George Gonthier grows over 10,000 vanilla bean vines in the humid Daintree Rainforest of Far North Queensland at Daintree Vanilla and Spice. When he’s not growing, harvesting or processing vanilla beans, he’s mentoring others to carry on his work when he retires.
How did you start out?
I come from a third-generation vanilla grower. My great-grandfather was in the Seychelles Islands and they were producing spices like cinnamon, patchouli, okra and vanilla so that’s passed down through the generations.
I started by planting in my backyard so I could get the rootstock. That was in 1998. I just kept on planting and as the cuttings started to produce shoots, we let them grow up and just kept doing cuttings from there.
What do you grow?
We grow Planifolia (bourbon), which is the most sought-after vanilla product in the world because of its flavour and aroma. It’s what they grow in Madagascar. We grow them on trellises similar to what grapes are grown on. We’ve got about 10,000 vines.
When do they flower?
They flower for three months of the year. You need that dryness and cold snap to produce flowers and then we harvest them nine months after pollination. Everything is done by hand. To know how many beans we harvest in a day, we pick up a stick, break it and put it in our pocket. And we keep going until at the end of the day we know how many flowers we’ve done. That’s how we keep tabs on possible production for the next nine months.
How do you process the beans?
They get washed and blanched and then they get wrapped in a very clean blanket material. They stay there for 24 hours and then we take them out and put them in racks in the curing shed. They stay in there for between two and three months. Then we sort them out and they go to conditioning stages—that’s about three months in airtight containers. There’s a chemical reaction that occurs then to give that nice flavour and aroma.
How are Australian-grown vanilla beans different from imported beans?
I’ll give you an example: in Tahiti they are being taught by the scientists to rub the beans and roll them. When you rub the beans you’re causing fungus—the beans very easily attract bacteria and before you know it you end up with fungus. A grower from Tahiti was telling me that if their beans don’t get used in two months or so after they go on the market, they go very hard. What they’re doing when they rub them is bringing all the goodness from inside the beans to the outside. When the end users use these beans, they don’t get the aroma and the flavour that the beans should produce.
The university professor said to me, where you are in this part of the world, you are prone to fungus. I said, this is one of the reasons I don’t massage my beans and besides, I won’t get up at four o’clock in the morning to massage beans!
How should people store beans?
They should use an airtight container. If you take it out and put it in the fridge that’s a no no; they’ll dry out in no time.
Tell us about your mentoring role?
I’ve been working with some Indigenous people in the Yarrabah Aboriginal Shire Council; I’ve been teaching them. They are growing now on a massive scale. Last time the guy was here he said he wants to plant about 30- to 40,000 vines to create employment for his people. I said to him, guess what mate, you got me. I’ll be there in full support of you.
And then I’ve got another young couple. They are in the Mareeba area and they also are doing it on a massive scale. It’s no good having 2000 to 3,000 vines. For it to be sustainable you need to grow more; we’ve found the demand has grown so much we can’t supply the market we’ve created.