Ritu Dalmia, chef and owner of Diva, a gourmet Italian restaurant in New Delhi, is sold on Indian vanilla. At Diva, and at the four other cafés Dalmia runs, there’s a complete ban on vanilla essence. Every dessert is made with natural, dried vanilla beans grown and cured on a plantation in Coorg, Karnataka.

“Take a single, moist, fatty stick of vanilla bean, and make a slit through the centre with the tip of a sharp knife," Dalmia says. “When you slice it open, you can see the pod is bursting with rich, dark, glistening seeds."

The seeds are then scraped gently off the skin with the back of a knife, and both the skin and the seeds are steeped in milk or cream which gets infused with the heady flavour of natural vanilla. At Diva, this aromatic cream (after the vanilla skin is strained) may be turned into a panna cotta, a simple yet luxurious Italian dessert that highlights the beautiful flavour of the vanilla as well as the fresh cream.

“The Coorg vanilla has a strong flavour, and a delicate aroma. It’s better than any imported vanilla I’ve used," says Dalmia.

In the last five years, fine-dining restaurants and five-star hotels across India have been discovering the merits of natural vanilla pods grown in India, a crop about which little was known in the country despite its ubiquitous presence as a flavouring agent in ice creams, chocolates and pastries. Before 2004, most restaurants, bakeries and ice-cream manufacturers in India used synthetic vanilla essence, while the more upmarket ones imported expensive natural pods or vanilla extracts.

The Park hotel in New Delhi imported Madagascar vanilla beans (Madagascar is the world’s leading producer, supplying almost 70% of the global vanilla requirement) for 12,000 a kg.

“We found out about Kerala vanilla in 2004," says Bakshish Dean, who was the executive chef at The Park, New Delhi, at the time, and is now the corporate chef at Lite Bite Foods, which runs a series of gourmet restaurants in Delhi. “We paid only 3,000-4,000 for the Kerala vanilla. We even sent a chef from The Park to stay at the farm and learn more about vanilla. We had a great system running—a direct farmer to end-user supply chain."

The quality of the vanilla is so good that The Park does not even buy the highest quality or Grade A vanilla, relying instead on Grade B, which Dean says is good enough for most gourmet desserts.

“Once you’ve used a vanilla pod, you know there is no substitute," Dean says. “Synthetic vanilla just does not compare. The complexities of the flavour, the aroma, the after-taste, everything is different. Synthetic vanilla has only vanillin, so it sort of smells like vanilla, but the flavour profile of natural vanilla is made up of more than 250 different compounds!"

Farm to table

Shinto, a farmer in Attapady, Kerala, at his vanilla plantation. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

“There was no market for natural vanilla in India," Pottas says. “People still think that the taste of artificial vanilla is what vanilla should taste like. It’s like giving a beedi smoker his first mild cigarette and expecting him to like it."

Undaunted, Pottas began sending detailed letters on the uses and benefits of organic natural vanilla, along with samples of his produce, to supermarkets and five-star hotels.

“To my dismay, most chefs had not even seen natural vanilla pods," says Pottas. “But slowly, they started buying from me."

One of the first hotels to start buying from Pottas was The Park in New Delhi.

Pottas had planted his first vanilla crop in 1999, along with coffee and pepper, on his 15-acre farm. He was one of the handful of farmers in India who made a killing during the 2002 vanilla harvesting season after cyclones the year before devastated vanilla crops in Madagascar. Though Indian farmers were producing minuscule quantities of vanilla, the quality, surprisingly, was on a par with the best Madagascar beans.

In 2004, Madagascar surged back into the market, leading to a disastrous fall for farmers in southern India, mostly based around Coorg, Wayanad and the Nilgiris, which provide ideal growing conditions for the orchid. Farmers who sold their green beans at upwards of 3,500 a kg were struggling to offload them for 30 a kg.

