It’s funny when you hear stories about children’s lack of knowledge regarding the origins of their food. For example, various surveys reveal that when asked about where milk comes from, many kids in large metropolitan cities often say the name of their nearest supermarket. Whether that comes to to a lack of information from their elders or a general lack of information about food is a debatable question. Nevertheless, nothing beats learning about food origins, provenance and seeing how things grow. Especially for a chef! For one you gain a lot more respect for your suppliers and more importantly, for the food, knowing the effort that goes in to giving you a vanilla pod, a pack of coffee or a even the meat on your plate.
Earlier this year I went and spent a couple of days on the coffee estate of family friends in Coorg, South India. Coorg is an idyllic hill station in the state of Karnataka , and coffee is the main source of livelihood, with estates covering every inch.
Betts and Riba’s ‘Bava’ estate is a sprawling 70 acre haven of coffee, fruits, vegetables, flowers and serenity.
Arabica coffee plants: Coffee has the sweetest and juiciest of berries, but unfortunately, the berries can’t be used for their juice or pulp. The seed is what gives us our early morning kick. However, a fresh coffee seed/bean is white in colour and tastes of wood! Nothing to it at all. And this is where the process of drying and roasting comes in to give coffee its characteristic flavour! The beautiful white flowers have a heady aroma quite akin to jasmine. Here again, the flowers can’t be picked – no flowers = no berries! During flowering season (twice a year), the entire hillside is covered in white and for miles around this intense smell permeates through every living thing.
Apart from coffee, there’s also a small Vanilla plantation within the estate. I also found out why vanilla is one of the most expensive food commodities in the world (others being saffron, truffles, caviar). The vanilla pod, firstly has to be hand pollinated. This is because there is a tiny flap in between the stamen and the pistil, making pollination otherwise impossible. Thus, that flap has to be pushed down by hand for each individual flower in order for pollination to take place and the pod to form. Madagascar is the only place where there is a bird which eats that flap, hence making pollination a natural phenomenon.
Once the vanilla is ready to be harvested, it is picked (using gloves as raw vanilla is an irritant to the skin!) and then quickly dipped in boiling water to kill any living organisms – otherwise the vanilla will eventually rot. After the hot tub treatment, the pods are laid out on blankets and dried in the sun for 2 hours a day, then wrapped in the blanket to ferment the vanillin and develop the flavour. This process is repeated for 10 days. The pods are then racked and aired for a month. At the end of the month, the vanilla is finally ready! The beauty of this gorgeous pod is that once it is ready for use, it will keep for a good many years without spoiling. Betts Warruny had a few batches that were 4-6 years old and smelt heavenly and were still plump and breathtakingly intense.