They said it couldn’t be grown in New Zealand. And now a Tauranga company has proved the cynics wrong. It’s the world’s first vanilla harvest grown outside of the tropics and it’s currently underway in the Bay of Plenty.
 
For independent, family owned (and run) Heilala Vanilla, it is the culmination of a dream stretching back five years. Heilala Vanilla is a product of the Reunion Food company. Owners and New Zealand nationals John Ross, daughter Jennifer Boggiss and her husband Garth Boggiss founded their business as an aid project in Tonga.
 
The Tauranga operation was established primarily as an R&D site they could access 24/7 when not in the islands. Now they are harvesting the world’s first organically-grown vanilla outside the tropics.  Typically vanilla is grown only in countries that fall in to a narrow 20 degree band either side of the equator. It is a commodity, typically traded like oil or gold.
 
However, the Heilala Vanilla operation is the first to control the entire food chain – from growing through drying to manufacturing and marketing value-added products. For Garth Boggiss it has been a long and testing road to producing vanilla in New Zealand.
 
“Our Tongan operation has provided us with the knowledge for growing vanilla the year round,” he says. “In New Zealand, we duplicated the key characteristics of the climate in our Tongan shade house and designed and built a computer controlled plastic house that emulates this environment. “In fact we have optimised the environment based on our research into the requirements of the vanilla plant and the results have been fantastic.”
 
Heilala Vanilla was meticulous in its duplication of Tongan conditions right down to matching the soil and introducing computer-controlled humidity and heating using geo-thermal hot water. “Volcanic vanilla,” says Garth, “using renewable resources. Only in New Zealand.”
 
Vanilla is the only fruit-bearing member of the orchid family. The large orchid plants bear a small creamy / yellow flower and on the day of opening the flower must be hand pollinated. Around nine months later a fully grown green bean is ready. This green bean then undergoes a complex drying and curing process where the flavour develops and the pod turns dark brown-black. It is the most labour intensive agricultural product in the world.
 
Heilala Vanilla is premium quality and organically grown. It will take approximately three months to harvest the 600 vanilla plants at the Tauranga facility. Tongan production is already exported to Australia, Singapore and Malaysia and Reunion is about to finalise distribution in the UK and California. There is also interest from Japan. It is renowned among chefs both in New Zealand and overseas. Heilala Vanilla products feature on menus prepared by Peter Gordon in the UK and Jason Dell, formerly of Blanket Bay Lodge now in Singapore heading the Nautilus project.
 
It is also a staple in highly rated restaurants The European, Cutler and Co, Jonahs and Aqua Dining in Melbourne and Sydney and The French Café and Antoine’s in Auckland.

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