My partner and I went on a trip to Vanuatu several years ago and had an amazing visit to Epi. Epi is a volcanic island, 444 square kilometres in size, and with a population of about 5,000. We travelled to Epi on an eight-seater plane which landed at Valesdir airport. The airport comprised a grass runway, a small shed and a friendly welcome. Island access was weather dependent and driving on the dirt road from one end of the island to the other required a four-wheel drive due to the many potholes along the way.
We stayed at a guesthouse on the south west coast. At the time the owners were away and we were left in the hands of Carol and her young son Rob who worked at the guesthouse and lived in a nearby village. I felt very fortunate to have this experience as we had the place to ourselves and Carol and Rob were very gracious hosts.
Electricity was only available to those who could afford solar and subsistence agriculture was the how most of the locals made a living. Copra was one of the main crops produced and required significant labour. Coconuts were broken open, the water drained out and the kernel dried in a kiln heated with wood. The kernels were sold to manufacturers who crush them to extract oil which we use in baking and cooking. It’s a tough life which I am reminded of every time I pick up a pot of coconut oil.
Carol took us on a tour of her village and showed us their agricultural production. They grew cocoa trees and planned to expand into selling vanilla beans. I was fascinated by the vanilla orchid. It’s an elegant plant with long succulent lance-shaped leaves that zigzag up the tropical trees and bear creamy blooms. It looked quite magical and when I followed its upward trajectory I had an urge to climb it to satisfy my curiosity about what was at the top. I wonder if I would have felt this way had I not read Jack and the Beanstalk.
Jack and the Beanstalk is in part a study on class and wealth disparity (something I was very cognisant of whilst travelling in Vanuatu). It’s also a Trickster story with Marxist overtones. The very poor, but charming, wily and mischievous Jack comes into conflict with the bigger and more powerful ogre. Jack wins against his more powerful adversary by tricking the giant with his craftiness. The wealthy and gluttonous giant represents both what Jack finds monstrous and what he envies. Jack is both the oppressor and the oppressed. He is absolved of all wrong doing (stealing and killing the giant) due to his actions being about reclaiming his birthright and his right to social mobility. I hope Carol has had some success with breaking into the vanilla bean market and managed to outsmart all those greedy businessmen she would have to deal with.
I was so enamoured by the vanilla bean that I decided to try and grow this tropical plant in Melbourne. I anticipated that this venture would fail but was determined to give it a go. I’ve located it in the warmest and lightest room in the house and it’s made its way up to the ceiling already. I have yet to see whether I can entice it to flower and fruit, but this week’s recipe is what I imagine I will make if I do, using my beans and rhubarb from the garden.
Rhubarb Panna cotta Tart (by Hummingbird High)
Brown Butter Tart Shell (makes a 14 x 5-inch rectangular tart)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons water
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- a pinch of salt
- 5.5 ounces all-purpose flour
Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta (makes enough for one tart)
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 vanilla bean
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons (1 envelope) powdered gelatine
- 3 tablespoons cold water
Roasted Vanilla Rhubarb Topping (makes around 2 cups, enough for one tart)
- 1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and sliced into 1-inch thick pieces
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup red wine
- 1 vanilla bean
Use a 14 x 5-inch rectangular tart pan with a removable bottom
Brown Butter Tart Crust:
- preheat to 410 (F)
- combine 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, 3 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, and a pinch of salt in a Pyrex oven soft bowl
- place the bowl in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, until the mixture is boiling and the butter starts browning.
- remove from the oven, and add 5.5 ounces of flour quickly, by spooning in flour in 1 tablespoon sized chunks. Use a heatproof rubber spatula to stir in the flour until it pulls off the sides of the bowl. The mixture will bubble and smoke and make you feel like witch with a cauldron
- Once the dough is cool enough to touch, use the back of your hand to flatten out the dough onto your tart pan. Use your finger tips to mould the dough up into the corners and sides of the pan. Use a fork to poke several holes into the crust.
- Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake at 410 (F) for 15 minutes, or until the crust is light brown and starts to appear flaky. Once it does, remove from oven and let it rest on a wire rack. The crust is ready for filling when completely cooled.
For the Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta:
- Combine 2 cups heavy cream and 1 vanilla bean in a heavy bottomed saucepan. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds into the cream. Whisk it gently until the seeds are incorporated throughout the cream. Throw in the vanilla bean pod and cook the mixture over medium heat until it begins to just simmer and the cream smells fragrant. Remove from heat and cover, allow the vanilla bean to infuse the cream for 30 minutes.
- After 30 minutes, fish out the vanilla bean pod. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar and reheat over medium heat. Don’t let it come to a boil; you want it to heat only until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is hot (but not boiling) throughout. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
- While the mixture is cooling, bloom the gelatine. Sprinkle 2 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatine over the surface of 3 tablespoons water in a small bowl. Let stand for around 5 minutes, until the granules have softened completely, before scraping out into the cream mixture and whisking until the gelatine is completely dissolved. Let cool slightly for another 10 minutes, before pouring into the brown butter tart crust. Transfer to the refrigerator and allow to set for at least 2 hours, until the panna cotta is firm.
For the Roasted Vanilla Rhubarb Topping:
- Preheat the oven to 350 (F) — if you’re making the filling immediately after baking the shortcakes, your oven should already be ready.
- Place 1 pound chopped rhubarb in a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/4 cup red wine — don’t worry if it doesn’t dissolve, it should just be a thick syrup. Drizzle over the rhubarb and toss to combine.
- Split 1 vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape in seeds from the vanilla bean over the rhubarb mixture. Toss to combine and add the vanilla bean pods. Roast until rhubarb is very tender and the juices are syrupy, around 30 – 40 minutes. Let cool slightly on a wire rack before transferring to the panna cotta tart. Serve immediately.
Image: indoor vanilla bean