Harvest and drying season in Maui for vanilla beans just ended and pollinating season has just begun. Growing a single vanilla bean takes about one year: In May, vanilla orchid flowers bloom, during which time they must be pollinated by hand with a paintbrush. If that goes well, a single bean will erupt from each flower. Nine months later, the vanilla beans are ready for harvest. After three months of drying, the beans are ready to eat and the annual process starts again.
This year was a bumper crop, according to one Maui grower, who pollinates about twenty thousand orchid plants by hand each year to produce the decadent Madagascar variety of vanilla beans. There are less than a handful of vanilla growers in Hawaii and only two working on such a large scale.
Growing vanilla beans does lend itself easily to commercial process, which is why genuine vanilla flavor costs more than artificial. Vanilla orchids lack natural pollinators so each plant must be pollinated by hand, using a tool like a small paint brush. The window of time for pollinating stays open only as long as the flower blooms. The process is hectic, painstaking and time-consuming. And there’s no guarantee the pollen will bear fruit.
But for growers and conossieurs alike, there is no substitute for the rich, creamy flavor of real Madagascar vanilla. It’s the variety favored by pastry chefs around the world. The other variety, Tahitian vanilla, has a more floral aroma and lighter flavor. I like to grind up real vanilla beans and mix with Maui sugar or infuse them whole into a bottle of rum for baking.