A Taste of Hawaii

When I think of Hawaii, I think of the food! Pineapples, macadamia nuts, fresh fish, kalua pork…

While I ate all those foods while I was in Hawaii last month, I also enjoyed local grass-fed beef, vanilla, and coffee. These might not seem like the most Hawaiian of foods, but they’re part of a growing food culture in Hawaii that’s focusing on sustainable farming.

We visited Maui and the Big Island. Roughly 50 percent of Hawaii’s farms are on the Big Island. And it’s also home to a budding agritourism industry, in which we happily took part. We stayed on the Kohala Coast, halfway between Kona coffee country and Waimea paniolo (cowboy) country. Almost daily we drove by Parker Ranch, once the largest cattle ranch in the U.S. Seeing cows munching on grass in rainbow-strewed valleys made me happy. More and more Hawaii ranchers are raising free roaming cattle fed only grass without the use of antibiotics and hormones.

Through the Waipio Valley, on the side of the volcano Mauna Kea, is the Hawaiian Vanilla Company (HVC), the only major producer of vanilla beans in the U.S. Visiting HVC was my favorite experience on the Big Island. Jim Reddekopp moved to the Big Island 13 years ago to escape the hustle and bustle of Honolulu. He knew he wanted to raise his kids on a farm. After much thought and research, he decided to grow vanilla beans. Vanilla is grown mostly in third world countries located within 20 degrees of the equator. It’s finicky and difficult to cultivate. It has to be hand-pollinated! So why vanilla? He thought it sounded romantic!

Hawaiian Vanilla Company

When you walk into Reddekopp’s visitor center, you are overwhelmed by vanilla. The smell is intoxicating. One of Reddekopp’s five children greeted us and asked if we would like some “Hawaiian vanilla” ice tea or lemonade. The 12-year-old was learning to brand already! We had made reservations for HVC’s vanilla luncheon, a three-course meal that comes with a tour of the facilities. Jim came out and welcomed us and showed us a video of all the media coverage HVC had received. I must admit, as much as I watch the Food Network, I hadn’t heard of HVC. I picked the activity out of my guide book! Lunch was then served.

Vanilla iced tea

Much to my delight, lunch was made with local food! With tourists driving up the mountain’s narrow windy roads daily to visit HVC, the Reddekopps use meat, produce, and cheese from their neighbors’ farms as kind of a peace offering – it keeps them happy. The Reddekopps built a commercial kitchen and Jim’s wife Tracy creates the recipes and cooks. We dined on:

  • local pork spare ribs with vanilla barbeque sauce
  • a vanilla-mesquite grilled chicken sandwich on focaccia with caramelized onions and vanilla-mango chutney
  • a salad of fresh greens with vanilla sugar-crusted pecans, local goat cheese, and vanilla-raspberry vinaigrette
  • roasted potatoes with a Southwest vanilla rub
  • and for dessert, ice cream made with both vanilla beans and extract, with a vanilla-passionfruit sauce.

Everything tasted superb. And it showed me that vanilla has so many savory culinary applications!

Vanilla chicken sandwich

Really vanilla-ey ice cream!

We took a tour of the farm and I learned more than I ever wanted to know about orchids and vanilla. We even had the chance to witness “orchid sex.” The flowers only bloom once a year and Jim has to pollinate each one by hand within 12 hours of opening. All vanilla grown today is pollinated by hand. I don’t remember much from high school biology, but it has something to do with anthers and stigmas and he uses his fingers!

Orchid sex

Vanilla orchid vine

I hope this has given you a better appreciation of vanilla. I’m now a bit more willing to shell out money for beans instead of extract. The flavor really is incredible and it makes such a difference in recipes. I just finished Molly Wizenberg’s (Orangette) book A Homemade Life and I’m dying to try this vanilla bean recipe this fall. Buy them in bulk off websites like the Beanilla Trading Company. Or “buy USA” off the HVC website. Happy vanilla experimenting!

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