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The Philippines’ finest vanilla producers

/ 06:47 AM March 10, 2012

VANILLA is the second most expensive spice next to saffron. And I began to learn to appreciate this after meeting Anthon Sarita, a young vanilla farmer/entrepreneur in the recent graduation dinner of the International Culinary Arts Academy of Cebu (ICAAC). I always presumed vanilla is an imported product. In fact, the major supply of the world comes from Madagascar, Africa. Vanilla is widely used for baking, perfume manufacturing and aromatherapy. The surprise must have registered on my face when Anthon introduced himself as a vanilla farmer/producer.

The exquisite dinner we shared prepared by the ICAAC graduating students was made very interesting with the unfolding of how vanilla, the only orchid that produces edible fruits, is considered the second most expensive spice in the world. The process that converts vanilla into a spice is very long, tedious and complicated.

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Young Anthon, surprisingly, is a physical therapist by profession and married to Mary Sweet who was expecting their first baby. An uncle in Papua, New Guinea encouraged him to grow the vanilla vine.

So the name of the company represents the initials of his uncle and brothers—Maasarita and Co. Inc. Their venture started in 2003 progressively with farm sites, namely lowland region in Ozamis, midland region in Cagayan de Oro and a highland in Bukidnon. Madre de Cacao trees were planted where the vines will climb. In Bukidnon, they will later discover that just like any orchid, the vines can ideally grow on posts covered with coconut husks, which will be more practical. Organically grown, they were able to do the first harvest in 2008.

But before that, intensive labor was necessary for the vines to produce the fruit or pods. The flowers are pollinated manually to bear fruits and the flowers will only stay in bloom for only eight hours. A laborer can pollinate a thousand flowers in a day. So from a flower, the buds develop and eventually grow into a bundle of vanilla pods or beans, which will take nine months to mature. Upon harvesting, the pods are blanched or briefly placed in boiling water to stimulate the enzymes or vanillin and cured in containers for two days. Sorting the vanilla beans follows into: super, A and rejects. The super and A are the choice pods, which are vacuum packed. The rejects are made into paste, powder and extract. The paste or the pure from is produced by delicately scraping the seeds from the sliced vanilla pods. Grinding the dried pods makes the powder. The extract is cured and fermented for months.

The extracts that we usually buy in supermarkets are not necessarily natural vanilla. For the price we pay for it, they are synthetic. The vacuum packed vanilla pods are not available in the local retail market. I first saw my packed vanilla pods in America, in select stores. Anthon told me that they are supplying hotels and bakeshops in Cebu. He is also sponsoring the supply in ICAAC, to start with. Their production volume cannot yet supply Metro Manila although their vanilla products are available on line. He gave me vanilla pods, which I can never run out of in extract form by curing a portion of the pod in vodka.

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