8 years ago, I started the Vanilla chapter in my chef career...
At that stage I had done 14 years in the catering industry from my own agency, restaurants, and an illustrious career covering private households and Royal Palaces.
Moving to France in 2011 was an opportunity for me to spread my wings which allowed me to travel the world and continue to broaden my knowledge and experience in new roles with new clients where often there was no food budget and everything I needed to progress was available.
I had always had a passion for pastry and spending time learning the science and chemistry of baking cakes, breads and pastries. Vanilla is an intrinsic part of the pastry chef's arsenal. So flavourful, versatile and intoxicating with scents which often only get used in sweet dishes. My experience at that point was exactly that, but the more I began to work with it day by day the more I found an affinity to incorporate it into dishes that very often other chefs would not dream of.
I recall making everything from soup, to salad dressings, curries and stews, real chai tea and salmon cures that were ready for smoking. Often clients and other chefs would ask "what was the secret...?" to my "signature dish(es)?" I would tell them "good organic vanilla pods..." but people would often think I wasn't serious. So I continued using them and building my network of clients who loved my "extra" flavourful dishes.
In Autumn 2011 I was working aboard my first mega yacht in excess of 120m for some scale (longer than a football pitch) and found myself adrift in Madagascar. For those of you who don't know Madagascar, a tiny (Francophone) island nation off the East coast of Africa is the world's leading producer of vanilla pods. Whilst the quality of their pods is without doubt, the way in which the market is controlled is not all as it seems...
If you believe the press reports of cyclones wiping out huge parts of the crop I ask you this? Does anybody making such claims have pictures of this? I suspect not.
What I have found out myself by research in the fields (read, rainforests) of Indonesia in the course of 2018 has trumped all the previous 20+ years of knowledge I had accumulated by then.
Whilst the quality of Madagascan vanilla is good, the way in which is is grown is not really natural. Often force grown in artificial conditions, en mass, the reason why it is the number one producer in the world by volume is controlled by a very small number of people. Often holding the people doing the hard work under them in the pecking order by controlling the growing, curing, grading parts of the process and stifling personal growth of the farmers.
This narrative is often what makes the press in the West, but the real story is that, if managed correctly, vanilla can flourish almost anywhere in the world + or - 10-20° of the equatorial belt...
These unscrupulous people have no wish or want to help farmers or growers, despite many companies trying to convince you that they are doing almost charitable work. I find that to be unpalatable and feel the best way to advance the cause is by being open and honest across the board. Rightly or wrongly, honesty is what is lacking from the vanilla trade.
Almost everybody I have met in the vanilla industry at the bottom (farmer and grower level) doesn't speak English, I suspect to keep them in their place and stop them trying to trade above their level.
We believe in education, whether that is teaching our farmers English or teaching them how to grow vanilla in a polyculture giving them a more steady revenue stream model over the 12 months of the year. Vanilla, once established and growing has two real selling points. As the green bean which can be sold to the curing and conditioning parts of a business or selling the finished, cured pods which often relies on knowledge and experience and essentially puts all the risk onto the farmers. The pods themselves are liable to fungus, spoilage and theft meaning that only at the point of sale do they actually redeem anything on their investment. Sadly whatever the global high price of pods is, the farmer seldom gets that premium reflected in his hard work. Helping the farmers to help themselves is the right path. Inadvertently the farmers are looking after the rainforests and the trees in the jungles which are the lungs of our planet.
Vanillaism is bucking that trend and offering a collaborative way of farming and working with our co-operative farmer's communities and villages. We believe in a fair wage for a top quality product. We have found the basic skills across Indonesia, which, with a few small tweaks and a small investment of time, effort and education can create truly TOP quality pods.
We are currently creating our own grading system which will be unique to the Vanilla trading world. Unlike everybody else in the current market we believe in transparency and honesty with both our farmers and our customers. Creating collaborative partnerships direct between chefs, or restaurants and with farmers across our portfolio of land. Vanilla is not this single commodity crop that is uniform across all geographies. Our own research has shown pods that come from within the same postal code area can provide completely different complexities in the pods which are truly noticeable.
To summarise what you will see from Vanillaism going forward:-
Honesty and complete transparency on every aspect of our work
A top quality product with a fair price
An opportunity to buy into a community and create a lasting partnership with access to pods at preferred rates (getting in early is the cheapest option)
A fair discount policy for volume sales relative to your type of business and its output
Promise to re-invest all profits back into our projects and include expansion across Indonesia
Regular updates on our social media to showcase our farmer's work direct to you
Opportunity to visit our orchards, meet the farmers and see the difference you are making
An unapologetic view on truly helping those less fortunate producing this intoxicating spice
Constant education for farmers and consumers across all levels
Happy, cheeky social media content that we hope you will love enough to share around!
All we ask is that by supporting Vanillaism you subscribe to our basic principals and showcase our organisation for no personal gain. We want to make a real difference to people and we are offering you the chance to #bethedifference #bevanillaist