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Hawaiian Vanilla Company

July 10, 2014

One night, a couple of months prior to our trip to Hawaii, my husband was doing some Internet research on various places around the Big Island to eat and in passing mentioned the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  I think after he said those 3 words I tuned out everything else that he mentioned.  I absolutely love vanilla.  I love the taste of it, I love the smell of it, I love everything about it.  When a recipe calls for a teaspoon of vanilla extract, I see nothing wrong with adding 2 teaspoons.  After all, if one teaspoon makes a recipe good, wouldn’t two teaspoons make it even better?  I knew at that moment that we’d find a way to visit the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  After looking the company up on the Internet and doing some research of my own, I was so excited to pay a visit that I made sure to work it into our itinerary.

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Located in Paauilo, a small community on the northern end of the Big Island, it’s almost a 2 hour drive from Kona to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  During the drive out there, I was becoming a bit skeptical about where we were going and if we had made the right decision to visit.  Earlier in the day, when we had picked up our rental car, the lady behind the counter had asked me what our plans for the day were and when we mentioned that we were going to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company she was so surprised as she said she had heard of the company before but had never met anyone who had said they would actually be making a visit to the company.  Was I making the right decision taking myself and my husband out there?  The Hawaiian Vanilla Company is literally located out in the middle of nowhere.  Actually, it’s not nowhere, more like a drive up into the mountains on a one lane road, where no one would have any business ever driving unless you lived there or you were specifically visiting the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  Now it makes sense why the company is not very often visited by tourists as its way off the beaten path.  Unfortunately, the people who never make it here don’t know what they are missing out on.

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The Hawaiian Vanilla Company is a small, family-run operation headed by a husband and wife and their 5 children.  And family-run is an understatement as husband runs the business, the wife does a lot of the cooking and experimenting with ingredients and the children all help out with the business and run guided tours as well.  The story of how the family came to become vanilla farmers is an interesting one of a husband who was born and raised in Hawaii and worked in the agro-tourism industry deciding one night at the kitchen table with his family that he was going to start his own business.  It was decided then and there that business would be as vanilla farmers.  And from that point forward, the husband, wife and the kids have learned as much as they could from vanilla farmers all over the world, as well as learning about the practice of cultivating and growing orchids from experts at the University of Hawaii.  After all, as I came to learn, vanilla actually comes from an orchid.  Through trial and error, the Hawaiian Vanilla Company has established itself as the only commercial vanilla farm in the United States.  When you arrive at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, you step into a cute little souvenir shop which sells everything from vanilla beans to make your own vanilla extract, to vanilla-spiced chutneys and salad dressings, to vanilla creams and lip gloss, to vanilla salt and vanilla sugar.  The little store offers some unique and interesting vanilla products.  There’s also a small Vanilla Girls Sweet Shoppe which sells all sorts of sweet vanilla-based goodies such as milkshakes, various hot teas, vanilla lemonade and iced tea, vanilla bread pudding, vanilla banana bread, vanilla cream soda and more.

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But, I didn’t come here for a treat from the Sweet Shoppe, though I probably would have picked up something if I didn’t already walk away from my time at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company stuffed with yummy vanilla goodness.  We came to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company to participate in their vanilla presentation and tasting event.  This is one of 4 different vanilla experiences that you can sign up for at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  While the vanilla luncheon experience was quite intriguing, for our schedule, the vanilla presentation and tasting experience fit our timeline better.  What we thought we were going to experience was a little education on vanilla production and a little tasting of a few items that were vanilla-based.  What we got was so much more than we ever thought we’d get.

Our host for our vanilla presentation and tasting event was Ian, the owner’s oldest son who was just a young boy when his family got into the vanilla business.  My husband and I were so impressed at how this young, twenty-something had such a passion for vanilla farming and production.  He obviously, whether through formal education or being self-taught, understands the science behind cultivating vanilla orchids and the process of pollination all the way through production.

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To start, we’re each offered a drink of either vanilla lemonade, vanilla iced tea or an Arnold Palmer which is half vanilla lemonade and half vanilla iced tea.  We’re told that the vanilla iced tea is unsweetened ice tea with vanilla only seeds from the vanilla bean added to it.  According to Ian, the subtle taste of the vanilla seeds is enough light sweetener for the iced tea.  In trying to decide on a drink, I thought I would order the Arnold Palmer until my husband suggested that we order one of each drink so that we get a full taste of both and can make our own Arnold Palmer’s if we wanted.  I loved the idea so we went with that.  In the end, my husband enjoyed the iced tea the best and I really liked the lemonade so that’s what we ended up with.  I will say though, I’m not an iced tea person at all, but this was some really good ice tea.  As advertised, it’s unsweetened with nothing but vanilla seeds from the vanilla bean in the drink.  And incredibly, you can actually taste the vanilla and it is that subtle-sweet vanilla flavor that gives the iced tea a hint of sweetness.  Actually, it’s really all the sweetness that the iced tea even needs.  If I were an iced tea drinker, I’d be in love with this.

