Politics of the Palate: Vanilla, Saffron and Chocolate

by foodhoe on March 23, 2011

Last week I attended a panel discussion and tasting  titled Politics of the Palate: Vanilla, Saffron and Chocolate that was presented by Les Dames d’Escoffier in collaboration with the SF Professional Food Society.  The Dames are a world wide philanthropic society of professional women leaders in the fields of food, fine beverage and hospitality.  Membership is by invitation only and no, I am not a dame, I’m just a foodhoe who is unable to resist the allure of these delectable gustatory treasures of the tropics.  It was held at the Universalist Unitarian church in San Francisco at the corner of Franklin and Geary, which looks a bit imposing, but we hung out in a meeting room that didn’t feel as if it was in a place of worship.

I  like to stay informed about the food that I eat and especially so if there’s controversy and sadly, there are many things to be concerned about with each of these luxury items that are mostly grown and cultivated in politically unstable and undeveloped nations. 

This is Patricia Rains the Vanilla Queen.  Throughout her career she’s helped foster small, independent vanilla growers and is a champion for supporting young farmers in developing countries and assisting them with educational opportunities and meaningful work opportunities.  Afterwards, I bought a copy of her book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance which traces the path of vanilla through world history, including how various colonial powers subjugated indigenous producers to reap the profits from its cultivation, along with fascinating insights, interesting trivia and delicious sounding recipes.  Her presentation included slides of farmers and advocates and images of vanilla flowers and vines in their native jungly terrain.  One very alarming fact that she brought up is that less than one percent of all the vanilla flavored and scented products in the world contain the real stuff. According to Rain, we are balanced on the threshold of losing pure vanilla because large corporations are cutting corners and 97 percent of all vanilla value-added products are produced with flavor alternatives.  She warned that it is an issue of critical importance to the local growers and farmers and to all of us who want vanilla to be available in the years to come to purchase real vanilla products that have been bought at fair prices whenever possible.  The Vanilla Queen handed out a brochure asking for financial aid for a colleague, along with a gorgeous smelling vanilla bean in a plastic sleeve that was glossy and flexible and completely mesmerizing… Everyone in the room held the bean up to their noses, inhaling deeply while reading an informative list of the magical qualities of the vanilla bean.

And while Patricia chatted, we enjoyed creamy, rich panna cottas; one made from the Tahitian Vanilla Bean and another made from Bourbon Vanilla Bean provided by Taste Catering.  She encourages everyone to incorporate even 2 percent more natural vanilla products in their lives by putting a few drops of vanilla extract into foods you prepare daily–coffee, hot cereals, milk, fruit salads, fresh vegetables and even savory entrees.

The next panelist was Juan J San Mames, a local importer of saffron and vanilla, who talked passionately about Saffron.  He is also the owner of Xanath (pronounced sha nath, which is the Totonac word for vanilla flower) Ice Cream located at 951 Valencia at 21st St. in San Francisco (415.648.8996).  Read an interesting article about it here. Their front window is decorated with towers intricately woven from vanilla beans and they hand out whole vanilla beans as samples to draw in customers.

Anyways, back to the saffron…  we enjoyed scoops of their delicious organic ice cream which is made using Straus Family Creamery ice cream mix and flavored with saffron and ginger (and a bit of vanilla too, I suspect).  He said that his company is comprised of all women which means that he does as he is told.

He explained to us what qualities to look for when purchasing saffron, warning us not be fooled into thinking that quality is tied to price, or because of pretty packaging.  The threads known as Stigmas should be all red (no yellow or orange which indicates that the inferior casings have been included), the thin threads must be dry and brittle to the touch and should smell like fresh grass or hay, never musty.  Of particular note, he said that Spain is not the biggest producer of saffron but that Iran is in terms of volume and quality and encouraged everyone to google Spanish saffron scandal.  He handed out samples of his Persian saffron (which he said is of the highest quality, along with saffron from Afganistan) and had everyone inhale deeply the intoxicating fragrance.  It’s quite photogenic too isn’t it?  You can find much to read on his website, where you can also order online.

Then Mark Mager, CEO of Divine Chocolate introduced himself as also working within an organization of all women!  Then he told us about how the Kuapa Kokoo farmers’ receive a Fairtrade price for their cocoa, but they also own 45% of the company, and therefore have a direct influence over how the company is run and share in the profits from the chocolate.  The cocoa beans are produced in small scale farms in Ghana which are able to invest in their own projects to improve the farmer’s living, health and education standards.   His was the most polished presentation, which was good because he was able to wrap it up quickly as there was very little time left and people were clamoring for the samples being passed around and became distracted while comparing notes which ones they liked best…

I especially love the packaging with its striking bold designs.  The symbols are known as Adinkra and can be found on cloth and walls, in pottery and logos throughout west Africa.  This dark chocolate with orange and ginger was my favorite, it left sticky residue on my teeth that made the flavors linger in my mouth.  That was some good chocolate, and can be purchased online here.  They have a wonderful website with a lot of interesting information, including the history of chocolate along with photos of its production in Ghana.  Another interesting fact is that women do a lot of the work in both the vanilla and cacao farms as the men go off either to foreign countries to work for companies like Halliburton or else they are recruited as soldiers.

To wrap up, the moderator, Janet Fletcher, (a local author who writes the weekly cheese column for the SF Chronicle as well as quite a few cookbooks), asked each to define Fair Trade.  I wrote down snippets: farmers get paid a fair price, are able to  form cooperatives, have fair working conditions, and financial transparency.  They all encouraged us to buy products that are certified as eco-friendly or socially conscious, and I think slavery-free products should also be included.   Simple choices made by those of us in industrialized nations can mean the difference between poverty and survival in developing countries.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa March 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm

A wonderful event!




Single Guy Ben March 23, 2011 at 3:58 pm

These are some of my favorite things so I’m all for preserving them and the farmers who nurture them! (I think I have that vanilla book, but it’s been awhile since I read it.) So funny how you were talking about everyone trying out the chocolate bars while the speaker tried to finish his talk. Just like kids in school, got to remember to pass out the freebies at the END of the talk! 😉


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