It is evening the cicadas and monkeys have cooled off. We sit having a drink with our hosts, Viktor and Ranjini Dey on their veranda, fending off the affectionate advances of their one-year-old boxer. They ran a tea plantation for many years, and as our host puts it, were a ‘slave to the tea bush’. Coffee is apparently a lazy man’s crop, requiring harvesting only once a year. The ‘two leaves and a bud’ of the tea bush require daily picking and processing. The sheer amount of everyday labour requires one to maintain a school and hospital. Of course there are trials in the coffee business, ‘the monkeys are a perfect pest’* and the ‘leopard a perfect menace’. I long to incorporate any one of these comments seamlessly into the school pick up chatter when I return to DC. Will anyone notice?
But if one fears slavery to the tea bush, one is shackled and bound when it comes to vanilla. I finally hold some respect for the prices that a vanilla pod fetches. Firstly the flowers have to be fertilized by hand as the bee that used to fertilize them no longer exists. This is, needless to say, a fiddly process and not always successful. All the staff over forty years were equipped with spectacles, much to their delight as a missed fertilization cannot be afforded. The pods then take nine months to develop during which period they have to be guarded against all sorts of maladies. Assuming the delicate pods make it to harvesting time, they then need to be picked and blanched at 65 degrees Celsius. Once blanched each pod is wrapped in a warm damp blanket for 24 hrs. It is then un-swaddled and laid out to dry in the sun before being wrapped in more blankets, dry this time, and placed in boxes for a further 11-14 days. After this each pod is massaged to stave off brittleness.
How to assess the quality of your vanilla pod? a) One should be able to tie a knot in it, b) it should be dark brown almost black and c) slightly shiny.
All this enables the proper crystallization process to occur. As our hostess remarked “How on earth did anyone devise such an extraordinary process and with fake vanilla essence being easily obtained from a by-product of wood pulp or tarmac is it worth it? Most palates have grown accustomed to the stronger flavour of its imitation.
Sadly all the vanilla at Tranquil died this year due to a fungus and the pepper vines no longer fair well in the region as rainfall has fallen by 50% over the past 30 years.
*It later transpired that the monkeys are not a ‘complete and total pest’. Our host’s daughter Nisha has been inspired by the Indonesians and is now producing and marketing a variety of coffee called Monkey Business. Like the Indonesian “Kopi Luwak’ which is the most expensive coffee available, the coffee beans have been digested and excreted. In Indonesia civet cats do the job, at Tranquil it is the monkeys. An enzyme in the monkey’s stomach reduces the acidity of the bean making for a very smooth blend. The beans are washed husked and roasted to produce this special brew and whilst the habit of collecting the “monkey’s harvest” is common at any coffee plantation; it is not common for it to be processed separately. Sadly she was out of stock of Monkey Business and our conversation wend its way to the ghastliness of a Barbie shop in Bangalore, our favourite animated movies and the impact of Kung Fu Panda II on her daughter’s bedtime. Her daughter, the same age as Eleanor, had just asked why she could not say ‘peanuts’ or ‘cashews’ at the end of her prayers as she was bored of saying ‘almonds’. (For Almonds read Amen).
Our dinner conversation that evening probably encapsulates the best of the Home Stay Experience. It brings with it a mix of the untravelled, the totally foreign and exotic, intertwined with the universals that, whether on a coffee plantation or in Washington DC, affect us all.