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The vanilla lemonade, I was completely in love with.  When we were served the drink, we were told not to be concerned it wasn’t dirt in our drink it was the vanilla seeds from the vanilla bean.  Just adding vanilla seeds to the drink completely transformed it.  It still had the bite of tartness and acidity from the lemon, but the vanilla seeds really helped to mellow out the flavor of the lemon.  Ian explained to us that this is an example of how vanilla is used as a rounder to round out the flavor of a very strong item, such as lemon.  Instead of the sharp sting of tartness from lemon you get the tart, but it’s really rounded and more mellow and the bite just isn’t as strong.  You also get a very wonderful, but incredibly subtle hint of vanilla flavor as well.  This drink was so refreshing, I feel like I could have drank an entire gallon of this on my own.

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For our vanilla presentation and tasting experience, we were told that we’d be served 3 courses of food.  Each course would feature vanilla prominently, but would also show that vanilla could be used for more than just sweet desserts, that vanilla could be used as a spice component for savory dishes as well.  During our time at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, we learned so much about the process of growing the vanilla orchid, harvesting and drying the vanilla bean, and finally the extracting of flavor from the vanilla beans themselves.  It’s no wonder that vanilla beans are the second most expensive spice in the world behind saffron as everything from the pollination and extracting of vanilla beans must be done by hand with vanilla orchids that are hard to grow and highly susceptible to disease.  flavor.  Vanilla is activated when you combine it with butterfat, alcohol and citrus.  Obviously, butterfat is used in making ice cream, and you see vanilla beans used in the making of ice cream most often.  Vanilla extract is the combination of vanilla beans and alcohol, and outside of making ice cream, the use of vanilla extract is the most common item people associate with vanilla beans and flavor.  It’s citrus that’s the least often used way to extract flavor from vanilla beans.  In the first course we’re served, we get an example of how citrus can activate the flavor in vanilla beans.  We are served a roasted red bell pepper and tomato bisque soup with vanilla herb spice rub.  The soup is a combination of red bell peppers and tomatoes, both of which have very strong flavor profiles and would normally overtake any dish on their own.  The use of the vanilla herb spice rub in the soup is as a rounder so that it mellows out the flavor of the tomato and the red bell pepper.  The soup is served with a fresh organic green salad, with honey pepper pecans with vanilla inside, feta cheese, and dressed with vanilla raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.  This is an example of how vanilla is activated by the use of citrus in the raspberry balsamic vinaigrette.  The very salty feta cheese flavor is mellowed by the honey pepper pecans with the vanilla and the vinaigrette.  Normally, a raspberry balsamic vinaigrette would have a very strong flavor, but in this case with the addition of the vanilla, the flavor is sweet and mellowed and just perfect.  In general, I’m not a fan of red bell peppers at all and try, at all costs, to avoid them.  I was surprised at how the vanilla herb spice mix really did mellow out the flavor of the bell pepper so that it could be used in perfect combination with the tomatoes.  The bell pepper add a bit of heat to the dish, but you really couldn’t taste it at all.  This was an amazing starter, and I could have finished a big bowl of soup and a big plate of salad.  I loved the vanilla raspberry balsamic vinaigrette so much that I bought a bottle of it to bring home with me.

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For our second course, we were given 4 small bites of vanilla used in different ways.  We started with a puff pastry triangle stuffed with caramelized onions and brie cheese.  Over top of the puff pastry a spoonful of vanilla mango chutney was served.  Of all of the savory applications of vanilla that we were served, this was my favorite.  Again, I’m not a huge fan of brie cheese, but I honestly couldn’t even taste it in the dish.  The brie made the puff pastry nice and creamy, but I didn’t taste the brie itself.  One of the gentlemen who did the tasting with us later said that he hates onions, but yet he was surprised that he was able to enjoy the puff pastry and wasn’t bothered by the onions at all.  We were told that this was the effect of using the vanilla as a rounder as it just makes the flavors of everything you combine it with a lot more mild.  The vanilla mango chutney also added a nice touch of sweetness to the puff pastry.

