YoIn the humid jungles of Mexico, the melipona bee flits under the canopy’s patchwork light. As it comes across a vine, it pauses at a pale green-yellow flower, an orchid type creature which yawns open its petals for just a few hours a day. Seizing this brief window of opportunity, the melipona’s stinger pierces a thin, nearly invisible membrane separating the male and female parts of the flower allowing the pollen to reach the stigma.
From this tiny act a long, thin green vanilla bean will form. This is the way vanilla has grown for centuries.
On the New South Wales Central Coast it is gray and wet and the mid-September chill has not yet left the air. There are snow gums and long grass and a couple of truck cabs next to a corrugated iron shed. There are no Mexican bees here. But there is vanilla.
Inside a white geodome, like a giant half-golf ball resting in a backyard, are 200 vanilla columns some 30 degrees south of the equator. It is a test case, an entrepreneur’s gambit. Inventor David Soo is about to set up 26 of these domes on land on the Western Sydney University campus later this year in a commercial-research partnership, and envisages a time when wealthy amateur investors might own a stake in Sydney vanilla, just as they might own a share in a little vineyard in the nearby Hunter Valley.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron, but traditionally limited to growing in the tropics, pollinated by hand (small plantations already exist in northern Australia). Synthetic vanilla was developed in the 1970s, now accounting for 99% of vanilla products, but demand for the real deal is high and growing, and prices can fluctuate wildly.
And while the flavor of vanilla is all around us in thousands of products, the path for its future supply is not plain. Wild vanilla is threatened with extinction and farmed vanilla is at risk from extreme weather. In 2020 Madagascar, which produces 80% of the world’s vanilla, exported 1,675 tonnes of the dark spice, valued at US$512m. This year, however, reduced flowering – caused by a lack of rain – then cyclones were believed to cut the number of beans produced by 30%.
Soo, in a crisp blue checked shirt tucked into jeans, suggests the domes might offer a more reliable, less labor intensive future for vanilla. around the world, other companies are toying with a similar idea of trying to secure global supply of vanilla, away from the increasingly volatile equator.
Today, however, Soo is waiting for a flower to open.
There are two that he and Dr John Troughton, a consultant on the project and an expert in a particular kind of photosynthesis, have their eyes on.
Now, in early spring, flower buds are appearing daily. Almost imperceptible, they nestle like tiny leaves, identically green to the base of the larger leaves from which they grow. Every week Soo or project manager Eelin Ong come up from Sydney to check on the blooming. reports come back; two flowers out. Eight. Last year, in their first harvest, Ong reckons they had about 3,200 flowers. Soo believes they could have grown more, but he accidentally tripped the plants from reproduction mode into growth mode by feeding them too much molasses.
He is expecting more this year. But, early in the season, it is a waiting game.
Ong, in a pilled navy jumper and bright red gumboots goes through and checks each individual vine. They are tagged with fluorescent pink plastic ribbons or bright orange tags. She methodically wanders through with a clipboard, jotting things down in a spreadsheet. Some flowers have already yielded beans. Ong notes these too.
It is silent in the dome, except for clicking of rain against its bubble-wrap skin and the husky buzz of the air conditioner, keeping the space at the perfect temperature. Soo, a computer engineer by trade, designed the dome for ultimate efficiency. The vanilla grows in cylindrical metal trellises which spring up from the spokes of a horizontal wheel and rotates every hour, quietly.
As we wait for the petals to open – Troughton has money on one in particular – Soo opens up a supermarket cooler bag. Inside are jars and ziplock bags of processed vanilla. Traditionally, getting vanilla from the bright plantain-green of the fresh beans to leathery deep black-brown strips takes work. Weeks of bringing the beans out into the sunlight to dry in the day, and back undercover at night to retain moisture. On the Central Coast, the process is accelerated. A plastic zip lock bag marked “18 August” contains a few strips of vanilla. It has the warm, sweet floral scent of vanilla, but something darker too; malty, caramel-like Ovaltine. In the otherwise scentless dome, the scent briefly envelops us, like a heat.
Troughton returns from a vine on the other side of the dome. The flower he has been watching is almost open – a top petal has stretched out, waving, revealing a glimpse into the world inside, of yellowy crepe paper petals ruffled so tightly it looks like tiny teeth.
Soo you decide there has been enough waiting. He will open the flower up, and try to pollinate it.
As the toothpick is run up along the stigma to under the head, there is a little resistance as the stick breaks the tiny membrane behind it. Gently holding behind the head of the stigma with one thumb, and keeping the toothpick in place, the other thumb firmly presses down.
If done right, it will stick. A bean will grow. If done wrong, the petals will drop off, leaving the green stem empty, reaching towards nothing.
Soo releases the flower. It sticks.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism