New vanilla offers essence of NZ

By Graham Skellern

Tauranga-based vanilla producer and marketer Reunion Food Company has created a world first - in more ways than one.
Co-owners Garth and Jennifer Boggiss have picked, and are now drying, the first commercial crop of vanilla pods grown in New Zealand.
It is also the first commercial crop produced outside the tropical zone (which is up to 23 degrees latitude each side of the equator).
Garth and Jennifer established 300 plants in their "plastic house" at Te Puna, keeping the temperature between 14-26C and growing them on punga frames instead of coconut husks.
The vanilla plants were the same Bourbon variety they produce in Tonga, but because of the New Zealand growing conditions they were hoping for something distinctly different.
Garth, who looks after research and development, growing and processing, wasn't sure what would happen. But when he started testing the flavour of the local crop last week - after two weeks of drying - he detected a chocolate, rather than the normal raisin, aroma.
"It's definitely more chocolatey," said Garth. "As yet I'm not too sure why; we'll know more when the flavour develops through the drying and curing process (drying takes six weeks)."
There will also be more testing. But Reunion Food, established in 2003, may have just developed a unique New Zealand vanilla pod.
"We might be able to develop a separate branded-product that has a distinct Kiwi flavour," Garth said.
It would give Reunion an edge as it steps up its production and marketing campaign to sell its 100 per cent pure Heilala Vanilla brand, named after the Tongan flower, around the world.
The Reunion team at Te Puna has just received a bumper crop of 1.5 tonnes of dried vanilla pods from the Tongan island of Vavau, processed from a harvest of 6 tonnes of green vanilla beans.
Reunion has its own 3.2ha  plantation of 2500 plants in the village of Ugnatuke, producing 3 tonnes, and it took delivery of another 3 tonnes from other local growers.
The New Zealand crop is a bonus, albeit small to begin with.

About 1000 flowers were hand pollinated in the Te Puna greenhouse, producing 600 pods. The same crop will probably produce three times more vanilla next year - and Reunion has room in the greenhouse for another 900 plants, eventually reaching half of its Tongan production.
"We are now telling people the (local) vanilla is a bit different and they want to try it - so we may have to expand and fill up the plastic house. The plant is easy to propagate," said Garth.
 After the drying and curing process, the New Zealand vanilla will be released  on to the market in March.
But Reunion is making an exception by sending five of the pods to Wellington's Logan Brown Restaurant and Bar, which is hosting the Government's Global Warming dinner  this month - and all the food and ingredients must be New Zealand-grown.
"I'm sending the pods by registered mail so they get there. They are like gold," said Jennifer, who looks after the sales and marketing. "I'm a little bit nervous because the flavour may not be what they are used to."
In March, Reunion will also  send the New Zealand-grown pods, in special commemorative cases, to the chefs, food processors and other customers, here and in Australia, who have been using the premium Tongan Heilala Vanilla product.
Reunion produces natural vanilla pods - the chefs call them "vanilla caviar" - as well as paste, extract and organic sugar which is processed at New Zealand Botanicals in Katikati.
After working with Massey University, Reunion is next year introducing two new products - a syrup, and a pure vanilla powder for food manufacturers.
The syrup, and here's another first - it will be the only 100 per cent vanilla available worldwide - will be on the market next March and should be snapped up by cafes for their vanilla lattes and bars for a cocktail mix. The syrup can also be drizzled over pancakes, desserts and fresh fruit.
"We developed a list of 20 new products with Massey and then narrowed them down to four - but, all along, the syrup was the first one," said Jennifer. Already, Reunion has sent 200 bottles of the syrup to cafes and other potential customers for reaction.
This financial year Reunion expects  to double its pure vanilla sales to 700-750kg,  and it has another 750kg in stock. It  plans for increased sales in Britain and the United States.
Reunion has sent its first shipment to Britain and its distributor has access to 1500 specialty retail outlets, but at first it will be trialling with 10 retailers.
The Tauranga company is also completing formalities (labelling and documentation) in the US to supply gourmet and speciality food chains, Bristol Farms and Macro Wholefoods in California.
Reunion is already supplying restaurants, specialty stores and food manufacturers in New Zealand, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia.
A premium New Zealand ice cream, sorbet and gelato manufacturer, Zest, is using the Heilala Vanilla; so is Sydney-based Serendipity, which is supplying natural ice cream and sorbet to Middle East airlines.
Another go-ahead New Zealand company, 180 Degrees Biscuits, has added the vanilla to its Melting Moments on Air New Zealand flights.
And Reunion has  broken into the tough Melbourne hospitality market, with the chefs now splitting up the Heilala Vanilla pods in the Cutler & Co and Attica restaurants.
Reunion Food Company is building up an impressive CV.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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