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Next, we got a puff pastry square baked with a red bell pepper and cream cheese mixture inside and topped with vanilla pepper jelly on top.  Admittedly, I was concerned about this.  As I said before, I don’t like red bell pepper at all.  My husband was concerned for me as well as he wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be able to eat the puff pastry square.  And it wasn’t just the red bell pepper inside the puff pastry, but the vanilla pepper jelly on top as well.  Again, surprisingly, the vanilla is used as a rounder to lessen the bite and flavor of the red pepper.  The vanilla mellows the pepper enough that what I taste is something with a hint of sweetness, some creaminess from the cream cheese and the crunch from the baked puff pastry.  I was quite amazed that I didn’t have a negative reaction to this puff pastry bite.  I’m really believing in the power of the vanilla bean at this point.

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The other 2 small bites for our second course moved into the sweet category.  The first was a triangle of vanilla banana bread served with vanilla maple syrup and a small cup of vanilla whipping cream topped with vanilla cinnamon sugar on top.  The idea is to either dip the vanilla banana bread into the vanilla maple syrup or dip it into the cup of vanilla whipping cream topped with the vanilla cinnamon sugar.  First off, the vanilla banana bread was fantastic – completely moist and soft and with terrific banana flavor.  But adding the hint of vanilla to the banana bread really made this the best bite of banana bread I’ve ever had.  The vanilla flavoring rounded out the sweetness of the ripe bananas in the bread.  I started first by dipping the vanilla banana bread into the vanilla maple syrup.  For me, I love maple syrup, I can drown pancakes and waffles under maple syrup, this vanilla maple syrup, hands down was the best maple syrup I’ve ever tasted.  You can clearly taste the vanilla flavor through the sweetness of the maple syrup and the two flavors marry together so perfectly.  This vanilla maple syrup made such an impression on me that I had to buy a jar of it to bring home.  It was just outstanding.  Between the amazing vanilla raspberry balsamic dressing and the vanilla maple syrup, I can’t decide which one blew me away the most.

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The final small bite was another sweet bite.  We were served vanilla lilikoi pound cake with lilikoi curd to dip it in.  Lilikoi is a popular Hawaiian passion fruit which is used to make everything from pastries to drinks.  Lilikoi can have a bit of a tart tang similar to a lemon.  The vanilla in the pound cake helps to round out the tartness of the lilikoi and make it more mellow.  The pound cake was nice and rich and heavy as you’d expect pound cake to be, but with the nice, subtle flavor of lilikoi and vanilla mixed in to it.  The lilikoi curd was a nice complement to the richness of the pound cake.  I wanted to savor every bite of this small sample.

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By this time, I think all of us were kind of stuffed.  No one expected we’d be served this much food.  But we weren’t even at our third, and final, course yet.  Of course, you can’t come to a vanilla tasting without getting a true vanilla dessert.  Our third course was real vanilla ice cream made with vanilla beans and served with a vanilla shortbread cookie.  The ice cream was wonderful.  It tasted so fresh, and homemade.  The flavors of the vanilla were much more subtle and not so in your face, which makes me think that they flavored it naturally with vanilla beans and not with vanilla extract.  It’s amazing how creamy and smooth and just a hint of sweetness this vanilla ice cream had.  This was the perfect ending to an amazing vanilla tasting experience.

I absolutely loved every single second of this vanilla presentation and tasting experience.  To hear the story of how this family came to be vanilla farmers and the process of growing vanilla and producing it for commercial production to tasting the amazing food and learning all of the amazing ways you can use vanilla, it’s hard not to fall in love.  If you didn’t love vanilla before, when you walk away from the Hawaiian Vanilla Company, you at least have a greater appreciation for this little bean.  And if you’re like me and love vanilla and use a tablespoon when a recipe calls for a teaspoon, this place will strengthen your love for the vanilla bean.  I just couldn’t leave here without picking up a few vanilla samples for myself so that I can try out some of their products at home.  For anyone traveling to the Big Island, looking for something unique, interesting and fun to do that’s different from the normal touristy stuff everyone does, I would hands down recommend a trip out to the Hawaiian Vanilla Company.  The 2 hour drive from Kona was, for my husband and I, completely worth it.  The experience we had at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company is something we still talk about, rave about actually, to this day to anyone who asks.  It was the most interesting and unique and out-of-the-box experience I throughout my entire week on the Hawaiian Islands.

 

 

 

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