrant yet not too flowery.” Natasha and culinary colleague Peter Gordon are part of a group visiting Heilala and its home in Utungake village in Vava’u, Tonga’s northern most island group. The two chefs are there as part of the company’s inaugural, “Up Close and Personal” tour which offers keen foodies a chance to travel to the source of Heilala Vanilla, learn more about its origins and enjoy spectacular food created by Peter and Natasha using vanilla and the best of Tonga’s local produce. Heilala was the vision of New Zealander John Ross, an ex-dairy farmer and boat builder, whose passion for free diving fuelled his first visit to Tonga a decade ago. He built a launch and with six mates motored to the Tongan Beach Resort in Utungake village where his son Mark was manager. While there, Mark urged him to organise repairs and playground equipment for the local school. Within the year he was back with his Papakura Rotarian Club mates, the first of an ongoing series of annual visits. When Cyclone Waka ripped through the Vava’u group in 2002 John and a team of six returned to the village to help rebuild houses, restore infrastructure and deliver much needed medical supplies.
In recognition of John’s efforts, village elder, Laulile Latu, offered him a free lease on a parcel of family land, prompting John to look at what he could grow. On an earlier trip he had discovered vanilla orchids running wild; missionaries were thought to have brought the plant with them more than a century ago. “One or two people grew it but no one really cared,” says John. “Farmers consider kava more lucrative.” After researching vanilla’s history, he visited Reunion Island and Tahiti to observe established vanilla operations. He then enlisted the help of agriculturalist son-in-law Garth Boggiss and the pair are now openly smitten with their Bourbon-style vanilla, grown at Utungake. Local family, the Latus, run the plantation, which is in its eighth season of growing; the first harvest was in 2005.
Heilala Vanilla is putting the tiny village on the global culinary map and John’s family reckons he is now “part of the island’s furniture.” John, daughter Jennifer and her husband Garth work closely with the Latus, and their involvement with the village extends beyond the company too. As Jennifer explains, “Heilala applies the principles of fair trade; we support livelihoods and education in Utungake Village.” The Boggiss’ recently brought one of the members of the Latu family to New Zealand to attend a Pacific leadership course, and on each return journey they take much needed equipment to the village. At the plantation John introduces the group to Talavao Latu who oversees the day-today operations, before talking us through the art of cultivating Vanilla planifolia, the only edible-fruit bearing orchid in over 20,000 species.
The sight of raw vanilla bean bunches on the vine is a shared highlight for both Peter and Natasha. While at the plantation, Peter and Natasha add their touches to the Latu’s ‘umu’ with whole chickens marinated in ginger beer and vanilla and a spit-roasted pig glazed by Peter with vanilla, smoked paprika, garlic, ginger and soy sauce . Heilala produces upwards of a ton of dry vanilla each year – made more impressive when you consider each dry pod is just a fifth of its picked weight. Vanilla is certainly no get-rich-quick scheme though, it is one of the world’s most labour intensive crops. The painstaking hand pollination involves individually fertilizing each flower, which blooms only once for a few hours, on a single day.
The growing and ripening cycle takes a further nine months on the vine. Once the runner bean-like pods start to yellow at their tips they are picked and plunged into 64ºC water to stop fermentation and kick-start the six week drying period. Each morning the pods are laid on trestle tables under the tropical sun, while at night they are wrapped in polythene to maintain their heat. It is only when the vanilla beans start to shrivel like over-tanned tourists that the alluring perfume and soft flavours – the very same ones that first seduced the conquistadors and the courts of Europe half a millennium ago – begin to emerge. Dry pods are graded according to length and sorted into kilo bunches before being shipped to New Zealand for packaging and supply. A refurbished cool store in Tauranga serves as Heilala’s nerve centre for range development, vanilla aging, filtering and extracting. A micro-plantation of vanilla at the Boggiss’ home also acts as their R&D site and a showcase venue.
Back at the source, Peter and Natasha are gleefully creating five star dishes – an exercise in initiative and improvisation when you’re on a remote tropical island. But with produce from the local market, vanilla fresh from the plantation and an array of seafood caught almost to order by John Ross (thanks to his free diving skills), the pair conjure vanilla-infused multicourse meals before their live audience. All this while fielding questions about local ingredients, among them: plantains, a bitter fruit called Kerala and breadfruit, which Peter reckons is “related to croissant fruit and Sally Lunn fruit.” While the group enjoys a glass of wine, Natasha transforms John’s haul of iridescent Parrotfish into an ‘Ota Ika Ceviche’. The subtle hint of vanilla marries with the island’s fruit and fresh fish. A vanilla seed panna cotta with rhubarb, ginger and pineapple gazpacho is a light, yet richly aromatic and ambrosial end to the meal (see recipes pg 46). It’s a plantation to plate experience that delights the group, who over the week have gained a special insight into the production of one of the world’s most prized ingredients.
“I’d have to say it was a very peaceful experience,” says Peter. “The hand pollinating and hand picking happens slowly and methodically, and then the strangely simple, but time consuming, curing process follows – all in the rhythm of the island. The experience was priceless.”