|Ndali Vanilla pods & Costa Rica cane sugar|
Next Monday I'll be enjoying myself at a Gift Swap with a serious purpose. Along with cakes, biscuits, sweets and jams, we'll be exchanging baking tips and experiences of using that most heady of spices, vanilla. It will be a social occasion but there's a serious point to our get-together. We won't all know each other but we will all have something in common, beside an interest in cooking. We've all been moved by the lives of the vanilla growers of Uganda and this is a chance to get involved and try to help raise their profile.
Three week's ago I listened to a Radio 4 Food & Drink Programme on vanilla. Writer and broadcaster Vanessa Kimbell painted a vivid audio picture of her walk from field to production plant on a plantation in Western Uganda. The name of the estate, Ndali, was familiar to me. In fact I had some of their Fair Trade vanilla pods in my store cupboard. After listening to the programme I went on-line to learn a little more of the difficulties the small farmers on neighbouring estates faced in growing vanilla.
Lulu Sturdy inherited a former tea plantation and, after experimenting with other crops, settled on vanilla. She now grows premium quality Fair Trade vanilla on her organic 1,000 acre mixed tropical farm, Ndali. She also processes the individual vanilla crops of hundreds of small farmers who she has helped to gain Fair Trade deals. Growing, pollinating (by hand), harvesting and processing are all highly labour intensive. The cream of the crop is packaged under the Fair Trade 'Ndali' brand for retail. There are still a lot of farmers in the area who do not have Fair Trade deals. Personally, in the past I've wondered about how much difference Fair Trade makes to the lives of producers. Learning about the situation of these growers has convinced me that these deals make a huge difference to the lives of the farmers and their families. Many are subject to exploitation by unscrupulous traders. Vanessa Kimbell tells some of their story, and the effect the visit to Uganda had on her, eloquently and passionately here
If you heard the programme, or read Vanessa Kimbell's blog you couldn't fail to be moved by one farmer's dignified statement "We don't want charity, we just want a fair price for what we have grown"
Demand for vanilla far outstrips the supply of vanilla beans and most vanilla flavouring used in the UK is synthetic, the vast majority of it going into manufactured foods. For home baking, thankfully, we can avoid this 'vanilla essence' and buy pure vanilla in pods, extract and powder form. It's more expensive of course but then you don't get those notes of dates, honey and butterscotch in synthetic vanilla or lesser grades of natural vanilla. Next time you shop for vanilla to flavour that custard tart or plum compote, spare a thought for the Ugandan vanilla growers and pay a fair price.
Our Gift Swap, organised by Vanessa Kimbell, is taking place at Fortnum & Mason who have been kind enough to host the gathering. So what to bake? Well there's a long list of foods which pair beautifully with vanilla - sweet and savoury - so there's no difficulty there. I haven't yet decided what I will make. I just want it to be something which does justice to the effort that has gone into producing Ndali Fair Trade vanilla.
Fair Trade Foundation
Vanilla for the Gift Swap courtesy of Ndali