“Instead of planting vanilla as an intercrop, lots of farmers invested heavily in vanilla, which they called ‘magic beans’," says M.C. Saju, a vanilla grower from Kerala’s Kottayam region who is also part of Vanilla India Producer Company Ltd (Vanilco), a vanilla growers cooperative that handles the procurement and sale of the beans. “But in 2004, the international buyers were not interested, and the farmers were in a trap. They sold whatever they could, and hastily got rid of the vines in their farms."

A handful of bigger plantations and more resilient small farmers decided to get more enterprising and formed cooperatives to organize the sale of the beans.

Vanilco, set up in 2004 and run by the farmers themselves out of a town called Muvattupuzha in Kerala, was one of the first such organizations.

“We procure green beans from over 3,000 producers who are also shareholders of the company," says T.V. Thomas, senior manager at Vanilco. “We process these beans, and also extract supercritical fluid (natural vanilla extract)."

Since 2009, Vanilco has procured over 380 tonnes of green beans, and has supplied dairy companies such as Amul, Milk Man of Kerala (Milma) and the Karnataka Milk Federation, and ice-cream companies.

The Indian Organic Farmers Producer Company Ltd (IOFPCL), also formed in 2004 and based out of Aluva, an industrial suburb of Kochi, fared even better than Vanilco. IOFPCL, which has 606 farmers/shareholders and three farming groups (Hops Adimaly, Organic Wayanad and Organic Malabar) under its umbrella, inked a deal with Swiss chocolate makers Chocolat Stella in 2009 to supply both organic cocoa and vanilla. Since May 2009, IOFPCL has exported 60 tonnes of organic cocoa and 3 tonnes of cured organic vanilla beans to Switzerland, the US and Germany.

Chocolat Stella even launched an Indian single-origin chocolate, flavoured with Indian vanilla, at the International Confectionery Fair 2011 in Cologne, Germany.

“We are supplying around 400kg of green beans and 500kg of dried beans a year to Choco Stella," says K.J. Thomas, a farmer and one of the directors of IOFPCL. “We get a much better price than we would get in the domestic market."

The bean that rules the bakery

Green vanilla beans at a plantation in Mannarkad, Kerala. Photo by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Gourmet restaurants in India are increasingly highlighting Indian organic vanilla as a key produce in their kitchens.

“It’s a fantastic vanilla, and even better, a local, Indian organic produce," says Jaydeep Mukherjee, executive chef at Mumbai’s Indigo Deli, who introduced the wildly popular Nilgiri vanilla ice cream in 2007 to the restaurant’s menu.

Since vanilla is an expensive ingredient, all chefs recycle the pods. For most desserts, the vanilla pod is steeped in milk or cream and then removed. The used bean is quickly rinsed to remove milk particles and left out to dry out completely. Once dried, these are dunked in sugar jars, and over a few days, the sugar absorbs all the vanilla flavour.

“Vanilla sugar is always nicer than plain sugar for any dessert you may want to make," says Dean. “It can be added to cake and cookie batters, to poached fruits, jams, and even just a cup of coffee."

Mukherjee also immerses used and dried vanilla pods in vodka.

“The result is unbelievable and great to use in martinis," he says.

Lobster and Grapefruit Salad with Blueberry and Vanilla Vinaigrette

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

4 baby lobster tails

2 medium grapefruits, pink or orange

200g iceberg or Boston lettuce hearts

6 sprigs tarragon or coriander sprigs

K cup blueberry, fresh or frozen

60ml salad oil

1 tbsp lemon juice

1 vanilla pod

60g butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Split the vanilla pod through the centre, warm the salad oil, add the vanilla and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to steep for an hour or so.

Poach the baby lobster tails in butter till soft and just cooked

Cut the grapefruit into segments, slice the lobster into medallions, add the lettuce hearts and herb sprigs, and toss to mix.

Add the blueberries to a bowl and crush with a fork, add the lemon juice, salt and pepper and whisk in the vanilla-flavoured oil. Take care to scrape the vanilla seeds and pulp into the dressing.

Sprinkle some of the dressing over the salad ingredients and toss to coat lightly

Plate the salad and sprinkle more dressing around the salad.

—Recipe by Jaydeep Mukherjee.

rudraneil.s@livemint.com

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