Tuesday, January 9, 2018

John the Woodman and the Vanilla Bean

Every winter for twelve years, John the Woodman regularly bought me generous loads of pre split firewood which he stacked neatly. Into his eighties, wearing tiny shorts in all weathers, he continued to arrive in his battered old ute full of seasoned 'ping ping' jarrah. Kind and considerate, always polite, funny and self deprecating, his determination to never to slow down was admirable.

 Always up for a chat, he was especially curious to hear of our holidays in Indonesia, having lived there as a child.  We encouraged him to revisit but he always said that he didn't want to see it changed, that he wanted to remember it as it was. John had fond memories of Indonesian food and one night we invited him to share an Indonesian feast starring  kangaroo rendang with us, thinking the meeting of two cultures would amuse him.

I had been lucky enough to be given a kilo of vanilla pods and after the meal had been savoured and a doggy bag packed for John to take home, I bought them to the table for John to see. It had an impact I could never have imagined. As a child in Java, John had played in the vanilla plantations. I am not sure if his parents owned them but he certainly knew a lot about them. It was a profitable business to be involved in and much favoured by the Dutch.

Vanilla planifolia originated in South America and was 'discovered', along with its culinary partner, cacao and was taken to Europe, where it failed to thrive. The only known pollinator, a melipone bee, did not exist outside of Mexico and the orchids refused to set pods for the next 300 years until Charles Morren, a Belgian botanist, developed a method of hand pollination. Each flower, open for only a few hours for one day must be opened and hand pollinated to produce one pod, each taking about two months to develop.

The process of curing the bland green pods to the fragrant sticky brown ones  involves sweating the pods at temperatures up to 65 centigrade with high humidity, wrapping and storing and repeating each day. The process may be started by immersing in boiling water or by being laid out in the sun for a few hours in the morning before being rolled up in blankets and stored before repeating until the pods are brown and fragrant. This can take up to 14 months.They are then laid out to dry. Add to the time involved the fact that crops are often decimated by cyclones and tropical storms and do not begin to flower until they are 3-5 years old we can appreciate why the world's favourite flavouring so expensive to buy.

Johns eyes filled with tears as he inhaled the sweet fragrance. John was a young boy when the Japanese invaded Java and with other Dutch families were herded into detention camps, the men to prison camps. We heard many stories that night of life in the camp, the hardships and lack of anything for the children to do. John was a lucky one. The Japanese were aware that for the vanilla crops to continue, the groves would need to be worked. Being young and agile, John was released early each morning to walk the many miles to the vanilla groves.Using a sharpened stick, he gently eased the pollen  out to press behind the stamen. Over and over, up and down ladders, on his own until it was time to head back. He was proud of his work, the freedom it gave him and the extra food he was sometimes able to find. Three years later, the Japanese were defeated and the Dutch East Indies became Indonesia. John and his family went to live Holland  from where he immigrated to Australia.

In 2016, John seemed to be slowing - a couple of accidents in the bush while working alone didn't stop him and his sons gave him a mobile phone. The death of his favourite dog impacted on him and his ute often refused to cooperate. We wondered if it would be better to stop ordering firewood as no matter what, he would deliver, though one of his sons was often with him now. Last year he seemed to vanish from sight, the phone went unanswered and was eventually disconnected and I stopped bumping into him in town. No one seemed to know where he was.

Just before Christmas I decided to use some of the vanilla and started some vanilla essence, extract and sugar. I gave all my friends a bunch of pods for Christmas. A call one evening in early January told me John had died. It was especially poignant that I had been surrounded by the fragrance of vanilla for the last few weeks. I would have loved to have bought you some John but ever the gentleman, you didn't want a fuss and left quietly.

This little part of the richness of your life that you shared with us I cherish. Your memory will live on for me in your story, in the warm fragrance of vanilla and as I use the sturdy chopping block you cut for me.

Go well my friend x Nirala

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